“There exists a heaven for the carnal,” writes Chuck Palahniuk in his most recent novel, Not Forever, But for Now (Simon & Schuster; 256 pages). An ultimately lackluster addition to what was once a biting oeuvre, Not Forever makes the reader wonder whether the author’s tendency toward excess was once a project in well-executed theatrics, rather than one in purely over-compensatory irreverence. Although it’s in his nature to render carnality ad absurdum—whether through Fight Club’s battle between split personalities or Choke’s setting at a colonial theme park—Palahniuk’s previous renditions are stylistically tight and thematically straightforward. Victor Mancini chokes himself in restaurants to fool the patrons into offering him money. This to-the-point device instantaneously conveys Palahniuk’s contempt toward the impossibility of mutual connection in an increasingly monetized world. Twenty-two years after Choke, the claims of so-called “ladlit” ring hollow, with looser narrative turns and emotionless exaggerations. In a world where fictive violence isn’t so distant from real-world catastrophe (where the threat of environmental degradation doesn’t feel fabricated but immanent), perhaps Palahniuk’s brand of hysterical realism just isn’t very funny anymore.
Not Forever tracks a family drama from the vantages of two “pre-male” adolescent boys, Otto and Cecil. Their forebears, chiefly a mother and grandfather, are responsible for manufacturing a slew of historical events and celebrity deaths such as the Stonewall riots and the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Inheritors to a lifestyle maintained by unchecked, explosive violence (Otto and Cecil literally reenact their grandfather’s story about poisoning Judy Garland), the boys’ quotidian penchant for axing their nannies soon evolves into a series of sexual escapades with lured pedophilic prisoners and coaxing nuclear launch codes out of no less a figure than the Queen of England. Though what might read as a commentary on the spectacularization of extreme violence gets bogged down by banal prose and an apolitical ethos. Gratuity is Palahniuk’s modus operandi, one that unfortunately renders his effortful rendition of adolescent masculinity more affectless than incisive.
Palahniuk overindulges in repetition. In Choke, it’s the word “mommy” or the eponymous act of choking itself. Not Forever opens with the boys watching a Richard Attenborough documentary about wild animals in Australia. Through this vignette, in which a mother kangaroo discards her joey, “[flinging] it onto the ground,” the author orients our perspective to the novel’s word-level style and core themes. Adjectival phrases like “twee little” and verb phrases like “having it off” aren’t isolated instances of Palahniuk’s attempt at pseudo-Dickensian Brit-speak. These idioms are central to the author’s awkward attempt to inhabit a hyperreal foreign tongue. Palahniuk’s thematic lead feels just as over-the-top. Although there’s nothing amiss with the kangaroo narrative, it’s difficult to square in light of how the author doesn’t significantly build outward from the vignette. When page one features an overt nod to how televised, animalistic violence begets, reflects, and inherits the primordial carnality of human behavior—Otto even derides the joey for its “weak puniness”—page 141 shouldn’t need to remind us that, “to enter the nursery is to walk into a mass grave.” By the halfway mark, the author should trust the reader enough to have understood the crystal-clear idea that violence is baked into childrearing in an age of mass media.
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That’s what’s tough about Not Forever, But for Now. Averse to any inkling of subtlety, its hyperbolic tone only elicits the urge to beg its author to calm down. Palahniuk uses the phrase “text letter” instead of “text message” throughout the novel. This is an attempt at casting the boys as so isolated and out of touch that they can’t imbibe even the most basic features of contemporary society. As an effect, this attempt doesn’t work. The device is so jarring as to make the reader wonder why Palahniuk didn’t opt for any number of other, possibly stronger, options. Since the perpetuation of fascistic extremism today relies on the weaponization of digital communication through a patchwork of surveillance networks, the idea that two hired assassins wouldn’t understand its basic mechanisms doesn’t make for a particularly cogent commentary on violence.
Style is only the tip of the iceberg of the novel’s squirminess. More pressingly for a novel about manufacturing historical atrocities (including Kent State), its politics lack substance. Of the events that Otto’s and Cecil’s family orchestrates, the 1969 Stonewall riots stick out like a sore thumb. Stonewall, a series of spontaneous protests in response to the police raid on New York’s Stonewall Inn, inaugurated a wave of Pride marches across the country. Intuiting his perspective from Not Forever, But for Now, Palahniuk seems to think that Stonewall inaugurated the uncritical uptaking of meaningless, queer signifiers. He describes the rioters “[embracing] their engineered disabilities as badges of honor.” Most charitably, he’s proffering a critique of gay identitarianism, the idea that as we rally around sexuality as a unifying principle of solidarity, we’re increasingly co-optable by pink capitalist corporations and state-sanctioned Pride events. But commenting on the increasingly monetized nature of Pride merchandise requires a level of care, an attention to history and theory that Palahniuk doesn’t convey in his fiction. Instead, the narrator’s notion that queerness is a “birth defect” feels like a cheap pass at irreverence rather than a considered anti-assimilationist invocation.
Even when the author describes the manufacture of pernicious political rhetoric, his language wants for defter deliberation, or another round of edits. Otto’s and Cecil’s father manufactures the “Pakistani grooming gangs,” a myth that permeated the British far-right in the mid-2010s amid an influx in asylum-seeking owing to fallout from the Syrian Civil War. Not Forever takes for granted that vitriolic political rhetoric isn’t just manufactured, but influential. While the idea that the Islamophobic right wing overexaggerates or outright fabricates instances of identitarian violence isn’t incorrect (or even reactionary), the implication that the victims of this rhetoric can be encapsulated by Buckinghamshire nannies and baby kangaroos is galling. To simultaneously invoke a racialized history like Kent State and cast all your novel’s violence as hyperbolic, “the nursery a graveyard,” is to obfuscate the important details of extremism in service of a personal feeling of righteousness.
Palahniuk gives the game away in an Esquire interview about Not Forever. Instead of a greater political project, one aimed at anti-assimilationist or anti-corporate organizing, his distaste for Pride seems to emanate from a personal distaste. He describes burying his gayness as a child in service of protecting himself and his family and goes on to say the following: “I’m expected to automatically step out of that into a kind of joyous, flag-waving outness that is completely at odds with the entire way I’ve been raised.”
Frustration with how others are privileged to be out shouldn’t beget bemoaning the Stonewall rioters as “apolitical,” let alone “disabled.” For a more lucid social critic than Palahniuk, frustration with the contemporary world might inspire thinking as to just how to act politically against assimilation, or despite the inability to be out.
Palahniuk isn’t interested in a political project, though. Dispensing with the likewise gratuitous criticism, it’s disappointing that an author so zealous, so capable of committing to entirely new vernaculars, so intent on condemning the status quo, should mire his viewpoints in banality and carelessness. The author is certainly intelligent. He expresses a depth of introspection about Western masculinity, often through budding psychoanalytic images and motifs. But his fixation on the recursive relationship between the autoerotic and the addictive should compel his readers—not lecture them.