Russian Kinsmen of Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk books on a shelf
Photo by Francis Bijl/Flickr

World culture today is developing amid expanding globalization, which means that national literatures appear to develop more and more similar features. Vera Shamina and Tatyana Prokhorova discuss how the work of Chuck Palahniuk (best known for his novel Fight Club) shares striking resemblances, even an ontological affinity, with popular contemporary Russian prose, particularly the work of Victor Pelevin, Sergei Minayev, and Oleg Sivun.

Russian readers have always expressed great interest in American literature, and in different periods of our history, different authors and books captured their imaginations. Thus at the turn of the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe, for example, was even more popular and more highly appreciated in Russia than in his own country; in Soviet Russia, it was Jack London with his working-class background and masculine stamina; and in the years of Khrushchev’s Thaw, Ernest Hemingway became an emblematic figure, representing spiritual freedom both for young writers and the reading public. It should be noted that throughout the Communist era in Russia, literary preferences were to a great extent determined by the tastes of authorities, involving first and foremost ideological criteria. The situation changed radically after perestroika (1986), when censorship was abolished and the Russian book market was flooded with foreign books, including American texts, often hastily translated into Russian. Finally, Russian readers had the opportunity to make their own reading choices. So who heads the list of most popular American authors in Russia today?

Although we haven’t conducted a poll, it’s no secret that Chuck Palahniuk, who has recently become a cult figure among Russian youth, is at the top of this list. In our opinion, his popularity can be explained by the ontological affinity of Palahniuk’s novels with popular authors of recent Russian prose, and even more so by the situation in which the younger generation of the globalization epoch finds itself, living and striving to find guidelines. We shall try to demonstrate this ontological affinity by comparative analysis of three novels written by modern Russian authors—Generation “П by Victor Pelevin, Духless (Spiritless) by Sergei Minayev, and Бренд (Brand) by Oleg Sivun—and Palahniuk’s novels Fight Club, Choke, and Survivor, his most popular among Russian readers. Among the aforementioned Russian authors, it is only Pelevin whose works have been thoroughly studied by critics. His novels have been analyzed in essays, monographs, and dissertations dedicated to the problems of postmodernism and general peculiarities of recent Russian literature. But so far, they have not been properly studied in a comparative aspect, especially in comparison with foreign authors. As for Palahniuk, popular as he is among the Russian reading public, his works have with few exceptions been ignored by academic literary criticism. In this case, we are not so much interested in the influence that the American author could have exercised on our writers but in the fact that these novels create the portrait of a hero of our time.

Victor Pelevin’s novel Generation ‘П was published in 1999 (Eng. Homo Zapiens, 2002), practically at the same time when the film adaptation of Fight Club came out (Fight Club the novel had not yet been translated into Russian). The scene is set in the Moscow of the early 1990s, a time of economic and political chaos. Its protagonist, Babylen Tatarsky, university graduate and poet, sells cigarettes and condoms in a kiosk after the fall of the Soviet Union. He meets a former fellow student who invites him to work as an advertising copywriter, and Tatarsky’s task becomes adjusting Western commercials to a Russian cultural framework. Thus Pelevin introduces the key theme and image of the simulacrum world, which will later recur in the works of many other modern writers. The more Tatarsky succeeds in his new job, the more he becomes concerned with the idea that Russian national identity is being shaped completely by mass media and advertising companies. Pelevin tries to understand what has become of the former homo soveticus—an artificial but still very deeply rooted ideological construct, which had also been shaped and developed through the help of mass media.

Pelevin arrives at the conclusion that in consumer society, individuals are dehumanized, losing both their personal and national identities, and finally turn into a set of simulacra based on commodities and political myths.

Media as an instrument of manipulating people becomes one of the basic themes of the book. The author traces how, by means of advertisements, viewers are turned into specimens of Homo zapiens—“zapping man” (one who surfs channels and the Internet)—and eventually adopt a new collective identity. Thus, Pelevin arrives at the conclusion that in consumer society, individuals are dehumanized, losing both their personal and national identities, and finally turn into a set of simulacra based on commodities and political myths. According to Pelevin, for such a person the answer to the question “Who am I?” can only be formulated as: “I am the one who drives this brand of car, lives in this kind of house, wears these brands of clothes.” In other words, self-identification for such an individual is possible only through making up a list of the goods he/she consumes. In Pelevin’s novel, the theme of advertising is all-embracing. Through it, the author depicts the mechanisms by which one group of people stimulates the consumption of goods and ideas by another group. 

The image of a simulacrum world is key in Palahniuk’s novels as well. The hero of Fight Club describes society as “the world of copies of the copies,” a world that is endlessly copying itself. 

The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue. We all have the same Johanneshov armchair in the Strinne green stripe pattern. . . . We all have the same Rislampa/Har paper lamps made from wire and environmentally friendly unbleached paper. . . . The Alle cutlery service . . . The Vild hall clock made of galvanized steel. 

