Blow Your Brains Out: Chuck Palahniuk at Arts and Letters Live

So, Chuck Palahniuk races up the aisles of the Horchow Auditorium at the Dallas Museum of Art with arm-fulls of huge, inflatable brains, snapping them like Frisbees throughout the eager audience, most of whom look to be in their early- to mid-20s and many of whom are bedazzled with metal piercings, every exposed stretch of skin inked like canvasses. This is how Palahniuk does Arts and Letters Live. And, this is just the beginning.

On Chuck's count, those lucky enough to have snagged a brain begin huffing and puffing, racing to see who can inflate theirs fastest in order to win a copy of The Chronology of Water by Lydia Yuknavitch. Yes, you read that correctly. In a stroke of remarkable groundedness, The New York Times best-selling author gave away books by writers other than himself.

Breaking from the literal chaos of darting, tossing and laughing, the otherwise invariably chill Palahniuk moved then to the artistic chaos of his new short story "Romance," published in August in Playboy, but written specifically for this, the "Blow Your Brains Out" tour. Soft-spoken and quietly funny, Palahniuk's unexpectedly laid-back and down-to-earth demeanor wildly contrasts the exaggerated violence and countercultural sexuality that epitomizes his body of work. No writer who takes himself too seriously, after all, would stop after a few lines to politely excuse himself backstage after having gotten winded in the earlier revelry, and in order to loosen his belt a notch.

Ultimately -- and this is no slight to Palahniuk, whose intelligence and drive are evident in every spoken word -- what Palahniuk does is not literature, or not mere literature, but more accurately some all-inclusive, mind-warping, sensory-engaging performance art. Anyone who frequents readings or book release parties might agree that many writers tend to read their work in a somewhat monotonous and detached manner, presumably allowing the text to speak for itself, all the while tediously boring the audience to tears.

Palahniuk, on the other hand -- who was clad in an oddly bitchin' pair of camel colored leather pants -- reads with a distinctly charming and clever voice, and while it seems inaccurate to suggest that his characters are always - or even often - extensions of his own personality, he adeptly taps into the minds of lonely and occasionally wretched characters, narrating with an authentic and believable voice. If his writing itself seems at times excessive in its explicit violence and graphic sexuality, this live presentation creates a space wherein even the most repulsively transgressive characters are utterly, wonderfully heart-breaking.

But, Palahniuk is not satisfied with simple heartbreak. He instead masterfully demands of his captive audience a range of responses and at a mere anecdotal story had hearts racing, teeth grinding and muscles clenching. That is not to mention more than a few gleeful gasps. While normally just a cliche, the phrase "on the edge of one's seat" takes on a more literal meaning at a Chuck Palahniuk reading.

But, what to make of the mad man as a serious student of literature? Interestingly, during the audience Q&A session, Palahniuk tapped into a question that had plagued me for some time. I had no doubt about Palahniuk's intelligence or talent -- within 10 minutes of conversation during last week's interview about his newest release, Damned, I'd put him through a Sartrean analysis, asked him to delineate his fictive cosmology and probed his personal and political issues with religion and irreligion. I just couldn't make sense of why someone as reflective and thoughtful as Palahniuk had produced a body of work that seemed to me ultimately one long masturbation joke.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I take issue with self-abuse; in fact, if I had to choose, I'd say it's probably my favorite type of abuse, particularly in light of the other options. But, I was hardly convinced that it makes for great literature. Best-selling literature. With only the text in hand, I was left with serious reservations about the value of Palahniuk's work, but when an audience member asked about one of his gorier pieces, the writer hit upon something even the stodgiest of literary codgers like myself could appreciate.

He mentioned that part of his disillusion with going to church arose when he started viewing it as a setting in which people tend to affect a sense of false personal perfection. He loves, instead, attending 12-step programs because they offer a similar community, but its congregation is instead allowed the cathartic experience of being seen at their very worst. He suggests that in humiliation is salvation, and in destruction there are the tools for creation. If a writer like Chuck Palahniuk can stand before an overflowing auditorium and utter his ugliest, darkest thoughts, then someone else in that room might feel comfortable enough to do the same. And, in that dialogue, lies the key to moving on.

There is a method to the madness, and in Palahniuk's eyes it seems that very madness is a sanctuary for healing.

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