Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club – through Tyler Durden – stated that “self-improvement is masturbation. Now, self-destruction…” Invisible Monsters – written before Fight Club but released afterwards – is a novel expanding upon that idea, arguing that self-improvement and self-destruction are one and the same, each as solipsistic as pleasuring one self.
The unnamed narrator of Invisible Monsters was a successful fashion model until a car accident saw her irrevocably mutilated, left with half a face. In the hospital she meets Brandy Alexander, a gorgeous transgender woman who resurrects our narrator as a veiled, mute socialite – an invisible monster – her identity perpetually shifting as they roam between open house showcases, raiding wealthy homeowner’s bathrooms of their cornucopia of candy-coloured pharmaceuticals.
“You’re still too connected to your past,” Brandy tells her. “Your saying anything is pointless.”
The narrator’s attempts at recreation are increasingly sublimated by her own chequered history and the desires of her travelling companions, Brandy and a decreasingly-muscular gentleman (the narrator’s been dosing him with female hormones, you see. It’s a long story). Brandy, Queen Supreme, finds her attempts at self-improvement equally disappointing, dragged back towards her past like murky bathwater spiralling into the drain.
A scribbled note on a postcard. When did the future switch from being a promise to a threat?
Invisible Monster ponders that question without finding a satisfactory answer; perhaps there isn’t one. The further his characters become mired in their pasts, the less the future has to offer them, no matter how strident their efforts at self-improvement/destruction.
Palahniuk tells the story with a sneering sense of humour; the pages are filled with dark comedy embedded in and mercilessly derisive of consumerism and vanity. The spectacular opening chapter is a perfect introduction; Palahniuk observes the flaming wreckage of a wedding gone violently wrong, paying more attention to the cut of the dresses on display than the bloody spraying from the bodies within them. His prose owes a debt to Vonnegut – not just in the prose’s detached irony, but in the way the story somersaults through time like a prettier Billy Pilgrim.
The novel is not without its problems. A farcical scene of a dark, destructive dinner is parody too broad to successfully integrate with the dry wit that surrounds it, even if later revelations lend extra depth to the comedy. On the subject of revelations, Palahniuk remains slightly too fond of twists; there’s at least two too many. And the implied metaphor of transgenderism as a vehicle for futile self-improvement is a little troubling if closely examined.
Minor flaws aside, Invisible Monsters is an impressive, intelligent read, deftly juggling social criticism, convoluted drama and satire that’s equal parts thoughtful and hilarious.