The symbol of this world is Xerox, and the protagonist’s whole life is characterized by the replacement of the real by the unreal: he attends support groups where he simulates illness; his comfort is based on copying catalogs; he simulates compassion when as a recall coordinator for a car manufacturing company he is sent to the place of an accident to find out whether his company will have to bear responsibility for it. Eventually it turns out that the protagonist’s friend and guru, Tyler Durden, is also nothing but a simulacrum, an alternate personality created by himself. 

Sivun addresses the same themes as Pelevin and Palahniuk: the hollowness of existence; brand identity; and a simulative world in which media and images have replaced reality.

The images of IKEA and Xerox as symbols of the simulacrum world also appear in Oleg Sivun’s pop-art novel Brand, which received the New Pushkin Prize in literature in 2009. As Sivun acknowledges from the outset, he has structured his book according to a well-known opus by Andy Warhol, the icon of pop art: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B & Back Again (1975). Sivun’s book consists of twenty-six chapters, each of them dedicated to some popular brand: Andy Warhol, Barbie, Coca-Cola, Dolce & Gabbana, Esquire, Ford, Google, HBO, IKEA, Jameson, Kodak, Lufthansa, McDonald’s, Nokia, Orbit, Putin, Quelle, Ray-Ban, Sony, The Tour de France, USA, Visa, Wal-Mart. Xerox, Young & Rubican, and Zentropa. Each chapter includes sections entitled “Factum” and “Punktum.” In the former, we are offered objective information on a particular brand; in the latter, we learn about the narrator’s attitude toward it, whether he likes it or not, wears it or not, etc. This is how the portrait of the protagonist is created, who actually echoes the words of the narrator of Fight Club: “I feel like a copy of myself,” he repeats again and again. For him, as for Fight Club’s protagonist, the symbol of such existence is also Xerox, to which a separate chapter is devoted. It opens with the epigraph “Xerox is not a machine, it is the principle” and ends with the words “Xerox is not a machine, it is a lifestyle”—thus formulating the general thrust of the whole book. As a matter of fact, in his book, Sivun addresses the same themes as Pelevin and Palahniuk: the hollowness of existence; brand identity; and a simulative world in which media and images have replaced reality.

Minayev’s protagonist ends up seeing the void around him, and is afraid that he himself might completely dissolve into it.

These issues are developed by another youthful representative of Russian prose: Sergei Minayev in his novel Spiritless. The main conflict of the novel is an internal one: the protagonist is the person to be envied. He has a well-paid job and can afford things that others can only dream of, but he is bored to death—bored by fashionable clubs, idle talk, and casual relationships with “glamor girls,” who are customers of a boutique on Tretyakov Lane but have never visited the Tretyakov Gallery; they wear Prada but have never heard of the Prado Museum. He hates being part and parcel of this world, hates his own life, but has no idea how to change it. The protagonist addresses the people surrounding him as “mummies.” For him, they are spiritually dead. They have no true feelings, no true ideas. They are capable only of imitating things imposed on them by fashion magazines and the media—“hollow people,” he calls them. For such people, there is only one kind of identity: brand identity. The protagonist ends up seeing the void around him, and is afraid that he himself might completely dissolve into it.

As for Palahniuk, he goes further, in his later novels expanding the theme of the simulacrum world. In Survivor, the protagonist Tender Branson—survivor of a mass suicide committed by members of the Community of the Creedish Church—himself becomes a simulacrum, a marketable product, “a model for demonstrating a new line of sport wear,” as his agent puts it. His bride, whom Tender is to wed publicly, is also a simulacrum, who just before the wedding is replaced by another copy. And just like in Pelevin’s novel, the overlapping metaphor for this simulacrum world is again mass media: “You realize that if you’re not on videotape, or better yet, live on satellite hookup in front of the whole world watching, you don’t exist,” reflects the narrator, who in turn echoes the words of Sivun’s character: “We are capable of compassion only via TV. If someone is beheaded under my window but it is not shown on TV I’ll assume it to be my phantasy. . . . If the tragedy is reported on television it is really important, all the rest is trivia.” Palahniuk’s narrator likewise confesses: “We all grew up with the same television shows. It’s like we all have the same artificial memory implants.” The novel Choke is also abundant in images of simulacra, as when Victor Mancinia comments that this is “a world of symbols, not the real world.” One of the most expressive simulacra in this novel is a historical theme park where many of the characters work—it is a simulation of the past.

All the novels mentioned above reveal the process of emasculating values in the world of total consumption. As a result, everything is simulated—the past and the present, love and hate, suffering and compassion, religious and political beliefs. The apogee of this process is the simulation of faith, which also becomes a simulacrum, and God, which becomes a marketable product: “Solid God for solid people,” reads one of the slogans created by Pelevin’s protagonist. Following this logic, most sacred things become commodities. Thus in Palahniuk’s Survivor, a simulacrum of the Messiah is created; Tender Branson is represented by mass media as the savior of mankind, on whose behalf they sell different prayers for everyday use: the Prayer to Lose Weight, the Prayer to Stop Smoking, the Prayer to Remove Stains, and the like. According to his agent, “the biggest factor that makes you a saint is the amount of press coverage you get.” The protagonist of Minayev’s Spiritless postulates that in post-perestroika Russia, it has become fashionable to simulate patriotism and internationalism: “And behind all this—nothing but the void, inaction, lack of any goals, ideals, or intention to change things for the better.”

