By: Chuck Palahniuk

Appalled isn't a word I throw around for fun.

And fun isn't a word I'd apply to this book.

Now, having said that, let me also say that I listened to, rather than read it. And the production, qua production, was superb. The actors  - there are several of them that vary with the various voices of the characters in the book - are top-notch, and more than do justice to the material.

But the material, what can I say about the material?

How about: ick? How about: where on earth does someone go in his head to come up with these sorts of thoughts?

Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club, which was made into a movie by the same name. I didn't read the novel, but did thoroughly enjoy the movie, including its premise. I thought the destructive capers the club boys went on were inventive, and I remember thinking the writer had a real imagination.

I still think the writer has a real imagination - I just think it's so twisted it's almost unrecognizable.

The premise of this collection of stories woven into the framework of a larger, unifying story is that a motley crew of 19, 17 of whom are invited writers, collect to engage in a "writers' retreat." Think the Lake Como retreat of 1816 that resulted in The Vampyre, and Frankenstein.

Under the care of the elderly Mr. Whittier and his assistant, Mrs. Clark, the group is picked up by bus, one at a time, and finally driven to an abandoned theater, into which windowless building they are locked - and the whereabouts of the key is known only to Mr. Whittier.

And then the fun begins. The idea is that they will be fed and sheltered for three months while each writes his masterpiece. But our group - and here's the first place the story starts to go wrong - are a bunch of truly nasty characters, and they aren't very happy with their accommodations, and immediately start a campaign to be released. When Mr. Whittier - who, it turns out, isn't really an old man at all but a teen-aged boy suffering from progeria - dies as a result of eating a dozen or so dehydrated dinners (and drinking water), the happy little group decides that they have the makings of a big payday here. All they have to do is turn this adventure into a sordid tale of misery, torture and degradation,  and they can already envision themselves on the cover of People magazine, not to mention interviews on Oprah and a best-seller apiece.

So they start to up the ante with little fillips like, oh, cutting off their fingers (or in one case, a penis - and then choking to death on it as the owner attempts to swallow it). And eating the nether regions of a still-living woman. As a friend of mine would say, "Who does that?"

Or, more to the point, who thinks up think like that?

And believe it or not, it gets worse.

The book is laid out in rounds: a bit of the overarching story, where the plot focuses on a character, then a poem about that character, then a story by that characters. (None of the characters has a real name; they are known as "Comrade Snarky," or "Miss Sneezy," or by some other appellation that has something to do with his or her personality or defining characteristic. This device only serves to make us further alienated from the characters themselves.)

Along about Director Denial's disturbing tale about the officers of a police station using the anatomically-correct dolls  for deviant sexual purposes, I was ready to turn the whole business off and give up. It was making me slightly nauseous.

I can't do a better job of describing exactly hos disturbing this book is than a couple of the big-time reviewers:

"Reading a Palahniuk novel is like getting zipped inside a boxer's heavy bag while the author goes to work on you, pounding you until there is nothing left but a big bag of bones and blood and pain."  —The Miami Herald

"To Palahniuk's credit, there is something here to appall almost every sensibility. The author has a singular knack for coming up with inventive new ways to shock and degrade."  —The New York Post

"Frequently entertaining [and] often appalling. . . . There are paragraphs here--entire pages, in fact--that are as disgusting as anything I've ever read. Truly vivid and harrowing (and often quite funny)."  —Minneapolis Star Tribune

See? Appalling is definitely the word. Disgusting and harrowing, too.

I admit it, gentle reader, I persevered. But not without talking, horrifiedly, to the book-on-tape more than once.

Why would you read this book, you ask? Well, Palahnuik is, unquestionably, an original voice, and a vivid imagination. He writes well, and he does force your mind into narrow alleyways of thought - to mental undertakings you would never voluntarily engage in without his brand of prodding.

Still, if you do decide to read it - don't say I didn't warn you!


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