Chuck Palahniuk Is Keeping Portland Strange
Many towns try to seem unique, but Portland is genuinely strange. During my ten-day visit, crows were virtually the only birds I saw in the sky. At the pad where I crashed, my old high school buddies keep multiple dream machines running at all times. And around the corner from their house, there's a store that deals in animal bones.
Another thing that keeps Portland weird is that you might just bump into Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk. He took a break on Saturday from hitting up every Safeway within a 50-mile radius of Portland to chat with me. Chuck was looking for a particular eight-inch, heart-shaped box of chocolates to include in promotional mailing to independent bookstores, hoping to bolster sales of his friend Suzy Vitello's new novel, The Moment Before. In between Safeways, Chuck met me in Portland's Albina neighborhood. He took one look at the cafe I'd suggested—full of young Portlanders squinting into laptops—and decided it wouldn't do. “I know a place,” he said.
Chuck knows Portland. He lived in the city for more than two decades and still returns periodically to visit old haunts. His Portland travelogue, Fugitives and Refugees, published in 2003, is a bit dated but still full of off the wall spots Lonely Planet won't tell you about.
“North Portland used to be the part of town you didn't drive through,” Chuck remarked on the recently gentrified neighborhood as we headed for the nearby Overlook Restaurant. “You ran all the stop signs. You couldn't stop without a drug dealer or prostitute coming to your car.”
It was just after 2 PM, but Chuck chowed down on a steak dinner in the dimly-lit diner. I nibbled pie, sipped at a bottomless cup of coffee, and listened to the author wax poetic on Stumptown, "liminoid events," Occupy Wall Street, and his father's pornography. I began by asking him about a mysterious troop of pranksters he ran with in Portland who served as the inspiration for Fight Club.
VICE: So, tell me about the Cacophony Society.
Chuck Palahniuk: It started in San Francisco in the 70s. It's based on a short story by Robert Lewis Stevenson called “The Suicide Club,” in which the characters realized they wouldn't live forever, so they decided to engage in a variety of dangerous, thrilling experiences. They would stage different adventures. Suicide Club started doing that and it gradually morphed into the Cacophony Society. It was a very loose organization where the members with a concept for an adventure or a prank or an artistic stunt could promote it through a newsletter and anyone who wanted to participate in this huge themed act of chaos could show up and have a role. It was vaguely scripted, just enough to get people started.
It started in San Francisco, but spread up to Portland. Sounds like some kind of syndicate.
It branched out to Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles. It was a chance to be anonymous too, because so many of the events were costumed. But many of the events became co-opted because they were such spectacles, like Santa Rampage where you'd get 1,800 Santas.
Yep, we have something like that in New York now, but it has been taken over by frat boys.
Exactly. Cacophony also started Burning Man, which has been taken over by a kind of frat-culture, people who go simply for the party of it. They're not creating the event so much as they are exploiting it. In a way, that's kind of a metaphor for Portland. Portland used to be a DIY city where people had freedom and could live cheaply. They were out of the public spotlight, so they could fail a lot or they could come up with some amazing idea.
I read that you moved out here because of the rain?
It's an excuse to stay indoors and work. It also fosters a more intentional social life. When people go out, they go out because they've been inside all day. When they get together, it's a little more intense.
In Fugitives and Refugees, you discuss how Portlanders lead three lives. Do you have three lives?
Writing would definitely be one. Then there's staging events on tour, which kind of slops over into promoting.
Describe these events. Are they readings or what?
No... Last October, I went on tour for my book Doomed. We staged adult bedtime story parties. I shipped these two-foot beach balls to the events. Each ball came with a glow stick. As people waited to enter the event, we asked them to blow up their beach ball and put a light stick inside. Once the whole thing was put together, it made these brilliant glowing orbs with different florescent colors. Throughout the events, as we read or played games or threw things at the audience, we would cut all the lights off and play some idiot piece of music and everyone would have an enormous glow-in-the-dark dodge ball game. All you could see were these glowing, beautiful things. Visually it was just breathtaking.
Is that something you took from your Cacophony days?
That lack of pretense was a big part of Cacophony. When you're young, looking good is so important. Your only real resource is your physicality, your attractiveness. You're trying to accentuate those things all the time. Cacophony allowed you to step away from that and be an idiot, an idiot who looked really ridiculous and pathetic.
