Number one rule of reading Survivor, by Chuck Palahniuk: do not read this on a plane. I made the mistake of picking it up on a plane, and instantly felt like I was reading a horror story, rather than a predictably twisted story from the King of Weirdo Writing.
The back of the book reads: Tender Branson, the last surviving member of the Creedish Death Cult, has commandeered a Boeing 747, emptied of passengers, in order to tell his story to the plane’s black box before it crashes. Brought up by the repressive cult and, like all Creedish younger sons, hired out as a domestic servant, Tender finds himself suddenly famous when his fellow cult members all commit suicide. As media messiah he ascends to the very top of the freak-show heap before finally and apocalyptically spiralling out of control.
The book reads in three parts, and truthfully at times it felt like I was reading three entirely different stories, both thematically and tonally. First, there’s the near-dystopian feel of the first portion of the book. Branson is working as, essentially, a slave. It’s clear instantly that he’s not just a traditional maid — he doesn’t seem to be paid, doesn’t seem to have any wants or desires, just kind of exits in a mindless monotony of service. Most of the people he serves are monstrous — he speaks about learning how to get blood out of clothes, how to bury a body, etc. etc. It’s almost frightening, the detached way in which he lists out the ingredients necessary and the procedures to remove evidence from crime scenes.
The second part of the story is almost a mystery — what happened to the original Creedish community? Branson remembers a kind of idyllic, farm scenario growing up. Green grass, white picket fences, etc. etc. Yet it’s clear at the beginning of the novel that something has happened to shatter that perfection (and it’s equally clear that there was a dark underbelly — after all, selling off children to be domestic servants is hardly the height of good parenting). Similarly, all of the Creedish people who have been servants committed suicide ten years ago — all but a few stragglers, who have recently been committing suicide. . .or been murdered. That’s the second story within. And then thirdly, when it turns out that Branson is the last surviving Creedish individual, he becomes a kind of media icon, essentially starting his own religion and buying into a new kind of cult — a sort of media frenzy, public persona buy-in that he literally becomes addicted to — from steroids to tanning to bleached hair, teeth whitening, and a crew that exists solely to make certain that he always looks attractive.
Now, granted, there’s a kind of duality between the first story and the second — the idea that Branson is brainwashed no matter where he is. First, he’s brainwashed by the simplistic, peaceful, beautiful life of the Creedish, and later is brainwashed by the superficial, popularity-driven world of a pop icon. It’s the mystery that doesn’t quite fit (there’s also a poorly shoe-horned in sexual abuse story that doesn’t quite gel, in the end). As a whole, though, the book seems slapped together almost, and thoroughly lacking in heart. Branson, as a character, is impossible to sympathize with, or understand — his personality is 100% at the whims of whoever he is around, and is shaped more by how the world sees him, than as he truly is. He should be a sympathic, sad character — instead, he’s somewhat unlikeable, and it is the villain of the novel who holds the heart of the novel.
It’s a timely novel (made even more timely by the recent Germanwings tragedy) and the ideas are interesting. It’s a quick read, an easy read, and a pleasant read — but certainly not high literature, and not one that will leave a lasting impression. I’d be interested to know from any of you who have read the book — did you find a tie in at the end? What was the reason Palahniuk chose to use the black box as a method to tell the story? It’s a clever plot concept, but I’m not sure that it panned out at the end.