The Palahniuk Effect

by | August 15, 2013 | General | 4 comments

I’m going to introduce you to the most viscerally powerful short story I’ve
ever read. Flat out. But – first I need you do a couple of things.

For your own safety, I mean.

From this moment on you should be sitting in an easy chair or maybe laying down
is even better. Padding. So you won’t hurt yourself.

A glass of water nearby. Maybe a small waste can and a roll of paper towels
would also be prudent. Last, if possible, a spouse or a reliable friend who doesn’t panic easily. Do not have someone read it to you aloud while driving a
car or operating heavy machinery.

We will assume you have done these things and proceed.  Attend.

The last person recorded to have fainted during a public reading of
“Guts” was on May 28, 2007 at the public library of Victoria, British
Columbia in Canada. Strictly speaking he didn’t faint as a result of the story
but as a consequence of running for the exit, fainting in mid stride and
hitting his head on the way to the floor. He was one of five who dropped during
that reading. In Milan Italy a professional actor read the translation aloud in
excellent Italian and entire rows went down as though they’d been machine
gunned. Thus far a total of 73 people have officially fainted during public
readings of “Guts” at least until people stopped counting. That’s
what stories can do for you folks.

Damn I wish I’d written it.

Stop reading this, I’m talking to you there, go to the link I’m going to give
you and read “Guts”. It only takes a few minutes, its not a long
story at all. In fact here’s how it begins.

Take in as much air as you can.
This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just
a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.”
            From “Guts” Chuck Palahniuk

Here is the link to “Guts” a short story by my literary hero Chuck
Palahniuk. You can read it for free. Off you go, now. Come back after you pull
yourself together.

From this moment on the blog will be divided into two camps. The readers with
“Guts’, and the “Guts” virgins.

The readers are those who obediently went to the link and followed through and
survived more or less intact. The virgins are those who did not take it
seriously and didn’t check it out at all or those who did and found
themselves unable to finish it. I fall into both camps. The first time I read
it I couldn’t finish it. I thought I was tough. I was not. I went back and
finished it the second time, both times cringing in my seat, chewing my thumb
and laughing my ass off insanely at the funny parts.

Now you Guts virgins – go back and read it. Please.  Go on. Get outta here. You’re
missing a thing of hideous beauty. Come back when you know something. You will
note that I have not told you anything about the story premise or what it’s
about. Nor will I. But I would like to talk about the “Palahniuk Effect”,
how the great man does what he does so well.

The genre Palahniuk writes in and maybe some of us also write in without
knowing it had a name, is “transgressive fiction”, written in a Minimalist style. This is a kissing cousin of
pulp fiction which walks a fine line on what is forbidden in commercial fiction
and often cheerfully vaults over it. This would include stories that are
potentially offensive either on a moral level such as “Lolita”, which on its
surface after all is a sexual affair between a man and a twelve year old girl he nightly rapes, or
a publishable level such as “Guts” (The first time it was submitted to Playboy
magazine it was refused as “too disturbing”. When the editor attended a reading
at Union Square Library in New York during which a man was carted off in an
ambulance, he reconsidered his position. It appeared in Playboy in 2004). Transgressive
Fiction can also include gay erotica, BDSM stories, flagellation and so on. It
concerns characters who feel confined by the moral conventions of society and
in the course of the story break out by doing luridly illicit or in the case of
“Guts”, incredibly dumb things.

“Guts” is told from the first person POV in a very specific way.
Palahniuk has several essays on writing which have lately gotten attention in the ERWA writers forum.. He has a lot to say about the crafting of
“Guts”. Any story opens with a particular problem for the writer,
which is the early establishing of authority with the reader. This is connected
with the “suspension of disbelief ”. The reader has to trust where you’re
leading them, no matter how weird or revolting it is, and be willing to give your characters
the benefit of the doubt. This is especially true in the case of the first
person point of view, with all of its intimacy offered to the reader right up
front in the voice of the narrator. Palahniuk explains that this can be done by
either heart or head.

To establish authority by heart means to speak of yourself in a way that speaks
straight to the reader, without putting on airs. You might do this by revealing
early on something that doesn’t make you look all that good. Something which is
more of the honest fool then the hero. You have to establish this as quickly as
possible, in the first few sentences.

