Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cults, Media and Death in Palahniuk's Novel "Survivor"

Tender Branson is about to die. The 35-year-old protagonist (with a name only a novelist could create) is narrating his story into the black box recorder on an airplane. There’s no one on the plane, just him and a rapidly decreasing fuel supply. He’s not a pilot (the pilot parachuted out before the narration starts) and it’s clear this plane has a single destination: oblivion.
Tender is the lone surviving member of a suicide cult known as the Creedish. The Creedish disdain secular society, sex, alcohol, pleasure… pretty much everything. What makes these folks different from Christian fundamentalists is this: most of the members kill themselves. The suicides began some ten years prior to the start of Tender’s narration. Since then, the few remaining survivors have offed themselves in waves until it seems Tender is the last one left.
When word gets out that he’s the cult’s last survivor, a New York consulting firm decides to market Tender, to recreate him as some sort of messianic product for mass consumption.  The admen give Tender shiny new clothes, designer drugs and all sorts of cosmetic injections to make him appeal to the American public. They (the American public) buys it hook, line and sinker, and Tender becomes a national sensation. Soon the Tender Branson brand expands to include books on tape, bobble-head dolls, even Tender’s own version of the Bible. Yet, after being remade into someone else, Tender ends up staring into the face of suicide just like the Creedish whackos who raised him. The novel “Survivor” is the schizophrenic and satirical story of how Tender ended up on that doomed airplane.
The book starts on page 238, with Chapter 47. The chapters and page numbers count down from there so that the story ends with page 1. This is a simple trick, but I’ve never seen it done before, and it adds a real sense of urgency to the narrative, like a bomb is ticking and there’s no way to shut it off.
100 pages or so in, Tender steps out of his life story and says, “Here in the cockpit of Flight 2039, the first of the four engines has just flamed out. Where we’re at right here is the beginning of the end.” If there’s a better example of a narrative device ratcheting up tension I can’t think of it at the moment. And there are four engines, so Palahniuk gets to use this trick three more times before the “beginning of the end” gives way to the “end” end.
My biggest problem with this book is the difficulty I have connecting with the narrator. He has no drive. He has no passion. He doesn’t give a shit about anything. This is, of course, because he’s telling the story from aboard a plane that is going to crash and destroy him. He’s a suicide case who’s been waiting for a long time to do himself in, so perhaps it’s too much to ask that I have some sort of intimate connection with this character.  
Also, Tender Branson is an extremely malleable person. He is formed and shaped according to the will of the cult church he grew up in. When he leaves and becomes the sole surviving member of that church, he is formed and shaped according to the will of the mass media. There are few (if any) desires inside Tender Branson that aren’t put there by someone else. Palahniuk uses Tender’s lack of self-consciousness as a way to show just how much people and institutions can assert control over the individual. Ultimately, however, Tender Branson chooses his own fate. He chooses to conform, makes a decision to reject the self and adopt the values and customs of those around him. It’s this habit of his that makes him somewhat boring as a narrator.
Luckily for the reader, Palahniuk’s style is so psychotic and hilarious that it overcomes the inherent faults of the narrator. I didn’t love this novel as much as “Fight Club,” but it’s still a great work of experimental fiction. Read it with Tender’s advice in mind: “Please fasten your seatbelts as we begin our terminal descent into oblivion.”

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