I have a love/hate relationship with Chuck Palahniuk. I love him because he can somehow get away with writing the most offensive, politically incorrect, disgusting fiction ever. I hate him because I don’t feel smart enough to read his work. Somehow, I always have the feeling that he’s laughing at me while I struggle to understand what the heck is going on. I don’t always get the point of his stories. Many of them just seem offensive for the sake of being offensive. This totally messes with my over-analytical mind. I want to find meaning in these stories, but maybe there isn’t any.
If you’re new to Chuck Palahniuk’s work, Make Something Up is a great place to start. These 21 stories run the spectrum from clever and funny to completely unreadable. You’ll get a good sense of the variety of work the author produces.
For me, these are the standouts in the collection:
In “Zombies,” stressed-out high school students intentionally give themselves brain damage because they can’t live up to society’s expectations. The end of the story is unexpectedly sweet and sappy. It caught me off-guard in the best way. This is the only story that made me laugh out loud.
“In Miss Chen's English class, we learned, 'To be or not to be . . .' but there's a big gray area in between. Maybe in Shakespeare times people only had two options. Griffin Wilson, he knew that the SATs were just the gateway to a big lifetime of bullshit. To get married and college. To paying taxes and trying to raise a kid who's not a school shooter. And Griffin Wilson knew drugs are only a patch. After drugs, you're always going to need more drugs.” – Make Something Up
“Red Sultan’s Big Boy” is the story of a father who buys his psychopathic daughter a new horse. (After she poisons the old one.) Unfortunately, the new horse has some unexpected and disgusting talents. The suspense in this story kept me reading. I wanted to find out what nasty thing this horse can do. Since this is a Chuck Palahniuk story, I knew it would be really nasty.
“Listening, it occurred to Randall that the love people feel for animals is the purest form of love. Loving an animal, a horse, cat, or dog, was always a romantic tragedy. It meant loving something that would die before you. Like that movie with Ali McGraw. There was no future, just the affection of the present moment.” – Make Something Up
“Romance” stars an “average” man who meets an interesting woman and falls in love. He doesn’t mind that the woman is possibly “retarded.” They’re very happy together. This story has some twists I didn’t see coming.
“And when they're old enough I'm going to tell my little girls that everybody looks a little crazy if you're looking close enough, and if you can't look that close, then you don't really love them. All the while life goes around. And if you keep waiting for somebody perfect you'll never find love, because it's how much you love them is what makes them perfect.” – Make Something Up
In “Cold Calling,” a teenage telemarketer is verbally abused by people who think he’s from India. This story shows the way racism spreads.
In “Fetch,” a haunted tennis ball helps a young boy change a widow’s life. I love magical realism, and this story is magical realism done right. It’s quirky and unexpected.
The novella, “Inclinations,” tells the story of a group of straight boys who con their way into a “Fag Farm,” a place where gay teens are turned straight. When the boys are forced to dissect the dead bodies of their ex-girlfriends, they plot their escape. This isn’t my favorite story in the collection, but the characters are memorable. The author does a great job of capturing the selfishness (and selflessness) of teenagers.
“To him the protesters at the front gate were the equivalent of the protesters outside abortion clinics. The Rock Hudsons tried to stop people coming here the same way do-gooders tried to block people going to murder their unborn kids. The irony was in how those same rescued babies got adopted by Rock Hudsons.” – Make Something Up
Finally, in “How a Jew Saved Christmas,” a department store worker uses everything she learned from watching CSI to uncover the identity of her Secret Santa. The main characters are over-the-top ridiculous. This is another story with a (somewhat) sweet ending.
Even though this book is a mixed bag of stories, I do like the questions they raise. They highlight the weirdness of modern life. The characters are often forced to choose between what they want and what the outside world wants for them. How much should a person give in to society’s pressure? If you’re happy, does it matter what the rest of the world thinks?
Like Chuck Palahniuk’s other books, this one will try very hard to offend you, but if you don’t mind some gag-inducing moments, the themes are thought-provoking.