Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk, a book review

Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

Sometimes when you review a book, you really just want to say whether you liked it or not.

But books by [[Chuck Palahniuk]] are a rare exception. I’ve read Fight Club, Invisible Monsters and Survivor. His books are a freefall of ideas that cause you to re-evaluate everything in your life and leave your brain throbing restlessly inside your skull. Reviewers constantly refer to this as ‘millennial angst’. What this means is that Palahniuk’s prose causes you to look at the world and see all the vapidity and commercialism. Suddenly it seems the most abhorent thing ever, and you just want to jump in a shower and wash it all off.

The Plot

Since I’m starting to gush a little, let me tell you about the book. It’s narrated by the protagonist, one Tender Branson. Branson is a survivor of a Creedish community, which sends their children (with the exception of the first born) out into the world as labour missionaries to work for other people.

We’re introduced to Tender Branson right at the start of the book: he has just hijacked a plane which he plans to fly until the fuel runs out, the engines flame out and the plane crashes into the Australian outback. He uses the remaining time to tell his story to the flight recorder, which will allow him to set the record straight and tell his side of the story.

Whilst Tender is working in the city, something happens in the Creedish community and the church elders kill themselves. This act is known as The Deliverance, and as word trickles out to the outside world, the Creedish labour missionaries commit suicide to join their families.

In an effort to contain this outbreak of suicides, the government assigns caseworkers to the Creedish who remain, but various outbreaks of suicides (they tend to happen in groups) leave only a handful. Eventually, Tender Branson is the only one left.

Being the sole remaining survivor of the death cult, Tender immediately finds America on his doorstep with offers of television work, book deals, public appearances. He is signed with an agent, primped and preened and given a revised history of the Creedish that doesn’t gel with his memories of growing up. But he’s assured it’ll make good copy, so everything’s alright.

Earlier in the story, Tender meets Fertility Hollis. He meets her at the crematorium where her brother is buried. Tender feels guilty over this, because he secretly runs a helplinewhich people call when they’re on the brink of suicide. Many times he urges them to do it. Fertility’s brother was one who pulled the trigger.

They strike up a strange, disjointed relationship, with Fertility initially phoning his helpline number and talking dirty to him, which makes Tender uncomfortable. Over time, Fertility admits to Tender that she can see the future, but can’t do anything about it – people won’t believe her and when tragedies eventually happen, she’ll be suspected because she had prior knowledge.

Anyway, I won’t repeat the entire plot of the book. This is one you just have to read for yourself. When I started reading the book, Palahniuk made so many bold statements that encapsulated a venom at modern life that I felt I should highlight them or write them down for this review. In the end I gave up, because the whole book is Chuck Palahniuk holding up a mirror to the modern Western world and showing what is wrong with our culture.

I think the idea of having a member of a religious cult, someone who is sheltered and naive, coming into a city to work provides a startling contrast. You’re able to see the world through Tender Branson’s eyes: a cold foreign place where people are busily amassing a lifetime’s worth of possessions, buying into the latest fad or gimmick or worrying about the latest crisis the newspapers are reporting.

Cool things about Survivor

I want to share a few things that I loved about Survivor here. Maybe they’ll be a good discussion point for us in the comments area.

  1. The pages and chapter numbers all count down toward the end of the book, as if leading to one explosive finale. 
  2. Since Tender Branson is one of about seven Tender Bransons, his name isn’t used much throughout the book. People rarely refer to him as Tender, except of course, when the name becomes a brand. Only then does it become a real identity.
  3. The government caseworker assigned to Tender ultimately seems to have more hangups than he does. Is that a result of his upbringing – in a community focussed on serving others? Is the Western cult of personality – me, me, me – the thing which isolates people and makes them depressed? Certainly in the last days of her life, Branson’s caseworker finds more solace in cleaning a stranger’s house than in her own empty life.
  4. Tender remarks that the people who phone his helpline don’t want their problems resolved. People’s problems define them, he observes. How many people do you know like that?
  5. The marketing campaign surrounding Tender: the book of everyday prayer and the ridiculous self-absorbed prayers it contains.

Things I didn’t like about Survivor

  1. I’d hoped that at one point, Tender Branson would have stood up for himself. But he was the kind of character who allowed things to happen to him rather than take control. He was guided in the Creedish church, told what mental disorders he had by the caseworker (and then studied the symptoms so he could act the part), he sold out his history to the abnoxious agent. He even let Fertility guide him onto the plane without realising he was part of someone else’s plan.
  2. And after all the Creedish suicides (that his brother Adam was behind), all the furore over his television ministry, and the discovery that his upbringing was closer to the marketing department version. After all that, Adam’s brightest answer to cure Tender of his attachment to the Creedish ethos? Get laid. I felt a little let down by that one, it was a crass answer in my opinion. But then, is there a deeper meaning that Palahniuk could have put across?

There you go. That was a bigger review that I’d planned for, but I’ve got a lot of my ideas on Survivor down now. How did you enjoy the book?

1 Comment

  1. Haley Van Broekhoven

    Mr. McGarry, I am doing a paper on the novel Survivor and your review helped a lot! thank you! By the way I loved the book! I’ve read Fight Club, Survivor, and Choke and I am about to start on Invisable Monsters. So far Survivor is my favorite!

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