Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a book that I’ve been meaning to read for over a decade and a half. I am, of course, talking about Chuck Palahniuk’s 1999 novel “Survivor”. Back when I was about fifteen or so, I ended up reading Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” (after seeing the movie on TV) and found a copy of “Survivor” sometime later in a charity shop, possibly in Fareham.
From the small pencil marks my younger self used to leave in books as a back-up in case my bookmark fell out, I apparently read about 25 pages of it back then but abandoned it for some reason. So, about a decade and a half later, I finally decided to actually finish reading this book.
So, let’s take a look at “Survivor”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins with a drunken man called Tender Branson in the cockpit of a jumbo jet, telling his life story to the flight recorder. It quickly transpires that he is the only person on the plane, having hijacked it some time earlier. It will run out of fuel in a few hours and crash into the Australian outback. Tender knows this and he doesn’t care. The only thing that matters to him is leaving some record of the bizarre and utterly messed-up chain of events that led to him being here….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a hilarious dark comedy and a bleakly cynical satire that is vaguely reminiscent of Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” whilst also very much being it’s own thing too. It is a fascinating remnant of a time when literature was expected to be shocking, irreverent, edgy, intelligent and/or confrontational. Back when, if you saw the “Vintage” logo on a book, you knew it was going to be memorable. Yes, this novel takes a little while to really become compelling and it certainly isn’t for the easily shocked or offended, but it’s one of the funniest and most unique literary novels I’ve read in quite a while.
So, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s comedy elements. In addition to lots of hilariously irreverent dark comedy, this novel contains a rather amusing mixture of character-based humour, cynical comments, absurd situations, sexual humour, parody, farce, irony, contrast, slapstick humour, taboo-based humour etc.. Although this novel will probably only have you actually laughing out loud during a few well-placed moments, it is very clearly written with its tongue firmly in it’s cheek. Seriously, I love how fearlessly irreverent this novel is.
Which brings me on the the novel’s satirical elements. This novel is an unflinchingly harsh satire of fame, psychology, religion, conformism and capitalism. Although some of the satire revolves around popular obsessions of the 1990s (eg: cults, televangelists and pre-social media fame) and I can’t imagine any writer writing the opening scene post-9/11, a lot of the satire is surprisingly timeless.
In addition to scenes that somehow reach forward in time to criticise the “misery memoir” trend of the 2000s or to make prescient comments about how everyone in the future will be thinking the same thing (eg: social media etc…), a lot of the novel’s satire focuses on general topics that will probably never get old – such as the corrupt/pathetic lives of the ultra-rich, government incompetence, the hollowness of fame, how religion can be used to exploit people etc..
And, like any good satire, it respects the reader’s intelligence. At least a few of the novel’s most interesting thematic and satirical elements aren’t explicitly spelled out to the reader (such as the religious significance of Tender Branson’s age) and it is up to you to actually think when reading this book 🙂 So, this is probably a book that has some re-readability and a few layers that you will probably miss upon a first reading.
Plus, although I’d hesitate to call this novel a “thriller”, it certainly contains a few interesting elements from the thriller genre that help to keep things compelling. These mostly consist of mystery and suspense, such as the story’s opening segment, a mysterious killer that is following the main character or some of the novel’s later fast-paced segments.
In terms of the characters, this novel is classic Palahniuk. Tender Branson is a cynical world-weary nihilist, who also has a sociopathic streak about a mile wide (eg: he sets up a fake crisis hotline for his own sadistic amusement, steals fake flowers from cemeteries etc…). But the story adds a bit more depth and nuance to him thanks to his backstory, his many failings, the limits of his education/knowledge about the world and the presence of another character called Fertility who can somehow see into the future. Yet, far from making Fertility rich or happy, these visions of the future just cause trouble, despair and a crushing feeling of ennui – with the only “happiness” to be found in messing around at disaster sites and the fact that Tender is so weird that he is almost unpredictable.
In terms of the writing, it is also classic Palahniuk too 🙂 The novel’s first-person narration is written in a fairly informal, conversational and “matter of fact” way, which not only adds a lot of extra personality to the narrator but – thanks to the “telling his life story” premise – allows for a few interesting literary techniques too. These include fourth-wall breaking asides, the fact that Tender will often give the reader random cleaning tips or Bible verses and the way that the novel’s pages are numbered in reverse to reflect the dwindling time he has left to live. Although these techniques add a bit of extra uniqueness and interest to the novel, they can get in the way of the actual story at times. So, this novel can sometimes be slower-paced than you might expect.
As for length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At an efficient 289 pages, it makes me miss the days when intelligent novels could be short. The novel’s pacing is a bit uneven though – with the beginning and later parts of the novel being utterly gripping, fast-paced and compelling – but the rest of the novel being slower and slightly less compelling. Yes, there are some valid narrative reasons for this (since it reflects the crushing boredom of Tender’s job, the loneliness of his life etc…) but don’t let the “fast-paced” writing style fool you into thinking that this novel will be a high-speed thriller.
As for how this twenty-one year old novel has aged, it wouldn’t be written today. It was written in an age, where thanks to the extra privacy afforded by the lack of social media and the fact that both readers and literary critics wanted to be challenged, writers had more creative freedom than they do today. It was also written about a world that no longer really exists, with different standards, obsessions and expectations to our own. Yet, despite all of this, the novel’s extremely dark comedy and unremittingly cynical and irreverent satire still feel both enjoyably shocking and so very refreshing when read today. In short, this novel is simultaneously timeless and slightly old in the way that a Bill Hicks DVD is.
All in all, there isn’t really anything quite like this novel. It’ll either make you laugh, shudder and think, or it will shock and offend you. Or both. Yes, the pacing is a bit uneven and it probably isn’t quite as good as “Fight Club” but if you want hilariously transgressive dark comedy, grim satire, 1990s edginess, moments that will make you think and/or a story that you won’t forget for a while, then this one is probably worth taking a look at. It has artistic merit and also comes from an age when literary culture was a bit more fearless than it is now 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.