So much of my work is about giving people the opportunity to fail. That was one of the big homework assignments in Fight Club. People were told to go out, pick a fight, and lose—to lose really badly. It's such an exercise when you fail, when you're rejected, when you're denied, and you realize it's not going to kill you.
It's a rite of passage.
A lot of your work centers around characters who are on the fringe and don't fit into society's social exceptions. Where does that come from?
The man who taught me to write, Tom Spanbauer, says that writers write because they weren't invited to a party. At one point in their childhoods they were left off some guest list, so they kind of collapse back into entertaining themselves. Maybe that aspect [of my work] just comes from the fact that I'm a writer and that writers aren't sure how the game is played, so they are continually inventing a game of their own. Many people in Cacophony were that way; almost socially autistic and never really sure what the script was.
So they wrote their own.
And they wrote a different one all the time so that they could experiment with different social models and ways of being.
Is there a political dynamic to your work?
Not overtly. Not in relation to current politics.
One of my favorite people to read is a man named Victor Turner who was a cultural sociologist and wrote about what he called “liminoid events.” These are short-lived events that you typically you pay to engage with that have no social hierarchy. Everyone enters as an equal. It could be a rock concert. It could be Burning Man
He called them liminoid events to distinguish them from liminal events. Liminal events are culturally institutionalized happenings like Christmas, Halloween, or a honeymoon. Halloween used to be a cultural inversion liminal event where typically dispossessed people, people with no power—usually children, but not always—would go door-to-door and demand tribute. If you didn't pay them tribute, your property would be destroyed. The same with Christmas caroling. Originally peasants would go to wealthy people and sing Christmas songs. If the wealthy people did not come out and pay them tribute, the poor were allowed to pull down fences and slash tires.
That's not very Christmas-like.
Well, there was a big movement in the 1920s. So much damage was being done at Halloween that candy manufacturers got together with newspapers and they started to promote the idea of candy as tribute. Trick-or-treat became what we know of it today, instead of a social power inversion ritual. Lent was also a social power inversion ritual. The Catholic Church would give up power, at least on Mardi Gras, and allow people to do profane things for a small period of time so that when power shifted back they could maintain the status quo.
The congregation would get their decadent urges out of their system.
Exactly. Like the Amish do with Rumspringa.
These cultural inversion rituals, I find them fascinating. They're all designed so that the suppressed culture doesn't turn over the whole thing. One day a year or several days a year, they get a little tiny taste of power. They are liminal events because they tend to fall on thresholds in a year.
Liminoid events, like what Cacophony did, can be performed anytime, but typically they happen just once. It's a sort of a social laboratory, allowing people to behave in a different way. If it really serves people, it will be adopted as the next institution. Burning Man runs itself now. Santa Rampage runs its self now. Bacardi commercials feature people in Salmon costumes running upstream during the Bay to Breakers Marathon. That was originally a Cacophony event.
What did you think when all those fight clubs started popping up across the country?
I thought that was exactly what a liminoid event should do: Offer and model an attractive way of being and see if people adopt it.
It does seem like it was diluted—like it was taken up by guys who just wanted to burn off some testosterone.
Halloween is diluted. Christmas caroling is diluted. That's always part of the process. I've been really curious about—what was it called on Wall St.?
I thought by now Occupy would have come back in lesser and lesser form until it became a kind of weeklong community campout.
These days, every time authorities see a tent, they freak out.
I think for a liminoid event to work there has to be an element of fun to it. It can't be overtly political. It has to be something done for the sheer joy of doing it and being with other people. Occupy was really frayed by politics. Maybe that's one reason why it hasn't comeback.
It did have pretty dangerous politics, though—taking down the one percent.
But that doesn't equate to fun.
That could be fun.
But for people to give up their free time to do something, it has to have a re-creative quality to it so that it's more fun than anything else they could be doing. Giving people a model that brings them joy as opposed to a political heel-clicking is a more effective way to serve people. The joy is what's going to keep them coming back.
Our dominant culture provides models for joy, too, like television. You'd have to present something more joyful, right?
Church used to be that joyful thing. Church was that place where you could go and present your worst self and confess out loud to your community and they would accept you back despite your behavior. But church has lost that function. It has lost the joy that used to be associated with that freedom. Twelve-step groups are so popular because they fulfill that function.
What would Fight Club's anti-hero, Tyler Durden, say about Occupy?
