Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Dysfunction Junction

Meet Chuck Palahnuik's lowlifes and Maggie Estep's ranters.

By Ashley Fantz

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999: 

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk (W.W. Norton & Company), 297 pp., $13 (paper)

It's the highest privilege to read this book review because you are now sharing the same print space as the Queen Supreme Brandy Alexander, supermodel, thief, freshly stitched transsexual, first-class egoist, and lover of all things prescription from Premarin to Percodans.

As one of the macabre characters in Invisible Monsters, Chuck Palahniuk's third novel, Brandy teams up with Shannon McFarland, a Price Is Right-like model who's disfigured in a car accident. Incapable of speech and so grotesque she wears a silk shroud over her face, Shannon tells her "sad-assed" story to Brandy while both are in the hospital recovering from reconstructive surgery. To cheer up her new freakish friend, Brandy invites Shannon to roadtrip with her and her greasy boytoy Alfa Romeo. Posing as home buyers, the trio steal prescription drugs and other doo-dads from houses for sale across the country.

Like Palahniuk's first novel, Fight Club -- now a major movie starring Brad Pitt -- his latest novel secures the author's reputation as an apocalyptic comic. He evokes laughter in the sickest places -- in particular a gruesome scene in which best friends murder each other but whine about how lying on the floor bleeding to death is going to flatten their hair. Jumping abruptly from past, present, and future -- often in the same paragraph -- the story's chronology is hard to follow. But Palahniuk's slyly humorous character sketches keep pages turning.

All bent on self-destruction, professing that truth is always seen through the gauzy pinkness of cheap lingerie, Invisible Monsters' drugged-up sorry cases make disturbingly insightful commentaries about life's mundanity. If a reader's already depressed, Palahniuk's characters will either send them further down the Prozac spiral or assure them that there might just be more screwed up characters in the world with far worse psychosis.

Invisible Monsters is more than a foray into the shallow lives of high-fashionites. If a reader wants that, Bret Easton Ellis' pithy but critically praised Glamorama will suffice. Palahniuk is as dark as they get, poking fun at P.F.L.A.G. (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and taking stabs at old-fashioned Southern debutantes. Recently optioned by Fox, this is a book that even Brad Pitt couldn't ruin on screen.

Soft Maniacs by Maggie Estep (Simon & Schuster), 220 pp., $21

Daughter of New York's Nuyorican Cafe spoken-word enclave, Maggie Estep's latest collection of short fiction is as petulant as her on-stage persona. Estep introduces readers to Disco Donny and Leo, two hapless circus volunteers; a bike messenger trapped in the wrong apartment at the wrong time; a boyfriend mystified by the sexual perversions of his psychotic girlfriend; and a therapy patient who carries her cat around like a purse.

Although Estep has trotted across the globe lecturing about fiction, many know her for her performance in MTV's short-lived Spoken Word Tour in the early '90s. The tour, which also featured acclaimed poet Reg E. Gaines, helped boost sales of Estep's spoken-word CDs, No More Mr. Nice Girl and Love is a Dog from Hell, and her 1997 book, Diary of an Emotional Idiot.

True to her conversational, in-your-face style, Estep's twisted characters make dysfunction seem charming. Taking on themes of loneliness, Estep's characters talk maddeningly to themselves, rationalizing their own quirky understanding of humankind. In "Teeth," a scam artist is obsessed with the possibility of dying at any moment.

Estep writes, "You got your heart, you got your slightly-scarred-from-drinking-days liver, and your spleen and whatnot, and then your lungs, and they're a little miserable because you smoke two packs a day but also swim one-point-five miles each night at the Y when it isn't crowded when all those assbag yuppies who rush to the gym after work have left to go home and microwave the arugula."

Writing in her trademark stream-of-consciousness style gives way to some exceptionally long sentences -- and the occasional ramble. But this is the only way to get inside the minds of Estep's characters. Most of the dialogue is short, punchy, and plain. The author's penchant for the rant is passed down to all her Soft Maniacs' characters, thus giving them a shared personality trait. As a result of this pointed literary attempt, Estep has avoided the young writers' trap of producing just another titillating pocketbook of weirdness. If literary critics don't recognize Estep as an arrived author for that, they're as loony as her characters.

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