Monday, January 20, 2003

Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

This was lent to me by Joe at work, who was a busboy until he recently quit. This is not the same Joe who has the dark spiky hair, nor the Joe with the glasses. His name is not, in fact, Joe, but he prefers to be called Joe. He was quite distressed that I hadn't read any Palahniuk (though I have seen the film version of Fight Club, and loved it), and said Survivor is the best one. Which may mean that I don't have to read any of the others now, I'm not sure. But I probably will, eventually.

Survivor begins with the protagonist alone on a plane that's going nowhere. He's not a pilot, and the plane is going to crash. You might think the title refers to his surviving the plane crash, but the truth is much more complicated. Firstly, this novel begins at the end, more or less. It opens with page 289 and counts down towards 0. Secondly, without giving too much away, Tender Branson is actually the last survivor of a religious cult/sect/splinter group whose members have all committed suicide, some with assistance. Except he's not, but telling any more would be unfair.

Turns out that the Creedish Church (aka the Creedish Death Cult) was really a supplier of well-trained domestic servants for people too rich to know how to act in public. Thus Tender Branson is full of useful household tips for the removal of blood, the serving of lobster, and the cultivation of artificial flowers so as to counterfeit actual gardening. It's only when it comes to living his life that he's utterly lost, and when the suicides in his church begin, he bounces from his case worker (from the government-sponsored Survivor Retention Program) to his agent to his brother (did I say he was the last survivor?) to his non-girlfriend Fertility Hollis, allowing each of them in turn to tell him what to do.

The satire here is fast and furious, and is reminiscent of George Saunders's work in Civilwarland in Bad Decline, for example. Tender Branson's outsider mentality is what makes him a perfect commentator on modern American life: it's also what attracts Fertility Hollis to him, despite the fact that he talked her brother into killing himself. (It's a long story.) Fertility, like her brother, has been gifted/cursed with prophetic dreams, which makes it possible for . . . well, some of you may want to read this book so I won't say more. Except that it's worth reading--it's funny, fast and biting, with a surreal tinge that works. Thanks for the loan, Joe.


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