Toby's Reviews > Haunted

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
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it was ok

** spoiler alert ** Sometimes in the humor section of the bookstore you can find a spoof of a popular book or writer. That's not what Haunted is, but it's the first thing that comes to mind.

While the cover promises that Haunted is "A Novel," the innards tell a different story: 24 short short stories and 24 prose poems tied together by a thin framing device. This frame is supposed to evoke storytelling parties of the past, such as the Canterbury Tales or the Decameron, in which the participants each tell a story. Henry James' "Turn of the Screw" was structured similarly. In Haunted, each of the semi-anonymous characters from the frame "novel" tell a story and have a poem told about them.

The problem with this approach is that every character tells their story as if they were Chuck Palahniuk, and about halfway through bits of the framing device start slipping into the stories. The novel itself is narrated in first-person although the narrator never participates in any of the activities of the others.

And oh, the activities! The basic hook for the novel here is that a group of aspiring writers have gone off on a weird "Writer's Retreat" in which they hole up in an abandoned movie theater somewhere for 90 days. The dust jacket tells us this is "a satire of reality television" -- and sure, the group of strangers locked in a house together is a common reality TV trope. But if this were a satire of Chuck Palahniuk, what would happen?

What would happen is that the writers would all have horrible personal problems, would begin worshiping at the First Church of Self-Destruction, they would start talking like coroners and doctors with jargon littering their dialogue, they would repeat themselves with a chorus, and they'd throw up a bunch of plot twists.

And that's just what happens. For no reason at all, except that the participants of this "Writer's Retreat" think they can cash in someday if they suffer enough, start chopping off fingers, starving themselves, sabotaging the environmental controls, and consuming human flesh.

Palahniuk is best when he's right at the edge of absurd. Fight Club was there. Survivor and Choke were at the precipice. Those novels worked. Even with its flaws, Rant toed the long drop. But Haunted hurls itself into the abyss, and I understand how Chuck writes and I understand how Chuck wants you to feel when you're reading his books, and this isn't it. This book makes you exclaim aloud "This is fucking ridiculous."

These complaints are all about the framing device, the Canterbury participants with stupid nicknames like "Earl of Slander" and "Lady Baglady." The morons like "The Matchmaker" or "Agent Tattletale" who chop off all but two of their fingers but are still described as holding objects.

if this were a Chuck Palahniuk satire, would one character chop off their penis and another choke to death on it? Would a story involving dressing in drag and getting your ass kicked lead to fundraising for crashing planes?

You bet it would.

Haunted is an obnoxious mess that fails to get any reader buy-in to the things the characters are doing, and Chuck's signature style is turned up to eleven -- to the point that you're constantly reminded that you're reading a book by an author with an identifiable style.

Would a Chuck Palahniuk satire be written that way?

So Haunted is, at best, a self-satire by a writer who maybe recognizes his own tropes and wants to poke a little bit of fun. At worst, it's an unsuccessful experiment at creating a compelling anthology novel.

The stories themselves are mostly really good, but as presented it feels like Chuck cleaned out a file named "Novel Ideas" and threw them into this stew instead of developing them individually.

Of stand-out note are "Guts," which Chuck read aloud on his "Diary" tour and was previously published in Playboy. It's plotless but has a decent 1-2-3 punch to it. "The Nightmare Box" is a great little scary story. "Dissertation" feels like it could get some legs under it. "Obsolete" is a fun piece of speculative fiction. "Evil Spirits" is good enough it should go somewhere, but it doesn't. Many of the others are simply average, and a few are completely forgettable ("Ritual", "Green Room", "Speaking Bitterness").

My advice: if you're going to read this book, skip the "Chapters" and the poems, and just read the stories. The attempt to add context to them with the weak writer's-retreat frame doesn't work.
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Reading Progress

May 2, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
July 25, 2008 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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Carlos This was actually Palahniuk cleaning out his closet. He had wanted to sell a bunch of short stories he had written over the years, but his agent suggested story collections don't sell as well as novels.

Patrick Nailed it. Great review.

Chris Schick You encapsulated everything I felt about Haunted, but managed to say it better than I could. I admired the structure, hated the locked theater, enjoyed the stories. What a mixed bag.

message 4: by Quinn (new)

Quinn Great review!

message 5: by Yuzuru (new)

Yuzuru I. yugh, just read Guts and i am glad you can skip when reading - it would be worse if it wasn´t the same as one stupid death in the final destination 4

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