Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk, a book review

Chuck Palahniuk - Invisible Monsters

The last book I read by [[Chuck Palahniuk]] was Survivor. I recently finished re-reading Invisible Monsters, which is an altogether different beast, more of a frenzied, drug-addled romp than Survivor‘s cult-member suicide.

Invisible Monsters follows the exploits of our jawless anti-hero, Shannon McFarland. Shannon is a former model whose jaw has been shot off, and Palahniuk doesn’t hold back on the gory descriptions of her condition. She’s joined/dragged on her journey by pre-op transexual Brandy Alexander and her cheating, of-dubious-sexuality boyfriend Manus.

In true Palahniuk style, the novel bounces all around the place – to before Shannon’s accident, her home life and issues about being overshadowed by her brother, to the hospital after the accident and the changes in the way people treat her, to her meeting and going on an extended road trip with Brandy Alexander. The story bounces around these parts of Shannon’s life, and each time she revisits these scenes from her past, more detail is added. Until, inevitably, everything becomes clear.

Along the way, we’re treated to a deconstruction of personal identity. Both physical and otherwise. Brandy Alexander, a person with a penchant for re-invention, suggests that we are only the story we choose to tell. Change the details and you can quickly become someone else. And that’s what they do – led by Brandy across several states as they steal drugs while viewing the houses of rich people. They reinvent themselves with each visit, taking on a series of ridiculous names.

There’s an enviable freedom in this easy reinvention – which reminds me of Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man a little. I like the notion that it’s only possible to have a different life if you substantially alter your core being. Play a different part. OK, Brandy Alexander’s gang of gender-confused drug thieves don’t take it quite as far as Rhinehart’s character does, but the idea is very liberating, no?

Chuck also plays a blinder by reversing the ‘wanting to be beautiful’ stereotype. Shannon, the one character in the book who was born acceptably ‘beautiful’, is tired of being objectified, of never finishing her degree. Wants people to perceive her in a different way. So, the punchline is, she shoots off her own jaw, irreversibly altering her face forever.

Perhaps that’s why she did things in reverse – while the other characters are undergoing their gender reassignment surgery, changing from men to beautiful but big-boned women, Shannon travels in the opposite direction. I was pleased that she found a kind of redemption in the end, giving up her very identity to exist as a ghost and finding freedom in the things she could do without all her past baggage.

On the face of it, Monsters is a grotesque tale, Palahniuk holding up a twisted mirror to modern life as always. It’s tempting to be shocked and disgusted at first with the over-detailed descriptions of all the reconstructive surgery, but there’s always a morality play at the end of any Palahniuk novel. It’s unfortunate that sometimes the author bombards you with different concepts – sometimes that overwhelming onslaught can exhaust you and obscure his message slightly. But you always walk away with something to think about.

I’m moving on to Lullaby next as part of my Chuckfest.

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