Haunted - Chuck Palahniuk

What to say about a book that, in the first 20 pages, contains a story that has so far caused 60-odd people to faint during various public readings? The story is succinctly (and appropriately) titled Guts and will probably make me look askance at squid and swimming pools for a good long while. It is merely one, however, of a multitude of extremely fucked-up narratives that comprise this book. To use the descriptor "gore-fest" would be putting it mildly. To put it a little less mildly, ever wondered what a freshly-miscarried fetus tastes like? You'll find out eventually.

This is the first book by Palahniuk I've read, and also the first book where I actually had to take breaks from reading not because I was bored or tired or I had to pee or I needed a sandwich, but because I was so overwhelmed by what was going on in the text that I had to stop every once in a while in order to prevent my brain from completely tweaking out. This is a very hard book for an immersive reader. That being said, I do recommend it. Palahniuk's stories, while nearly always dealing some some horrific notion, are very clever and at times, hilarious. The short story about the New Age foot-masseuses embracing the shady side of their profession is some fine dark comedy, and I admit it...I giggled while I was reading about the fetus. I am a sick, sick, person.

Haunted deals with the public's contradictory attitude towards reality entertainment: they want it to be real but it must also be entertaining, something which true reality very rarely is. Also, does glorifying the concept of reality simultaneously destroy the concept of creativity? The characters of Haunted, initially hoping to reach their ultimate creative peak during three months of seclusion, instead plunge themselves into a self-created reality, a Hell carefully crafted for maximum entertainment value. Their eventual downward spiral is amazingly, almost frighteningly fast, which leads me to believe Palahniuk has a rather dim view of human nature in general. I tend to agree with him, but in a slightly different way: as god-awful as the events described in Haunted are, I firmly believe there's some reality-TV network exec out there who would option it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke

After experiencing something like Haunted, I felt the need for lighter fare. Why I thought an 800-page book about the historical attributes of English magic in the early 1800's, replete with period prose and footnotes, constituted "lighter fare" is a mystery even to me. While browsing the book bins at Borders (alliteration is fun) I saw this fat paperback, proclaiming boldly across its cover "NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER!" "TIME MAGAZINE'S #1 BOOK OF THE YEAR!" I flipped it over and among more accolades and awards, I saw an excerpt from Neil Gaiman:

"Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years."

Whoa. Seriously? Mr. Gaiman, being an accomplished author himself, surely knows the weight that statement carries. I mean, he's putting this book above Tolkien. This, along with the fact that I would probably, to paraphrase my friend Ian, "shoot the Pope if Neil Gaiman asked me to," compelled my purchase of this novel. That and it was sitting in the $7.99 bin. I'm a frugal fanatic.

Naturally, with such shining recommendations, I went into this book with high hopes. A devoted Austen reader, the notion of slightly Gothic prose and style didn't deter me in the slightest. I dove in with gusto.

400-some pages later, I found myself wondering when the story would start picking up. Uh oh. Did Neil do me wrong? I began idly skimming pages, trying to get through them faster and faster in the hopes that I would eventually snag a plot thread. Threads there were a-plenty (you simply cannot write an 800-page work of fiction without including some plot), but they just weren't that interesting. I guess Clarke meant this to be a slightly serious historical treatment, because it's chock-full of all the dry detachment that one associates with ponderous volumes like The War of 1812 and Napoleon's Favorite Breakfast Foods During the Second Empire. The parts of the book I ended up liking the most were the footnotes, which given the overall tone of her writing, doesn't surprise me. I felt this was where Clarke really shined...I really didn't give two whits about the fate of Jonathan Strange or Mr. Norrell, but the sheer amount of "historical" research that Clarke piled into her footnotes fascinated me. She fabricated an entire magical literary history, tracing back centuries, of sources and authors who refer to and criticize and extoll each other as accurately as any modern professorial college. I found the footnotes completely charming. I could have done without the rest, except that then the footnotes wouldn't have any notes to foot.

In Clarke's defense, the story did eventually pick up, 100 pages before the end. In an 800-page book, that's fucking depressing. I say wait for the movie adaptation, or read it if you, like me, have an overwhelming fondness for clever footnotes. There can't be many of us out there.

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