BOOK REVIEW:’Invisible Monsters’

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INVISIBLE MONSTERS REMIX
By Chuck Palahniuk
W.W. Norton & Co., $25.95,320 pages

Whether you’re talking about his personal history or his fiction, there’s very little about Charles Michael “Chuck” Palahniuk that could be described as conventional. Raised in a mobile home, he was 14 when his parents divorced. His father remarried, but when he and his new wife were murdered (by her ex-boyfriend) it was not the first time the Palahniuk family had experienced extreme violence: The author’s paternal grandfather had murdered his wife while Mr. Palahniuk’s father, a child, hid under the bed.

Not surprisingly, his fiction also involves violence and bloodletting. (His best-known work is the violent novel “Fight Club,” which became a film in 1999, and his novel “Lullaby” is based on the murder of his father and stepmother.) As he told an interviewer last year, “In one of the first writing workshops I ever did, I was taught about ‘dangerous writing.’ The theory is that you should always write about something that is very upsetting for you, otherwise you’re just wasting your time. Even if the book never sells to a publisher, at least you get the chance to explore and exhaust some issue of your own. You feel relieved and transformed, and selling the book is actually beside the point.”

He has categorized his 12 novels as “transgressional fiction,” a genre that features (often) bizarre characters (usually) employing bizarre methods to search for meaning in life. Its heritage includes the work of Hubert Selby Jr., William S. Burroughs and before that such now-canonical writers as James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence.

While his best known book is “Fight Club,” Mr. Palahniuk actually wrote an earlier version of this book (minus the word “Remix”) first. He submitted it to his publisher, but the company found it too upsetting, and passed, but changed its mind later when the “Fight Club” film came out.

Explaining the difference between this version and the original, his publisher, the well-respected W.W. Norton & Co., touts the book this way: “Injected with new material and special design elements, ‘Invisible Monsters Remix’ fulfills Chuck Palahniuk’s original vision for his 1999 novel, turning a daring satire on beauty and the fashion industry into an even more wildly unique reading experience. Laced in are new chapters of memoir and further scenes with the book’s characters.”

Beware publishers bearing explanations. If you are among the devoted many who liked the original, however, you’ll definitely like this slightly different version. If you didn’t read “Invisible Monsters,” but think you might like a read on the wild side, please do, though you might want to proceed with caution. There is nothing in the way of subject matter or language that the author considers beyond the pale. To enjoy this novel, you have to have a high tolerance for low language, but your patience — if that is the right word — will be rewarded, for Mr. Palahniuk is a supremely talented satirist and a very funny writer.

The main character, Shannon McFarland, is a successful fashion model, and it is this world in particular that the author satirizes most effectively. When she suffers a family tragedy, she seems lost and even doomed until she meets another of the small group of main characters, namely Brandy Alexander. Mr. Palahniuk loves to use names like that, and in his fiction, they work.

The entire cast of main characters — Shannon, Brandy, Evie, Ellis, Seth, Manus and Shannon’s (apparently) late brother Shane — are all weird. But then so is the book’s structure. As Norton also explained, “Readers will jump between chapters, reread the book to understand the dissolve between fiction and fact, and decipher the playful book design.” Translated, that means when you get to the end of Chapter 1, the author tells you, “Now, Please Jump to Chapter 40,” at the end of which he sends you back to Chapter 2, and from there to 41 and you get the idea.

This is different and (sort of) clever, but for this reader it added nothing to the reading experience beyond a growing annoyance, especially when I realized that in order to read Chapter 3 I had to hold it up to a mirror. Not only is this a difference without a distinction, but it makes it hard to know when you’re close to the end of the book.

The storyline, so to speak, involves Shannon’s quest to make at least some sense out of her brother’s death. In this endeavor, she is betrayed by her best friend, Evie, and her boyfriend, Manus. (But you have to be careful, in the Palahniuk cosmos, people shape and name shift before your very eyes.) Brandy Alexander becomes Shannon’s only hope, but eventually Brandy becomes

On Page 110, which would be a third of the way through a conventionally arranged book but in “Invisible Monsters Remix” is very near the end, Brandy speaks the gospel of Palahniuk: “‘Don’t you see? Because we’re so trained to do life the right way. To no make mistakes,’ Brandy says, ‘I figure the bigger the mistake looks, the better the chance I’ll have to break out and live a real life.’”

Maybe Chuck Palahniuk is not so unconventional after all. Maybe he’s even a traditional moralist.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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