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Diary of a Madwoman

Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday, 2003
Rating: 3.4

Posted: November 17, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

There's no denying that Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) has struck a resounding chord with a very specific (and somewhat incongruous) sub-segment of society: call them the disaffected hipsters. These devout legions wear the right Rockports and hoodies, sport the correct number of tattoos and facial piercings, but they feel ...disenfranchised. Palahniuk's terse, brutal prose -- duded up in tight wife-beaters to show off rock-hard abs from a low-adjective diet -- is perfect for this (admittedly generalized) demographic. Like punk rockers who embrace the genre's rejection of conformity by adhering to a rigid musical formula, like anarchy-espousing "outsiders" whose fetishes for self-mutilation both dare and beg other people to notice them, Palahniuk's fiction wants to have it both ways. It rattles off arcane trivia with a shrug, passive-aggressively hoping you'll be impressed by its author's research; too affectedly cool to ever acknowledge that it wants to be liked.

All of which is forgivable, if done in moderation, or to such positive effect that the excess posturing is rendered irrelevant. With Diary, however, Palahniuk's trademark attitudinal overload is indeed irrelevant -- but not in the way that counts. Whereas his last novel, Lullaby, was guilty of some excessive force, an intriguing premise and compelling (if not exactly sympathetic) characters atoned for its self-conscious attention to style. Diary takes the opposite tack: In its every affectation, it drowns its central plot and themes beneath torrents of calculated shock and measured nonchalance.

Diary centers around Misty Marie Wilmot, an aspiring painter whose art-school training is of little practical use in her current circumstances. Misty is stranded on Waytansea Island, a summer resort destination, and forced to wait tables at the local hotel to support herself and her young daughter; her husband, Peter, lays in a coma, the result of a botched suicide attempt. Diary takes the form of Misty's diary to Peter, and she often rails against her sad-sack husband for sticking her in this sad situation. It also depicts her examinations of houses Peter has remodeled, detailing the rambling, jagged rants he's scrawled across the walls and furniture of rooms he's sealed off from the rest of these houses, in a peculiar act of vandalism/sabotage/protest.

But what Diary is mainly concerned with is Misty's gradual and unsettling evolution into a brilliant painter. Turns out she's been depicting, in astounding detail, pieces of Waytansea since she was a child -- long before she'd ever heard of or set foot on the island. As she begins drawing, and then painting, in technically flawless detail, the other islanders begin acting strangely, and Misty feels herself at the center of a vast conspiracy -- one hinted at in the messages that two previous prodigal painters, now long dead, seem to have left specifically for her, jotted into library books and scratched into odd spaces. Eventually, she's hobbled with a large plaster cast around one of her legs, kept virtual prisoner in an attic hotel room, painting on a succession of canvases she can't even see, having been blindfolded by her eager, domineering mother-in-law. By the time she's fully pieced together the lethal purpose behind her creative captivity, she's been all but discarded -- a pawn in a bizarre and deadly game whose rules were written long before she was born.

That Misty's treatment is a metaphor for, among other things, the way in which artists are often treated as chattel by a demanding public isn't a difficult deduction. What's harder to figure out is why Palahniuk goes out of his way to get in his own way. Like many of his characters, Misty's far from a sympathetic figure -- she comes across as too easily accepting of the odd events that engulf her. And her "coma diary" to her husband unfolds in a jumble of stylistic affectations -- abrupt switches in tense; sudden and gruesome shock-value moments; vitriolic, passive-aggressive barbs that belie Misty's quiescent supplication to her fate -- that score direct hits of immediacy but do little over the long term to connect us to the drama, the horror, of what's going on.

Emphasis on the word horror: As with Lullaby, there's a quasi-conventional, supernatural thriller lurking with Diary's defiant pages, but Palahniuk barely touches on the deep, compelling and disturbing questions his conspiracy raises. This ignoring of the white elephant in the room -- How does all this happen again and again? Is it an ancient curse? -- fatally prohibits suspension of disbelief, to say nothing of the richer thematic and dramatic possibilities Waytansea's fantastic situation presents. In the end, the bit of smug wordplay implicit in the island's name is for naught: Our waiting and seeing isn't fully rewarded.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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