Survivor

A few months back I was talking to a friend, who is an assistant professor of English and teaches at a number of local universities, about my desire to read new literature and the trouble I was having finding book recommendations that didn’t fall into the category of sappy love story. Enter Survivor. This book fit my requirements, it was not written by a female author (at the time I had just finished reading a whole string of novels by women and I was looking for something different), it was recommended to me by a friend whose opinion on such topics I value, and it is not a love story. I was also attracted to the book by the simple fact that it’s author had previously written the novel Fight Club, which was later turned into a movie I very much enjoyed. Although Palahniuk did not write the screenplay of the movie, he did praise it for being a faithful adaptation. And I’ll be honest, I largely appreciated the movie because of Ed Norton, who I think is a supreme actor, and Brad Pitt, who I also think is a good actor but I enjoy as eye candy as well, but the story was interesting, original and drew me in. So, I decided to give a Palahniuk novel a chance.

Survivor is a book unlike any I’ve read before. This is partly because of the narrative style, partly because of the subject matter and partly because of the themes developed throughout. I’ll admit it took me quite a while to get into the book. For the first few chapters I found that I had to convince myself to continue reading. Narrated by the main character, the book begins with Tender Branson speaking into an airplane black box to recount the story of his life as the plane he has hijacked preparers to crash into the Australian outback with no other passengers or pilots aboard. While the idea of reading a novel in which the protagonist is an airplane hijacker may not seem appealing to some, please do remember that this book was written in 1999 and is not a product of 9/11.

I will give the briefest of synopses because the plot is too interesting to ruin for anyone who hasn’t read it. Suffice it to say that the main character, Tender Branson, is the penultimate survivor of the Creedish Death Cult, which trains its young children that the sole route to happiness in this or the next life is servitude and therefore prepares them for release into the wilds of the outside world by arming them with knowledge of housekeeping and culinary skills. When the last of the known Creedish survivors commits suicide, Tender Branson is approached by a media agent and transformed overnight into cult religious hero who works the stadium circuit.

The plot, however, is not really as important to the book as the concepts that are carried through it. First and foremost to the book is the idea of free will. Never once in his life does Tender Branson make any choices of his own. He moves, as he describes it, from one job to another, constantly looking for someone to tell him what to do. He is incapable of making decisions on his own and perpetually seeks a leader whose bidding he can follow, a mite ironic for a man who has been crafted into a religions icon.

That is perhaps the second most important feature of Palahniuk’s work: the world is entirely crafted. Through the tale of Tender Branson it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems. It is only as it is advertised. The agent wants a religious leader and since mass cult suicides are inevitable, so he claims, he only had to wait for his perfect piece of clay. With Tender Branson in hand as the perfect puppet, he recreates him in the image of what media wants. A little over weight, he is given a personal trainer and a dietitian to count his calories, script his exercise rituals and inject him with steroids. He doesn’t have a perfect smile, dental surgery can cure that. Skin problems, nothing some dermal abrasion and fake tan can’t fix. The life he remembers isn’t sensational enough, a whole team of writers and copy editors recreate his childhood for his autobiography. In the end, nothing about Tender Branson is as it seems or even as it is. But it isn’t just them media that Palahniuk attacks. His cynicism is directed at nearly every aspect of modern society but his attacks are hidden beneath a black veil of humor, which itself veils some horrific ideas.

That Palahnuik sees this book as leading to a climax is demonstrated in the presentation of the book itself. It starts with chapter 47 on page 289 (in the Anchor paperback edition) and pedals backwards until the final page of the book, page 1. It is clear by abotu the midway point in the novel that Tender Branson sees his own life as leading to the climax of his death, as he had been taught by his Creedish elders was necessary. His position as a media celebrity makes it impossible for him to do anything without a spotlight on him so his death must be spectacular as well. However, he can’t bring himself to be responsible for the death of more innocent people than those he already claims, hence the empty hijacked plane. Ironically, even in his death, Tender Branson is incapable of fulfilling the expectations heaped upon him.

In short, I was roped in by this novel. While the writing style took quite a bit of getting used to as it read like the rehearsed speech of a quasi-illiterate individual, it brought back memories of Holden Caufield for just that reason. The plot isn’t gripping, but the character studies and the underlying critique of society should not be missed.

NEXT UP: A friend recently sent CableDad and me a few different Carl Hiaasen novels. As a person living in Miami who has always loved Hiaasen’s Herald column, I thought I should give his fiction a try. Tourist Season is next on my list.

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~ by CableGirl on Sunday, September 9, 2007.

6 Responses to “Survivor”

  1. Oh I *heart* Chuck!!! Read “Choke”, it’s also good and weird. And I’m in the middle of his “Stranger than Fiction”, which is sort of short stories (true ones, supposedly), but typically strange and sometimes morbid.

  2. This sounds like a fascinating book. And I lovedTourist Season!

  3. Sounds like a good book. I find I tend to get caught up with one author. I’ll read everything by that particular one and then have a hard time finding something new I like.

  4. I liked this book as well, however, I have some negative connotations with it due to what was going on in my life while I was reading it.

  5. Is it a book Bossy could read in the shower? Because that’s just about the only free time she has these days (but she’ll stick it on her list all the same because who is Bossy if not failing her to-read list?)

  6. My brother LOVES Chuck Palahniuk and like the reader above, I would reccommend Choke. An incredibly brief synopsis is about a male so lonely he goes into restaurants and pretends to choke on food so he can be around people. It was pretty good, though much along the same writing style as Survivor, which some people like and some don’t.

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