He would say it functioned exactly as it should. In these kind of social experiments, people begin to identify themselves as leaders. The organization itself is meant to fall apart and disappear as long as it leaves behind people who have a greater idea of their own potential and go on to do other things.
I hear there is a sequel to Fight Club in the works.
A graphic novel. I've fallen in with a lot graphic artists who live in Portland. We ended up throwing enough parties that we finally talked some of them in to put something together.
What's going to happen?
I don't want to talk about it, just because it could change so much.
How have you evolved since you wrote the original?
I have a greater understanding of what I was doing. With a novel, especially a first novel, you're doing it kind of intuitively, without a full understanding of your own motives. And a lot of times, you're not even certain what it is really about until you go on tour with it and you realize you've told some deep, dark, horrible secret to millions of people. You seduce yourself into revealing things you can't deal with head on.
In the sequel, I'm explaining the kind of Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly things that went into Fight Club that I wasn't really aware of. I'm also taking the characters to a different level, with a different resolution.
Fight Club has really stuck around. I saw on Twitter that US soldiers stenciled images of Tyler Durden to a wall in Afghanistan.
That's the liminoid thing. You create a character or a social model that people want to live into. It gives them another option. It's like when you create a phrase and you hear people using it. I can't tell you how often I've heard, “The first rule of blank is you don't talk about blank.” That's a fantastic feeling of power. But it comes with a certain sadness... This rhetorical device I invented is going to outlive me.
You gave birth to something. It's out in the world now.
The next challenge is creating something different that is more effective and eclipses the earlier thing.
Do you feel you've done that yet?
Next year's book will. It's completely icky in an over-the-top way. I describe it as “gonzo-erotica.”
When I was little I was asked to get something from my parents closet, a pair of shoes or something. And I came away with these books that were called things like Girl on Girl Ranch Studs and Gestapo Pussy Ranch. They had these lurid covers and these really suggestive titles. I started reading them and they made no sense whatsoever. I couldn't understand anything that was happening in them, but that's one of the things that made them so compelling. I finally took them to my mother and said, “What are these books about?” She was furious because apparently they were my fathers. But at the same time, she was reading harlequin romances that made no sense, either. Their euphemisms were completely alien to me.
I thought, What if you could write a kind of Marques de Sade pornography, really brutal stuff, but in the euphemisms of Barbara Cartland, so that Iyoucould depict these fantastically over the top things in soft focus ways. That approach makes it really funny. Poorly written erotica is laugh-out-loud funny. And that's next years book, Beautiful You.
Has Portland changed since you wrote Fugitives and Refugees?
Down in the Sellwood neighborhood in Southeast Portland there's the Colombia Memorial Mausoleum. It's this enormous complex of buildings, above ground and below ground. It used to be that you could go in there at anytime and there was never anyone there. It was empty and confusing and vast; miles and miles of corridors lined with tombs.
You mentioned in Fugitives that you wrote some of your novel Survivor in there.
After I put it in the travel book, it became a popular place for people to have goth sex and commit suicide. Because it's so huge, people would go hide in these curtained alcoves. You could wait until late at night when they had no security and have the whole place to yourself. People would either kill themselves and be found in the morning or they would have sex and set off alarms leaving the building.
I guess that's the dark side of a liminoid event.
They remove dysfunctional people from a culture, like people who go to Burning Man and overdose.
Liminoids remove those who go too far.
Portland seems to accumulate them.
I have to really wonder about this sort of Portlandia mentality.
What do you think of the show?
I watched one episode. I like what they are trying to do, but they take their gags a little too long. Maybe I'm just too close to the subject to enjoy it.
Kind of makes the town seem kitsch or novel.
Novel in the same way that Austin or Lincoln, Nebraska wants to be novel. So many towns go for that, you know, “Keep Lincoln, Nebraska weird.” But with this current crop of people, I wonder if, as their parents age, they won't be pulled back home to take care of them. Or if they will go back home once they have a child and they need childcare from that older generation. That's the historical model.
Seems easier to survive in Portland than other counter-culture hubs.
But it's also easier to get pulled into the Portland Open-Mic Vortex, where you never really do anything with your life. It's just, “I got a showing at this cafe. My paintings are up at this veterinarian’s office.”
You broke out.
I'm still not part of the pantheon of famous writers. I think being in Portland will always give me an outsider's status.
You wanna come check out a dream machine?
I have to go to Safeway.
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