11.07.2010

Notable Text: Invisible Monsters

Invisible Monsters came out back in 1999. It's Chuck Palahniuk's third novel, and his only to be published only in paperback form. Interesting that a novel about image, escapism and recapturing individualism through extreme means would receive only the basic publication treatment; never getting a full hardcover look, but holding somehow to the adage about not judging books by their covers. So I'll start this minor academic deconstruction with that cover (or at least the cover of the copy I read) which features what I'll call a "princess-old hag" piece of artwork. When oriented one way, it's a princess, marked over mouth and chin with spattered pink (appropriately) and the other way, it's a notably unattractive older woman (with the spattered pink now in the forehead). Just with the cover, Invisible Monsters presents its internal dichotomy: shattered beauty v. shattered mentality. Which of the two images is most tragic is hard to say, but that's the underlying theme of the book. (Go ahead and do a head-stand to see the other image. I won't tell anybody.)

The novel opens in a chaotic, fast-changing scene where characters we don't know are all apparently on the brink of extinguishing each other. Our narrator, later called Daisy St. Patience (and numerous other names, one of which happens to be true, and the crux of the book) is standing over the body of her idol, the near-dead Brandy Alexander (neither the song, nor the drink), who has been shot down by the narrator's best friend Evie Cottrell. The scene of violence is juxtaposed with "Daisy's" self-absorption, and her continuing ties to her former career as a model, a career that ended when a tragic accident removed the lower third of her face. As readers, we are thrust into the action, unaware of the reasons for anything we are witnessing, and in that Palahniuk hooks us... that and a continuing question of what happened to the beautiful girl. How did she get here?

For a society that so greatly values beauty in women over much else, this commentary is apt, and a perfect place for Palahniuk to draw up various mysteries that keep us moving. We are drawn, as people, as Americans, to wonder why the beautiful girl is ugly, and to empathize with her loss or tragedy, especially because we all, to some degree or another, desire to be beautiful, to be desired and have the attention that our narrator describes. The story jumps back in time, to "Daisy's" accident that disfigured her, her first meeting with the incredible transsexual Brandy Alexander, her early days modeling with Evie, and all of her self-involvement begins to develop. We feel for her, the beautiful but stricken girl, but we also learn to hate her, for her constant jealousy at the attention given to her dead, gay brother, over her, and for her disinterested friendship with Evie (who seems genuinely to want only her love and consideration). Over time, we learn that "Daisy" isn't someone we like, but we accept her because, like us, she is not a hero(ine), but a fallible person.

The narrative takes course all across the western United States and into Canada where Daisy, Brandy and a male companion undertake petty crimes to pay their way, and stay perpetually high on pills. And throughout it, the questions raised are those of identity, reality, beauty and love. Really, Palahniuk balances his trademark gruesome descriptions and witty nonchalance with deep, meaningful heart. And in an effort not to throw spoilers all over the place for those who still wish to read the book, the resolution comes in the form of varying identity crises. The ultimate question being how can we define ourselves without defining ourselves by other people, by convention, by society? These characters, all of them (surprisingly) want to transcend--or ascend--past the way they were made. Instead of being reliant on beauty, we see people who seek refuge in difficulty. Instead of seeking definition by family we see characters defining themselves by doing exactly the opposite of what they want. And to see love we sometimes have to become the exact opposite of who we think we should be to become the person that we love ourselves, for taking a chance, or for suffering.

Invisible Monsters raises a litany of deep, philosophical questions about self, reality and individual satisfaction. How important is beauty? And I know that question seems obvious, but REALLY, how important is it? Does beauty define you more than you define it? It's silly, it seems, to pity the beautiful, but there's something to that. The attention, the lust, the expectation, and sometimes the beauty is the only thing that sustains that person's role in society. And how far do we go to be beautiful? If we never ask to be born, is it not our prerogative to alter ourselves as we see fit until we feel defined? But, beyond even that, what is love? Love can grow from strange places, but it is often restricted, choked and left when we try to pack it into the relationships we believe must exist. The conventions of society and science (gender, sexuality, genetics) are the great restrictions; terrorizing our individuality as we try so hard just to fit in.

Here, Palahniuk writes about discovering yourself, even by extreme means. But it's a treatise on the destructive capacity of modern society. We are bombarded my media and belief systems that force us to find new, creative, strange ways to combat our existential distemper, going beyond numbness in drugs to complete recreation. These characters, all complex, and more so by the end than you'd ever imagine at the beginning, are fighting for their own reality. (This is especially true for the narrator's parents, who concoct a vast conspiracy and simultaneous sense of pride from the ashes of their gay son's death... again for spoilers sake, I won't spoil.) For Invisible Monsters that reality is an endless chain of clues, hints, fears, and questions, but even all that uncertainty is preferable to being stuck in neutral, simply playing the hand you were dealt at birth.

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