You learn a lot from lunch with Chuck Palahniuk. For example, I now know that Adolf Hilter invented the blow-up sex doll. True fact, apparently. While the soon-to-be Führer was working as a messenger between the trenches in the First World War, he was appalled to see his fellow Aryans sloping off to French brothels. So he came up with the idea of an inflatable Fräulein. But Hilter didn't get around to manufacturing the doll until near the end of the Second World War when the factory was destroyed by the Allied firebombing of Dresden.
Thus it remains a little-known fact that Adolf Hilter invented the blow-up sex doll.
Palahniuk (“Puh-LAH-nick”) loves this kind of stuff. Tales that may or may not be taller than average. With his breakthrough 1996 novel Fight Club, you were never quite sure what was true and what was made up. Was there a real Fight Club? Was it the same thing as the Cacophony Society (organiser of the annual “Santa Rampage”, which involves pranks and drunkenness) to which the author allegedly belonged? No one knew. That was the genius.
Twelve years and eight books later, Palahniuk, 46 and now openly gay, remains something of an enigma. When I offer to fly to Portland, Oregon, to interview him about his new novel, Snuff, he suggests getting it over with at the airport, because he's going there anyway “to buy tickets”. Who the hell goes to an airport to buy tickets?
In the end I meet him in a burger joint by the departures lounge. He is dressed in upscale hikewear and I spend much of the meal wondering if he has a roll of duct tape and a power saw in his knapsack. He is outwardly calm but his right leg jiggles, and his face has the toxic hue of pencil lead. When he tells me that cheeseburgers always make for reliable airport food - “there's not a lot of variables” - he does so in the methodical tone of an IT helpdesk operator.
All of which serves to heighten the shock value of the author's subject matter.
Snuff, for example, is a typically pulpy affair, concerning the making of an epic gangbang video (“600 dudes, one porn queen”), in which the author's descriptions of bodily excretions are matched in number only by his relentlessly inventive porn-movie puns (Catch Her in the Eye, A Tale of Two Titties, World Whore One: The Whore To End All Whores, etc etc).
The book was inspired by Annabel Chong's real-life performance in The World's Biggest Gangbang, a movie in which she set an industry record by having sex with 70 men in a single ten-hour session. Anyone who has ever wondered about the biological logistics of such a feat will find Snuff endlessly fascinating - the story is told from the perspectives of the male performers Mr 72, Mr 137 and Mr 600 respectively - so long as they can make it through the bits about vaginal embolisms.
I ask Palahniuk how he goes about compiling such queasy research. “Before I start a book, I tell people I'm collecting stories,” he says. “So you send out this request for a certain type of information and it creates this kind of party game, a way of people being together, and they call you and they reward you. A lot of the time we don't know what to say to each other, so this gives us a kind of shared purpose.”
For a novelist it's an unusually collaborative way to work. Not for Palahniuk, however. When he was still undiscovered and working as a Portland lorry mechanic, he got hooked on writers' workshops.
“I decided, when I wasn't being paid [for writing], that I could do it and still do all those normal social things, rather than sit at home and throw my life away, being alone,” he says. “Also, I saw the value in people's stories, and I wanted to preserve all these quirky and funny-albeit-sometimes sad anecdotes that people were telling me.” Some of the anecdotes in Snuff were supplied by a physically deformed porn actress who came to one of Palahniuk's book readings.
And the book readings, of course, are infamous. Like a kind of literary circus freak, Palahniuk delights in delivering material that frequently causes his fans to pass out (he stopped counting the casualties at 72). His only concern about this phenomenon is that his most shocking prose might be now overfamiliar. Hence the reason he replaced it for a while with material that instead made people cry. That also proved troublesome. “It's really difficult to salvage an event when everyone starts crying,” he says, matter-of-factly. “You just can't bring the energy back up, it's impossible”.
Disgust is a big theme with Palahniuk. The author says that it's a function of trying to attract the kind of readers who would otherwise never pick up a book (ie, men). He cites studies which suggest that less than 10 per cent of human communication is actually done through words - the rest through sights, smells, etc. Yet the sheer visceral repulsion in Snuff suggests that something else is going on. I ask Palahniuk if he thinks that porn is inherently damaging. “Only if it's done right!” he blurts, with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm. Composing himself, he continues: “Porn is the adult version of the fairytale. There's a real comforting sameness to it. It's never going to end badly. In that respect porn is really no different than any other coping mechanism that people have, whether it's being funny, or being pretty, or being smart. At some point they just do too much of it and it no longer serves them, it enslaves them.”
Then again, perhaps Palahniuk is attracted to the extreme simply because that's what he has always known. He grew up in a half-abandoned town that had been moved, brick by brick, to make way for a new dam. His father, Fred, worked for the railroad. The most interesting fact about Fred Palahniuk was that, at the age of 3, he had watched his own father shoot dead his mother and then take his own life.
The story of Fred Palahniuk turned out to be no less tragic. Having taking early retirement after a back injury, he became obsessed first with entering mail-order contests and then with replying to personal ads. The woman he ultimately met had a jealous ex-boyfriend, who stalked the couple then shot them dead before burning their bodies.
Fred was hugely proud of his son's success with Fight Club - he had been a boxer in the navy - but never knew the truth about his sexuality. “Maybe because he chose not to,” concludes Palahniuk. “But we just, y'know, never brought it up. It's not something I can really affect, so it's not something I choose to really consider.” If Palahniuk failed to get acceptance from his father, he has also in some ways failed to get it from the literary establishment. His book tour stunts and his deliberately lurid prose have turned him into a kind of white trash anti-Martin Amis.
Indeed, the two men met at a literary festival recently, and by the sounds of it they despised each other. “Boy, I wish he'd start drinking again,” says Palahniuk. “He was in such a foul mood all the time, I just found myself wishing he'd just have one glass of wine. I think he was still smoking, but people said he was in this bad mood because he wasn't drinking any more.”
Palahniuk's verdict on Amis as a novelist is simply that he writes “beautifully padded sentences”. “We're living in a different world than Charles Dickens lived in,” he says. “My perception is that my readers just don't have that kind of patience. They're a lot more sophisticated.”