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Does It Hurt?

Diary may be a disturbing novel, but author Chuck Palahniuk is friendly as can be.


"All of the pins being stuck into things, it's very much on the body. And then the steak knife against the leg...."

Chuck Palahniuk is describing his new book, Diary. It isn't pleasant. That's something that gets Salon writer Laura Miller's goat.

"Imagine some crappy novels," she writes. "Imagine that they're all written in the same phony, repetitive, bombastic style as this paragraph, all hopped-up imperatives and posturing one-liners ... Does it hurt yet? Now, imagine that every five pages or so the author of these novels will describe something as smelling like shit or piss because the TRUTH is fucking ugly, man ... "

But Chuck Palahniuk, he's the nicest guy. When we asked him about this scathing review (it goes on for a good two pages, some of it funny and some of it just excavating the text for flaws), Palahniuk lets out a meek, "Oh, my gosh." There's no anger in his voice.

Diary, though not necessarily an angry book, is at least a work of extremely visceral social criticism, one that sucks you in and needles you. It takes the form of a diary kept by Misty Wilmot, whose husband has been in a coma since his botched suicide attempt. The diary is written in the second person because Misty isn't keeping it for herself; it's for the comatose man to read if he ever emerges. It will help him catch up on lost time -- though from Misty's perspective, the diary also constitutes revenge. And with that vindictiveness coming out, we feel as Peter is supposed to feel: painfully aware of how much this all sucks.

But there's more to it. "If you say it's conspiracy horror, that it's a metaphorical story based on issues of immigration and gentrification and, um, how one class of people uses another to maintain its power -- it gets awfully abstract," Palahniuk says.

The setting is Waytansea Island, where people are into identifying obscure china patterns. Misty is not from the island; Peter brought her here. And Misty understands, more and more, how her fate has been determined by the natives' loony plan to keep tourists out and accumulate ill-gotten wealth.

"The whole Waytansea thing was loosely based on Lake Wobegon," Palahniuk says. "It's sort of a dark version of Lake Wobegon, which is always being held up as this idealistic, pastoral world." Waytansea is what Lake Wobegon would be if it were on a lush island flooded by tourists -- not on a cold, dark prairie whose inhabitants' way of life is automatically preserved by virtue of nobody else wanting to go there.

If this sounds too bleak, consider Outcasts and Refugees -- the traveler's guide to Portland he put out not too long ago, wherein he confessed that when he tried LSD, it was only because he didn't know it was the same thing as acid. "We have so many names for drugs," he reflects.

Outcasts and Refugees proves, once and for all, that Palahniuk doesn't need his characteristically rough, in-your-face style to get a message across. Here, he just let people on the fringes of Portland's cultural scene tell their stories. "I was getting stories that the historical society was never going to seek out. I was documenting what I thought were the most dynamic but also the most fragile aspects of Portland culture."

So there. Chuck Palahniuk doesn't hate everything. Ask him yourself.

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