For instance this is how Mark Twain starts off Huckleberry Finn:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr.
Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

The reader likes Huckberry’s voice. He sounds like a straight forward kid.

Or this, from the opening of Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”:

“She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of
school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in

He sounds like a dubious character, but someone worth knowing. You wonder what
the deal is with his mother too.

By showing your warts early on you are
being vulnerable, holding out your hand to a certain trust and intimacy with
the reader. You don’t have to be a good person or even a very nice person. Just
somebody worth knowing.

The other way is “establishing authority” with the head. This is in fact the
way Palahniuk starts out “Guts”. Now that I think of it, this is also the way
in which I have introduced this blog entry. This is usually done by listing a
series of details, either technical or emotional details that show the reader
your narrator has been where he/she describes and knows what they’re talking
about from experience and knowledge.  
This is generally easier to do than the heart method, especially if you
are using a dislikeable narrator. 
Palahniuk admits most of his stories begin with the head method, in part
because he almost always uses first person present narration and most of his
first person narrators are dislikeable people. 
For example, this is the opening paragraph of his novel “Snuff” in which
a former porn star eventually commits suicide by way of exhaustive marathon

“ . . . One dude stood all afternoon at the buffet wearing
just his boxers, licking the orange dust off barbecued  potato chips. 
Next to him, a dude was scooping into the onion dip and licking the dip
off the chip.  The same soggy chip, scoop
after scoop.  Dudes have a million ways
of peeing on what they claim as their own.”

          “Snuff”  Chuck Palahniuk

There are two things in that paragraph that are standard for
Palahniuk.  The story is begun with the
head method in what will eventually be a dislikeable but intriguing narrator
(the maybe-maybe not son of the aforesaid porn star who is there in line with the other dudes to meet her for the first time) and he “buries the I”.  You don’t see the word “I” appear in the paragraph
at all.  One of his rules which is
certainly true is that when writing in first person present, which is a
standard for erotica and other forms of transgressive fiction, don’t let the
narrator babble on endlessly about him/her self and their precious feelings.  The reader will feel like she’s on a bad
date.  Like any narrator he should direct
attention towards the story and minimally to himself only when it regards his
action in the story.  You will also find
this is true of “Guts” which is first person present but you hear very little
reference from the narrator to himself until the final scene of the story.

Now as Lynne Connally pointed out in the writer’s forum you have to take this advice a little critically.  Romance readers want the feelings and thoughts gushed out as copiously and as purplely as possible.   More literary style erotic fiction tends to be the emotionally distant style Palahniuk is advising.  Take it for what it’s worth.

The next is the establishment of pattern and motif.
“Guts” is in some ways a long detailed list. It is a story in three
acts, giving the details of three scenes or events of increasing . . . effect .
“Guts” is also based on true stories. Palahniuk swears it. So it must
be true.  I guess.  Palahniuk explains in the back story
commentary that he acquired these stories over time while researching his novel
“Choke”. He could have assembled them in any pattern, but arranged them in an
ascending order. The motif of the story is actually based on the theme of
holding the breath which begins the story. Holding the breath is a metaphor for
things that exist between family members that are too awful or ridiculous to
talk about, and waiting in suspense for those things to be revealed. This is
the recurring pattern that keeps resounding after each event is described.
Let’s talk about that description.

He has established trust, if not sympathy, between the narrator and the reader.
The events unfold. The sensory description, which is also a critical element to
erotica writing, is based on the minimal depiction of a single ultra-realistic
detail. The kind of detail only the narrator would know. That carefully chosen
detail is a note that brings the side elements into the light. Palahniuk
advises “When a normal person has a headache, they take aspirin. When a writer
has a headache, he takes notes.” You try to find a way of conveying the
experience of a headache, not just the bland statement that a headache exists.
You don’t say the beer was delicious. You describe the beer as malty and bitter
and cold. The reader decides if that’s delicious or not, not you. If you are
describing a desperate man crossing an unlit railroad yard in the dead of
night, a man who is compulsively afraid of the dark – and I have written that
story – you don’t say “It was dark.” Hell. We know that. Instead you describe
the man dropping to the ground in a fit. Digging his fingernails in the dirt,
until they hurt. Biting the dirt with his teeth and weeping shamefully.
Describe how it feels to suffocate with brainless panic and then seeing just in
front of his eyes the moonlight glinting off a single piece of broken bottle



Specifically from a bottle.

