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Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

By Alexandra | Books | November 11, 2009 |

By Alexandra | Books | November 11, 2009 |

When you understand … that what you’re telling is just a story. It isn’t happening anymore. When you realize that story you’re telling is just words, when you can just crumble it up and throw your past in the trashcan … then we’ll figure out who you’re going to be.

About 15 pages into Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, I almost put it down. Normally I’m not into books that rely heavily on flashbacks, and in this case the entire novel is a non-chronological flashback: the beginning is the end, and vice-versa, with the meat of the novel jumping amongst story lines from paragraph to paragraph. I kept slugging along though, and I’m glad I did, because this book ended up twisting my head into circles. This little novel managed to explore notions of God and parenting, sexuality and gender, the ephemeral nature of beauty, and the thin line between love and hate, all while meandering through past and present, and as told from the viewpoint of a mute “accident” victim.

It almost sets up like a lame one-liner: a mutilated former model, a pre-op tranny, and an ex-vice cop pile into a Lincoln Town Car … but nothing is as it seems. The relationships among the main characters are revealed gradually, and they are convoluted and surprising. I feel like a plot summary beyond this would would contain too many spoilers, and I don’t want to ruin the experience of trying to figure out what the hell is going on. The plot, though, is almost secondary; in fact, it’s more of a vehicle for the ideas about life, and letting go of desires, and purposefully making mistakes to become more human. One of the characters, says as much:

I’m only doing this because it’s just the biggest mistake I can think to make. It’s stupid and destructive, and anybody you ask will tell you I’m wrong. That’s why I have to go through with it … Don’t you see? Because we’re so trained to do life the right way. To not make mistakes … I figure the bigger the mistake looks, the better chance I’ll have to break out and live a real life.

Not telling you which of the characters says this is deliberate, because the feeling behind the quote seems to be universal in the novel. Screwing up and going against the mold is the only way to be alive, to not just exist but live, and grow, and change.

God comes up a lot in the novel. Over and over, the protagonist apologizes. “Sorry, Mom. Sorry God.” We ourselves are compared to God when we watch television, and in the same vein, if we are, in fact, imbued with free will, isn’t that what God does? Watch us on television for entertainment? “Somewhere in heaven, you’re live on a video Web site for God to surf,” intones the narrator with a heavy dose of irony. At one point, our parents are compared to God, and we become Satan when we decide that it’s time to run our own lives.

Sexuality and gender are huge themes to contend with. Parents who only support Gay Rights after their son has died of AIDS, men who want to become women, men with ambiguous sexuality, women who used to be men, women who love men who love men … it’s pretty much all there, but it’s hard to go into too much detail without spoilers.

Beauty, gained and lost, is also explored. Our narrator, a former model, keeps stumbling upon images of her former self, before her horrific mutilation. In contrast, her transsexual companion goes through many voluntary rounds of expensive self-mutilation in order to become beautiful. Neither is happy before or after the changes.

I feel like I’m just meandering around, and not really making the points that I want to make about this novel, because I can’t reveal the events that make the novel truly worth reading, but I also want to include some of the insightful little quotable quotes that I enjoyed:

“The one you love and the one who loves you are never, ever the same person.”

“When did the future switch from being a promise to a threat?”

“I’m an invisible monster, and I’m incapable of loving anybody. You don’t know which is worse.”

I truly enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed it for reasons that went beyond the story. I enjoyed the telling of the story, and the characters who were real to me, and the very real emotions that run beneath the text. For anyone who has ever tried to shield themselves from pain with snark and humor, this book will ring true.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. To read more of Alexandra’s reviews, please check out her blog, Behind the Redwood Curtain.

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