Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted has been hanging around my to-be-read pile for weeks and weeks. When I finally got the chance to start, I saw that the latest Terry Pratchett novel of Discworld, Thud!, had just been released. Of course, I had to abandon Haunted in favor of Pratchett's ongoing and chaotically hilarious series. I tore through Thud! pretty quickly, so I've now had the chance to finish my bout with Haunted.
The main reason I decided to give Palahniuk a try was because of his reputation for an oddball, quirky style. Certainly Fight Club has its devotees, and Choke sounded interesting enough, but Haunted -- a collection of short stories that tell the tale of a group of people stranded in a writers retreat from hell -- sounded right up my alley.
It didn't turn out that way, though.
It's kind of hard to say what, exactly, Haunted is. It's a commentary on an entertainment world beset by "reality" television. It's an indictment of a culture of individuals willing to do absolutely anything for their personal moment fame -- and the ever more extreme degradations they'll undergo to extend that moment further. It's a play on a literary form stretching back to Chaucer, but that's about where the comparison would end.
What Haunted is is repetitive. As the motley crew of misfits file into their promised three-month exile in which to create their masterpiece -- each misfit identified only by a moniker reflective of their history or personality (Sister Vigilante, Chef Assassin, Comrade Snarky) -- things quickly degenerate into a competition of suffering, as each person contrives to endure the most hardship, the most unspeakable cruelties, to ensure the largest share of royalties and the biggest chance of being played by an Oscar-caliber actor in the eagerly anticipated adaption of their lives into a movie-of-the-week.
And the degradations and cruelties are fast and plenty. They also becoming numbing in short order. Perhaps that's the point, but I found it fairly boring. The stories themselves, which really form the meat of the story, come in with varying levels of success. My favorite is the tale of Lady Baglady, a wealthy socialite whose upper-upper-class compatriots have chosen a radical new form of entertainment -- living as homeless people on the streets for kicks:
In the boring new world of everyone in the upper-middle class, Inky says nothing helps you enjoy your bidet like peeing in the street for a few hours. Give up bathing until you stink, and just a hot shower feels as good as a trip to Sonoma for a detoxifying mud enema.
"Think of it," Inky says, "as a kind of poverty sorbet."
A nice little window of misery that helps you enjoy your real life.
"Join us," Inky says. The sticky green stain of cough syrup smeared around her mouth, strands of her plastic wig hair sticking to it, she says, "This next Friday night."
Looking bad, she says, is the new looking good.
Palahniuk fills Haunted with hilarious bits like that -- homegrown terrorists raising money by dressing in drag and charging people for the privilege of punching their made-up faces, a married couple who invest their lives in becoming amateur porn stars, an excruciatingly gross encounter between a masturbating teen boy and a swimming pool's suction drain -- but they never really add up to a whole. Haunted may be a real gut-buster for some -- literally, for some of the characters -- but it left me feeling hollow. I don't need to feel edified by every novel I read, but this felt more like Palahniuk showing off than it felt like an actual novel.
Thud!, on the other hand, is filled with masterfully hilarious passages in addition to compellingly real characters, an accomplishment in a series populated by trolls, witches, dwarfs, vampires and all other manner of fanciful creatures -- with humans as, at times, the most fanciful of all. Discworld is a mirror of our own world, which Pratchett uses as a canvas for social commentary. Thud! takes on everything from racism to religious terrorism to Machiavellian politics, never missing a beat in the process. Whether deploying his own army of puns and wordplays, or constructing surprisingly moving and tender character moments, Pratchett's a writer that doesn't have to show off for you to understand what an amazingly good writer he is.
So, if you want to choose between these two kinds of crazy, go with Pratchett. And, if you're a doubter when it comes to fanciful books set in fantasy locations, start off with Small Gods. It was my introduction to Pratchett, and still one of my favorite books ever.