Chuck Palahniuk is a slight man with well defined biceps. He talks in a precise measured fashion as he explains how two people fainted at the previous night's reading. The author is very softly spoken – something that must surprise many considering he is still best known for writing Fight Club, a book published 11 years ago.
"One person collapsed in a very dramatic way against a door," said Palahniuk, who has been touring Canada and the US to promote his 10th novel, Rant. "He bit the inside of his lip. It turned out he was a high school teacher and he had his students there. They all came up to me and said they were going to give him a bad time about it. He was cared for by a paramedic, who just happened to be there. He made a huge thud because he fell against a door. A young woman also fainted but in a much less dramatic way, so no one noticed."
Few authors require medical staff at their readings but they are quite common when Palahniuk reads a short story called Guts which recounts several unusual and dangerous methods of masturbation. The author from Portland, Oregon, has a routine to get his readings back on track when it all gets too much for someone in the audience.
"I stop to make sure they are OK and I tell a couple of jokes about historical accounts of people fainting at Charles Dickens' readings, and then I get the permission of the person who has fainted to continue," he said. "The audience feels the relief of knowing that that person is OK."
Elaborating on his public reading style, Palahniuk says: "I present myself mundanely and start off in a funny way so I get people to stay with me as the story escalates to places that they would never ever go. As people laugh, I heighten the tension with more confronting material. It's a very tantric thing. Creating tension and lessening tension, and then building to even greater tension."
In typical Palahniuk fashion, Rant challenges the reader. It is written in the style of an oral history as characters remember the short life of Rant Casey. Rabies, crashing cars for kicks, time travel and a divided dystopian society of haves that work by day and have-nots who work by night are among the themes explored by the novel.
With America being the automotive-dominated society it is, the car crashing for fun element, known as party crashing, has attracted much media attention. It seems like a pastime that could easily exist and, according to Palahniuk, it does.
"They do it for real," he said. "I've done it four times with members of the Cacophony Society - two times in Portland and twice in San Francisco. The Cacophony Society is an organization that creates liminal events. These are events where people leave their social identity and social status, and they join with others in a general feeling of affection, which anthropologist Victor Turner, called 'communitas.'
"They experiment with different social structures for a short period of time. On the surface, it is a very fun shared experience that allows people to be together in a light-hearted social structure, but in a deeper sense they are a laboratory that benefits new societies. People, in the act of having fun, are more likely to invent a different way that serves them better. The car crashing is really the excuse, the event is more about people sharing time together."
Rabies is probably a stronger theme in Rant than party crashing. A disease that has slipped down the pecking order of infamy in recent decades, the author grasps key elements of the deadly ailment that make it so fearsome.
"At one level, I love the fact that everything is so fantastically contagious with rabies. You just need a sneeze to infect other people," he explained. "It includes that horrible period where you are infected and you are contagious but you don't generate the symptoms. You don't manifest the symptoms until it is fatal, so in a way it is a really effective way to write about AIDS. AIDS has that long incubation period where it is so fully communicable.
"We have been socialized to expect a different pandemic every winter - bird flu, SARS, or a different virus. A very paranoid part of me thinks we are being groomed for a social controlled quarantining for removing people from the population because they might be exposed to some nebulous pandemic. I am thinking of a gulag based on community health rather than anything overtly political."
Palahniuk also relates the outbreak of a rabies epidemic in Rant to the ever-popular zombie phenomenon.
"People have loved the reinvention of the zombie," he said. "They are something that isn't human anymore but has the appearance of a human. Something that is more animal than human being. Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher, said we adore the zombie because it is so unresolved – it is not alive and it is not dead, and it's not an animal. In a way, Rant Casey represents the merging of the human and the animal. A human being who has slipped too far into that animal identity, so therefore must be destroyed."
Listening to Palahniuk explain his latest work of fiction with such detail and thought, it is hard to believe that he spent several years working as a mechanic for truck manufacturer Freightliner.
A key reason in the emergence of Palahniuk as a powerful force in American fiction has been his attendance at a writers' workshop in Portland since 1991. The workshop helped Palahniuk embrace a distinctive minimalism writing style.
"The main aspect of minimalism is that you stay with a set number of themes (called horses in minimalism) and you just illustrate those themes over and over and over again in as many different ways as possible. You can't use abstracts and just say 'it was 80 degrees outside.' Any prejudicial judgment must take place in the reader's mind. Any emotion must occur in the reader rather than on the page. You must also have a visceral component to the story – which is called going on the body. That's why all my stories tend to involve sex, or violence, or drugs, or illness, or accidents because they are strong visceral events that generate a sympathetic engagement from the reader."
The workshop members have to read their work aloud to the group and Palahniuk, who admires the work of Brett Easton Ellis, still infamous for his bloody 1991 novel American Psycho, and Joan Didion among others, lists this as an important tool as it allows him to hear instant audience reaction – both good and bad – to a particular chapter or passage.
Another Palahniuk trait is the way his main characters deliver countless short, sharp but intriguing facts through out his books.
"The facts serve a bunch of really useful purposes in the narrative," he said. "The facts are different demonstrations of the main theme. All of them are true, I gather them as I travel and meet people. I request information and they provide me with anecdotes from their lives.
"By presenting these facts in the narrative, I can develop these themes and illustrate them in different ways. Facts establish authority and prove to the reader that the story is being told by someone who knows what they are talking about and is worth listening to. Facts also imply a state of mind for the narrator when in minimalism you can't overtly state their mood or emotional state. They also pace out the action so dialogue is delivered with a better sense of timing. They also imply the passage of time because in minimalist writing you can't just say 'five minutes later' or 'an hour later.' You have to give the reader something that shows that time is continuing to pass."
To sustain his literary appetite during the long book tour, the author has read three varied pieces of non-fiction.
"I've been reading Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language – it's a book about how words become forbidden over time," he said. "I also read a horror anthology and a biography of Marilyn Monroe. Forbidden words are constantly changing depending on what is suppressed in each culture. People code their forbidden words and code their prejudice. Cockney rhyming slang is incredibly interesting for coding racist stuff. I love inclusive or exclusive language because jargon about any field or vocation is really fascinating. It gives you a sense of belonging once you know it, but it excludes other people.
"I like to reinvent the language around sex because writing a sex scene is boring and mundane, or boring and graphic. But if you reinvent the language of it, you can reinvent the act itself. Every man has a different name for their penis."