For the Conservation Curious

Just another weblog

Looking into Novels as Windows into Society February 2, 2012

I dedicate this blog to Mark C., who is constantly pestering me to write more often.  I am willing to take cash bribes to do so, Mark! Just kidding… well…

Anyway, I want to write about a few books I have read over the last couple months, all by the same author – Chuck Palanhiuk.  He is most well known for his book, Fight Club, which was turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton.  I haven’t read that one yet but once I started with one of his books, I couldn’t put them down.  While they are not intended to be environmental or conservation-related books, there are aspects of that in them, and that’s what I want to focus on in this blog post, along with some other general impressions.

The book that resonates the most with me from an environmental perspective is Lullaby, a book about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and witchcraft.  Yes, that seems like an unlikely pairing!  Palanhuik likes to be tongue in cheek with his social commentary.  His books point out the hypocrite in all of us and the potential dysfunctional nature of humankind.  In Lullaby there are two hippie-type characters who constantly point out the invasive plant species taking over the landscapes through which they travel.  They talk about the over-consumption of ever-dwindling goods, especially by Americans.  They are disgusted by the factory farming and eating of meat.  They weep for the Native Americans and how they have been marginalized.

At first I was a bit insulted by Palanhuik’s portrayal of these two characters.  The woman had long ratty dreadlocks, the man liked to be in the nude.  It was a stereotypical portrayal of the granola-eating, tree hugging people that first come to mind when you think of environmentalists.  As a non-hippie environmentalist, I certainly take exception to his descriptions.  But the generalizations aside, these were characters that cared about the planet.  Sure, they might have taken some of their beliefs to the extreme, and were very judgmental about anyone that didn’t hold their views, but they meant well.  The fact that Palanhiuk mentions invasive species in a novel was enough to make me pay attention and get excited.  After all, how many people even know what an invasive species is?

 Lullaby isn’t the only one of his novels that mentions invasive species.  I seem to recall them coming up in two other ones.  But it’s not just the invasive species shout-outs that make me like Palahniuk’s stories.  In Invisible Monsters, a novel about a woman disfigured in a car accident, the vanity and narcissistic nature of our society is put on display.  Palahniuk presents plastic surgery and the quest for ever-lasting youth and beauty in front of our face so we can’t look away. 

Rant covers the spread of disease (in this case, rabies) through a population and the role the media plays in hyping someone up, even if they deserve to be vilified, rather than admired.  From HIV to ebola to Hep. C, Palahniuk runs down the viral messes we have made, both accidentally and intentionally. 

In Pygmy, a story about terrorism against the American way, looked at from the point of view of the terrorist, we see how our culture looks from the eyes of a foreigner.  Wow!  Things I think of from time to time, like the obesity epidemic, mass consumption of cheap junk, watching too much of the boob tube, etc. are dragged out into the light.  The book left me feeling guilty about where I live – at first – but somehow Palahniuk turns what could be a sad tale into a funny, heartwarming love story – at the very end. 

This reads like a commercial for his books, I see, but heck, I got them all out from the library, so you can too.  J  I would be curious to know your thoughts about his novels – does he have especially deep insight into human culture?  Does he see hope in humanity or a downward spiral into oblivion?  Can we learn from authors like Palahniuk and improve society before it’s too late?  Or are we fine as-is?  Those are good questions.

I’ll leave you with a few choice quotes from Palahniuk and his books.  If you want to read more of them, check out:  After reading them you might say to yourself, man, is he jaded or what?!

  • Maybe humans are just the pet alligators that God flushed down the toilet.
  • People don’t want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. Their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.
  • Maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.

P.S. A warning – his novels can be graphic at times.  They are PG-13, sometimes R, so if you are easily offended, they might not be for you.


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