When you read more than one book by a single author, it’s somewhat inevitable that you will end up comparing the books to each other. In most cases, I end up comparing everything by that author to the first book of theirs that I read.
Chuck Palahniuk will never be able to escape “Fight Club.” I know I’m not the only reader to hold all of his other books up against the high standard he set with his debut novel.
I’m also not the only reader to notice a certain feel that runs through Mr. Palahniuk’s books, even without having read them all. They are not all the same, as some people claim, but there is a good chance that, having read one Palahniuk book, you would recognize another without knowing the author ahead of time.
It has been a while since I read a book by Mr. Palahniuk–several years, I’m sure. I’m a little hazy on the details, but my impression is that “Survivor” is closer to “Fight Club” than the others, with the possible exception of “Choke.” There are some strong similarities in the personalities of the main characters, and the general feeling of nihilism in the narrative.
“Survivor” is a jarring book. It is unsettling. There are a lot of people in the world who simply would not enjoy it. It’s not going to leave anyone with a pleasant glow.
Though at times it feels as though he is beating a dead horse, Mr. Palahniuk has made edginess into an art form. If you find yourself laughing while reading “Survivor,” you’re probably going to feel instantly uncomfortable about having done so.
Internet etiquette dictates that I issue a content warning for certain upsetting subjects, so at this point, I’ll say that I’m going to mention suicide soon, as it is one of the main themes of the book.
In “Survivor,” the narrator and questionable protagonist is a young man called Tender Branson, one of the few remaining members of a religious cult, the “Creedish,” with Amish-like tendencies. He was living in the “outside world” when he learned that the majority of the cult’s membership committed group suicide to avoid complications with law enforcement.
As non-resident Creedish folks learn about the core group’s deaths, their numbers begin to drop off, as they succumb to the cult’s religious teachings about suicide. The so-called survivors of the Creedish are assigned case workers by the government in an attempt to stop them from killing themselves.
Tender Branson is living a relatively quiet life cleaning the houses of affluent people, meeting with his caseworker as she continually diagnoses and treats him for mental disorders he may or may not have. He is not open with her about his true feelings, so she has no real information to go on. If he was honest with her, she could have had a field day working through all his issues.
The book does not adhere to a neat timeline, and begins at the end of the main character’s life. The story opens with him on a plane that he has hijacked, with all the passengers gone and the pilot about to parachute himself to assumed safety. Tender is telling his tale to the black box on the plane, waiting for the engines to fail and for the plane to fall to its destruction with him inside.
After beginning at the end, Tender brings the reader (or whoever is listening to the black box) back to an earlier moment in his life, though not really a coherent starting point.
It quickly becomes clear that to spice up his otherwise dull existence, and for other, more complicated emotional reasons, the narrator has posted his personal phone number publicly under the false pretense of being a suicide hotline. Speaking to people who are in a crisis has become a form of entertainment for him, as is his process of deciding exactly what to say to the distraught callers.
Just shy of halfway through the book, the gears change. (It’s difficult to tell exactly how far into the book anything happens, because of the gimmicky way the pages are numbered in reverse.)
In the midst of a messy situation involving the death of his caseworker, Tender finds himself in the center of a media buzz, being contacted by a publicity agent, as it has become public knowledge that he is the last surviving member of the Creedish cult.
The world now wants to see more of Tender, and his agent takes the reins, molding him into a tv-friendly persona, coaching him, drugging him, doing what it takes to get him ready for life as a messianic public figure.
At this point, the story went a little off the rails, in my opinion. The narrator fully acknowledges that he simply wants someone, anyone, to tell him what to do, so that he doesn’t have to think for himself. I found that that made for an uninteresting character. He had already been sorely lacking in humanity, but in becoming famous, he also becomes little more than an empty shell.
“Survivor” contains quite a lot of sharp social commentary, which is smart and darkly amusing, but eventually each additional biting remark begins to feel like it’s being shoved in my face. A certain amount of satire is refreshing and eye-opening, but after a while, it seems as though Mr. Palahniuk believes that a reader needs to be continually shocked and/or disillusioned to remain engaged.
Overall, this was an entertaining book, but I don’t think I’d read it again. I own a copy of “Fight Club,” have read it more than once, and would happily read it again. I think I’d read “Choke” again, as well, but this one felt a bit as though the author was trying too hard.
It did have a fair amount of competent writing, black humor, and smart observation. I would recommend it to someone who feels the need to be shaken up some, but if you haven’t already, my advice is to read “Fight Club” first.