Reading these novels, one gets the impression that these characters don’t just belong to the same epoch but work in the same company, live in the same flat, spend time in the same clubs, wear the same clothes, meet the same people, and watch the same TV shows.

In these novels we see a “brave new world” where humanity has substituted goods for gods. Reading these novels, one gets the impression that these characters don’t just belong to the same epoch but work in the same company, live in the same flat, spend time in the same clubs, wear the same clothes, meet the same people, and watch the same TV shows. Still, although they somehow take part in developing this simulacrum world—it is notable that the sphere of their activity is either advertising (Pelevin) or service industries (Minayev, Palahniuk)—all of them are dissatisfied or, at the very least, bored. The motif of boredom, recurrent in all these novels, is best described by Sivun’s character: “I am almost sure that ours is the epoch of boredom—absolute, total boredom . . . there is nothing else for me to do but become part of this boredom to escape boredom.” This feeling is shared by all the protagonists, who are afraid to lose their individuality, to become “a copy of a copy,” a mummy, “a reference to a reference of a reference,” and to dissolve into the void. It is this fear of being absorbed by the hollow world that makes them look for ways to escape. Different as they are, they still have much in common. The most common mode of escape is drugs, which appear in all these novels. Another escape is total nihilism and destruction, which is chosen by the narrator of Fight Club, who, together with his comrades-in-arms, acts on behalf of the whole generation that has been turned into slaves of consumer society:

You have a class of strong men and women, and they want to give their life to something. Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need. Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they really don’t need. We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression. But we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against culture. 

The aim of Project Mayhem, a cultlike organization created by the protagonist’s double Tyler Durden, is “to break up civilization so we can make something better out of the world” and “to teach each man in the Project that he has a power to control history.” Strange as it might seem, such a rebellious spirit is completely absent in these Russian novels. This can perhaps be explained by the fact that the historical memory of the disastrous consequences of such projects is so deeply rooted in the Russian subconscious that even young writers don’t regard revolution as a possible remedy against boredom and futility. The action of Pelevin’s Generation ‘Пtakes place at the beginning of the 1990s, when the country was trying to recover from another “mayhem.” As for Minayev’s Spiritless or Sivun’s Brand, their heroes live in a state of spiritual entropy, which is a natural result of any kind of mayhem. 

Palahniuk himself, however, in the finale of Fight Club (as well as in his later novels), renounces total nihilism. Unlike his Russian kinsmen, he creates a romantic hero who eventually is ready to oppose this “brave new world” for such seemingly trivial and old-fashioned values as love, friendship, and self-sacrifice. The narrator of Fight Club realizes that only human relationships can help him to restore contact with the real world; the protagonist of Survivor flies up into the sky as Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince sacrificing himself to save the others; Victor and his friends from Choke decide to build a new world out of chaos, not knowing exactly what will come of it, but certain that it is worth trying. Three of Palahniuk’s most emblematic novels reveal a certain evolution of his artistic method in the direction of strengthening of romantic features and general humanistic pathos. Whereas the narrator of Fight Club wanted to destroy the world, the protagonist of Survivor thinks that people are worth saving, and on behalf of his generation, Choke’s Victor Mancini calls for creation:

To build a world out of rocks and chaos. What it’s going to be, I don’t know. Even after all that rushing around, where we’ve ended up is the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. And maybe knowing isn’t the point. Where we’re standing right now, in the ruins in the dark, what we build could be anything.

 As for the works of Russian writers discussed in this essay, which are in many ways close to Palahniuk’s novels, their characters are victims of the hollow world rather than rebels or romantic heroes. Generally speaking, the picture drawn in all these novels, both Russian and American, may seem quite gloomy, but the fact that writers living in different parts of the world have similarly diagnosed the disease of their generation and are beating the alarm gives hope. This is probably the first step toward recovery. Mikhail Lermontov, in the foreword to his famous novel A Hero of Our Time, wrote: “It is quite enough that the disease is indicated, and how to heal it—God knows!”

Kazan Federal University, Russia

Vera Shamina is a full-time professor in the Department of World Literature at Kazan Federal University. She is a lecturer in English and American studies and the author of three monographs and over one hundred essays on different aspects of anglophone literature and drama.

Tatyana Prokhorova is a full-time professor in the Department of Russian Literature at Kazan Federal University. An author of two monographs and a large number of essays on different aspects of Russian literature and drama, she is also a lecturer in Russian studies. Both authors are involved in comparative studies and have published several works together.