31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 14: “Exodus” by Chuck Palahniuk

August 14, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

From Haunted: A Novel.

6a00c22529c4838fdb011016904551860d-500piThat’s right: almost smack in the middle of a month devoted to short stories, Beattie’s talking about a novel. Leave it to Chuck Palahniuk to throw a wrench into the works. Although, his own brand of iconoclasm aside, Palahniuk is by no means the only writer to blur the generic distinction between novels and story collections. Alice Munro has done so twice: entire university courses are devoted to debates about whether Lives of Girls and Women and Who Do You Think You Are? constitute collections of linked stories, or novels. Arguably, they display all the generic attributes of both. (For the record: they’re collections.) Anthony De Sa’s Giller-nominated 2008 collection Barnacle Love also has certain properties in common with a novel: internal integrity, shared characters, and a complete plot arc.

Similarly, although Palahniuk’s 2005 book is technically a novel, it does contain 23 stories that stand alone, and may be read independently of Haunted‘s umbrella story arc, which involves a group of 17 characters on a writers’ retreat, who find themselves at the mercy of the retreat leader, Mr. Whittier. Whittier locks them in an abandoned theatre for three months and tells them each to write a “masterpiece.” While the novel descends into a broad satire on reality television, the stories that the characters write form in aggregate a kind of whacked-out Decameron (or, more accurately, what Boccaccio would have produced if he had been a meth addict mentored by the Marquis de Sade).

This being Palahniuk, there are plenty of bodily fluids, extreme situations, and high concepts to go around, including a story about a tabloid journalist who poisons a child star; a massage therapist who knows the proper pressure points to kill someone; and an inventive onanist who has his prolapsed innards sucked out by a swimming pool’s circulation inlet port (don’t ask).

But in a book with no shortage of sick stories, “Exodus” is without question the sickest. It focuses on Cora Reynolds, a lonely naïf who works as an office administrator at Child and Family Case Services, the branch of the police department that deals with children who have been sexually abused. One of her jobs is ordering supplies for the office, and when she confuses “anatomically detailed” dolls (used in counselling) with “anatomically correct” dolls, she receives in the mail a pair of silicone sex dolls from Russia (they were the cheapest), which the detectives start signing out overnight. When it quickly becomes apparent that the detectives are using these anatomically correct dolls for their own sexual gratification, Cora takes matters into her own hands. Again, don’t ask, but Superglue and razor blades are involved.

The story, which is one of the darkest and most disturbing things Palahniuk has ever written, exemplifies the author’s twin obsessions: the dehumanizing effects of modernity and our attendant inability to forge any authentic connections with one another as a result. The story’s repeated refrain – “This is just what human beings do” – is used as an excuse to justify some dreadfully aberrant behaviour (the story stays just this side of being unacceptable), but it is also a sadly ironic comment on our own persistent Western anomie. By the end of the story, it has become apparent that Cora is dangerously delusional, but her delusion carries with it a kind of longing for a simpler, more stable existence.

“Exodus” is not for everyone. It is not a story that will appeal to the easily offended, but it retains the courage of its convictions throughout. In his afterword, Palahniuk writes about the marginal quality of books in our culture:

No one really gives a damn about books. No one has bothered to ban a book in decades.

But with that disregard comes the freedom that only books have. And if a storyteller is going to write novels instead of screenplays, that’s a freedom you need to exploit. Otherwise, write a movie. That’s where the big money’s at. Write for television.

But, if you want the freedom to go anywhere, talk about anything, then write books.

“Exodus” goes to some pretty disturbing places (it’s surely one of the stories Palahniuk was thinking of when he wrote, “‘Guts’ is by no means the darkest or funniest or most-upsetting story from the novel Haunted. Some I didn’t dare read in public”). But if you’re up for it, it packs one hell of a punch.

Oh, and once you’ve met Breather Betty, you may think twice about that St. John’s Ambulance safety training course you’ve signed up for.