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The Daily Tar Heel

Self-Renewal by Self-Destruction

Tyler Durden, the alter ego of the nameless protagonist in "Fight Club," searched for a new identity through radical and violent change.

Chuck Palahniuk, author of "Fight Club," the cult sensation that inspired the Twentieth Century Fox film by the same name, apparently lives by the same credence.

"There is a great deal of joy in destroying that beautiful thing that you have created because you know that you can go back and rebuild it even better than before," he said.

"After one or two drafts of whatever I was working on I would shave my head to remind myself that nothing is sacred. ... We are all in flux."

And his belief in self-destruction as a form of self-renewal has spread across the nation, infecting corporate CEOs to father figures to the men who patrol your streets.

"I have an enormous stack of mail in my house," Palahniuk said. "People send me all kinds of photos of their clubs or their faces all beat up -- but they are all smiling. The pictures are all over my refrigerator."

Even a few UNC students admitted to participating in their own makeshift fight clubs. Though they all wished to remain anonymous, they wore their scars like badges.

But Palahniuk has seen the underground obsession spring up in much more public forums.

At the University of California-Berkeley, students dressed as waiters with bloody kisses on their hands paraded through the crowd throwing dinner rolls at audience members while a man choked on a roll and had to be saved with the Heimlich maneuver. Both were scenes from Palahniuk's works.

"It was total chaos," he said. "But it was amazing because we all got to share. It was more of an experience than one person up on stage blabbing."

College students seem to have a special bond to his work, Palahniuk said, because they are young and feel disconnected from society and -- more specifically -- from literature.

"A lot of (college students) have given up on books," he said. "Books don't serve them the way that music and video and movies do.

"They expect a lot more plot and thought for their investment and more entertainment ... something with weight and meaning."

And Palahniuk's ability to shock and amuse with dark and taboo topics carried over to his presentation before a socially diverse audience in the Bull's Head Bookshop on Tuesday.

Instead of reading from "Lullaby," his newest book, he told the audience about his experiences with kidney stones, Vicodin and a perverted childhood neighbor.

His monologue was as bold and unrestrained as his novels. Audience members laughed and blushed as he recalled passing kidney stones the size of marbles and sharing leftover drugs with flight attendants to make new friends.

The point of his stories was not to shock or even to get a cheap laugh but to show audience members that material for a story can be found anywhere.

"I like to take something that people see a million times every day and have never given a thought to and show them the truth," Palahniuk said. "I want to, in a way, wake them up."

And the general public needs a blast of the brutal to snap out of its stasis. "Fight Club" caught much criticism for its apparent glorification of violence -- but it shocked many people into thinking about their own lives.

The symbolism of the conflict, however, is the theme that Palahniuk said is most important in understanding his work. For the characters of "Fight Club," the act of violence was therapeutic and empowering, he said.

"(Fighting) gave them an enormous sense of their own capability. They find themselves able to endure and accomplish more than they thought capable.

"It was having that experience of enduring and inflicting pain, having that dance and living to talk about it and do it again."

But violence does not have to be the catalyst for personal change, he said.

"The general idea of physical hardship in breaking the consciousness -- and it doesn't have to be through violence -- is really glorious and sort of attractive," Palahniuk said. "The ego's terror of sacrificing itself is so powerful, even though we know what we could have is so much better."

It is this spirit of self-discovery and pursuit of dreams that Palahniuk tried to share with the students who waited -- some for hours -- to have their copies of his novels signed.

His own experience with writing, he said, has taught him that stability is important for survival but that without a passion, nothing matters.

"If I could get Doubleday to pay me to jack off, I wouldn't do it. That is how much I love to write."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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