The most immediately noticeable aspect of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1999 novel Survivor is that the story opens on page 289. The following page is numbered 288. Then 287, and so on. The story’s main character, a man named Tender Branson, tells us in the very first paragraph that he is piloting a hijacked Boeing 747 over the Pacific Ocean. Having landed to release all the plane’s passengers onto a nearby island, it is his intention to fly until the plane’s fuel is depleted, the engines burn-out and he crashes somewhere in the Australian outback. The page numbers, we realize, are counting down to the book’s fiery conclusion. But before the story’s inevitable end on page one, Tender is determined to record his entire life’s story on the plane’s black box.
Tender Branson is the last surviving member of the Creedish Church (a fictitious religious organization). The Creedish goal was to buy all the land on planet Earth and thereby institute world peace. To accomplish this, the church elders would send their member into the workforce to perform menial labor at minimum wage. These devout workers would then pool their money to increase the church’s property.
A series of government investigations, however, caused panic among the Creedish community and resulted in a mass suicide. This dark tragedy gained national attention and, as the last surviving member of the Creedish church, Tender Branson becomes a top-tier celebrity.
The media latches on to his story, and Tender is transformed into a televised prophet. His life is consumed by Botox, steroids, makeup artists, physical trainers and legions of fans. Devolving into a corporate puppet and a marketing icon, Tender’s mental state beings to spiral (not that he was an exceptionally “stable” individual to begin with) until the events that lead to the hijacking.
Chuck Palahniuk (pronounced Pala-nick) is probably best known for his cult phenomenon Fight Club, but his other novels include Choke, Invisible Monsters, Damned and Doomed. His body of work is predominantly satire and he often experiments with the absurd, but that doesn’t mean his books are necessarily funny. In fact, his tone is dark and viciously cynical. Anyone who’s read Palahniuk before knows that his work is not for readers with weak stomachs or those who are easily offended.
That said, Survivor was not a pleasant book to read. It was violent, bitter and very unsettling. It is riddled with snarky pessimism and provides a stark outlook on the shallow motivations of twenty-first century life. Palahniuk sharply critiques the worshipful attitudes of media consumers, the shameless capitalization of spirituality and the easily manipulated masses who flock around phony messiahs. He caricaturized those who adopt religious beliefs in the same way they’d attempt a trendy new diet or succumb to the latest exercise fad.
But provocative and counterculture as Survivor may be, it offers an important message on American values. I still find myself pondering the themes and the strong (yeah, strong is a good word for it) imagery.
Survivor is not the type of book you’d recommend to your grandmother. It’s not a novel to assuage your bad day or brighten your mood. But, if you can handle Palahniuk’s in-your-face style and bleak viewpoint, it’s definitely a worthwhile read.