One piece.

That makes it feel dark, and feel is what you want. Palahniuk says the line
that seemed to send most of the fainters spiraling to the floor is the one with
the words “corn and peanuts”. That’s a very specific detail known only to the
narrator until he reveals it in a way that brings the scene home and viscerally nails it.

Now, if the image of corn and peanuts isn’t turning you green at this moment,
and maybe for the rest of your life, it’s because you’re a Guts-Virgin.

Come over here, little virgin.

Come over here. Gonna tighten’ up your wig for you.

Come sit close to me, baby. No. More close. Touching close.

Trust me.

Now. What we’re gonna do. It’s all up to you. Won’t make you do nuthin’ you
don’t want. Good?

Let’s see that little mouse you got, sweetie.

Oh. Oh isn’t that beautiful. Your mama gave you the sweetest beautiful mouse.
Look what you’ve been hiding from me all this time.

How is that mouse . . . There. Isn’t that nice? You like that?

Put your finger there on the left button. Just keep it there like that ‘till I

That’s the way. Feel nice? You like that? You bet you like it. Bet your mouse
like that. Bet your mama like that.

See that down there? No, lower down. See that?

Well, that’s my URL. Ever seen one of those before? Yeah? You’re not so
innocent like you look.

What you’re gonna do for me is put your little pointer there, baby, right there
and give my URL a nice little squeeze. That’s how it’s done. Move it right down
there. Do it just for me. Then I’ll know you love me good, sugar.

You’re going good. Oh that’s sweet how you do that. Oh that’s so good. I can
watch you move your mouse all night long. You’re going so good at this already
and you think you like it now, sweetie, you gonna love it later.

Don’t stop here. Down there’s where all the action is. Put your little pointer
right down there. Oh, that’s the way. Hold it there.



C. Sanchez-Garcia



  1. Miz Angell

    Brilliant post. Guts virgin here – but I clicked on the first link. I'm all for new experiences. Just glad I haven't had breakfast yet.

    In fact, I might not eat for a while….

  2. Fiona McGier

    I was a Palahniuk virgin until now. Now I see no reason to ever read anything else by him. Thanks for an enlightening look into a writer I don't need to wonder about anymore. My sons really like "Fight Club", the movie. I've never been able to understand why men enjoy beating each other to a pulp…or watching it. Now I know more than I ever wanted to about some weird things men will do to themselves to enhance an orgasm. I'm not disturbed, just sorry for them.

  3. Lisabet Sarai

    Hey, Garce,

    I remember when you posted about "Guts" at Oh Get a Grip. I read the story then. I must admit I have no interest in reading it again (though I did buy and read Palahniuk's PYGMY and found it bizarre but worthwhile).

    I wonder if the universe of authors divides into those who write with their heads and those who just wing it. I rarely approach my writing from this sort of analytical perspective. Really, the only time I'll drop into the head mode is when I have an emotional sense that something isn't working. Then I have to stop and figure out why. Most of the time, though, I just write it as it comes.

    Maybe that's my problem? But maybe there are different ways to do the deed, also.

  4. Remittance Girl

    I wouldn't call myself a Palahniuk whore, but I've had my share of him. I'd read Guts before and Snuff also. I've had a try at a few of his other novels, and didn't make it through them. And I just came across a rather good essay he wrote on how to write with more proximity by getting rid of the verb to think and all its variations

    Your summary of the two ways of establishing trust with a reader are excellent and I recognize in both of them something I do in my own writing but have never had a rationale for why.

    Although I like some of Palahniuk's writing, I can have a too much of him. I find his writing is often *so* emotionally disengaged that it feels artificial, purposely inhuman. I'm not sure it always has the effect he wants, because I often feel so ambivalent about his characters that I can't be bothered to finish the book.

    In Guts, I think we have a really good example. I've never been particularly interested in shock fiction. And because of the total emotional detachment in the narration, I simply don't care about any of these boys. Had I seen a glimpse of any of their dreams, nightmares, desires, loves or hates (all the things Chuck tells us to leave out) I might have cared what happened to them. But I didn't, so they are very unreal, fictional characters on a page to me, no matter how much he assures us each story is based on a real event. In fact, they are not real events or real people, because those include feelings, and he left them out. They become post-modern literary caricatures.

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