297 pages, Vintage
Review by Pat Black
InvisibleMonsters is a road novel by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, following a former fashion model who’s had her lower jaw blown off, a male-to-female transsexual and a former male vice policeman who is slowly being turned into a woman.
Give me shock.
Give me disgust.
Give me whatever.
It was supposed to be Palahniuk’s first novel, but someone got cold feet, somewhere, and it was put in the freezer until later. There’s a “deluxe edition” coming soon; this is a review of the first take, published in 1999.
Palahniuk criss-crosses America with his unlikely trio as they seek to destroy, remake, and then destroy themselves anew as they seek revenge on the people who unmade them in the first place.
This I-yawn-even-as-I-stab-you delivery of Palahniuk’s is old even before the first chapter ends, but we must remember that it was fresh as a daisy back then. The story is narrated by an unnamed girl, a former model who met with some terrible grief in the shape of a gunshot wound that gives new meaning to the phrase “I’m off to take my face off”. She’s capable only of communicating by notepad.
In the opening pages she introduces us to Brandy, a transsexual who has been on the receiving end of a shotgun blast from a bride named Evie. Evie is burned naked and hairless in the mesh of what remains of her wedding dress, sprinting down a fairytale stairway towards her stunned wedding guests, shotgun in hand.
Even as she bleeds, Brandy the model talks about herself in the third person. “Is this how Brandy Alexander dies?”
There’s something you don’t see every day.
The humour is dry as dust throughout, sometimes a delight, sometimes merely affected. Our main character, her face destroyed, becomes invisible in a society where looks and perfection are sought. The only remarkable thing about her – her appearance – has been perverted, something so ugly that people start to imagine that she isn’t really there: hence the title. Ironically, in order to have a face, she begins to cover her own with scarves and veils.
Palahniuk acts as a tick sheet for a lot of perversions you’ve never heard of or considered before. The first of these is a moment when the narrator – who goes by many names – is paired up with another monster while in hospital, a burns victim, by a seemingly kindly nun acting as a matchmaker for the deformed. You can guess this isn’t going to be popular with the Mills and Boon crowd.
Later, the narrator hooks up with Brandy at her speech therapist’s as the hulking man-woman-beast learns to raise the pitch of her voice. After a series of grifts and rip-offs, they kidnap a man before embarking on a plan to take revenge on Evie, the narrator’s former best friend who stole her boyfriend, triggering her fateful car journey.
Horror is always medicalised in Palahniuk’s work – at first, the three fugitives rip off homes about to be sold, posing as potential buyers. They steal all the drugs they can lay hands on; prescription drugs, perfectly legal. Names that seem to trip off the tongue from American fiction, but seem alien to British eyes, as if they were distant stars or passing comets.
The story is also about metamorphosis, particularly when our narrator attempts to turn Alfa Romeo, the man who accompanies her and Brandy, into a woman through the influence of hormone doses. Alfa Romeo goes by many names, too, my favourite of his monikers being Harper Collins.
Aids is addressed, too; the narrator’s brother died of it, and she reveals how her parents first embrace the idea of their dead gay son, and then retreat from it when they are threatened by bigots. Everywhere, there’s such terrible fear. It seems that the only way out of some situations is to change and become someone else. And this was before 9/11.
The book isn’t all about disgust. Palahniuk aims for the sublime in some places, finding it in one inspired section where the three road trippers head for Seattle, climbing the Space Needle and then writing postcards into eternity, tossing them off the side of the attraction, hoping to float them past the suicide nets. It’s here that the author allows a sense of despair to creep in. It’s odd that this is something missing from a story about someone whose face is destroyed; it seems the most obvious direction to go, not the most obscure.
For a novel which is about fashion models, and the way they seek to alter their bodies into something alien, it never addresses the subject of eating disorders. The narrator has a few poison comments about her nemesis, Evie, being a dress size or two bigger than her, but that’s it. That seems like a sort of open goal for Palahniuk; perhaps he felt that subject blurred his mission statement a bit.
Much like Fight Club, it comes down to who’s who, rather than what’s what – a search for identity. Who do you become, who do you want to be? Hopefully you will still care by the end.
It’s not as good a book as Fight Club, but it is recognisably Palahniuk’s work. This is the third piece of his fiction I’ve read, after Haunted, which might have been the finest collection of horror stories of modern times were it not for an atrociously weak framing device.
Invisible Monsters is not without terrible weaknesses, but there’s no faulting the style. You just wish Palahniuk would come right out and say it, sometimes. Whatever it is he’s trying to say.
Give me indifference.
Give me ennui.
For god’s sake give me passion, Chuck.