Wednesday, January 21, 2009

January Book Club: Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

The book read and discussed at last night's monthly book club meeting was Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk. This was Laura's pick and just from reading the back of the book I had an odd tug-of-war reaction. This was sooo not my type of book to read, but yet the plot had my interest.

So I began reading the book, expecting to dislike it but I had the opposite reaction. You meet Tender Branson, a man sitting alone in the cockpit of an airplane about to crash, talking to the blackbox about the events that led him up to this moment in time.

Tender is a survivor of a religious cult (I'll try to limit the spoilers as I give the synopsis and my thoughts on the book.) who by day, works as a personal assistant of sorts for a rich couple and mans his own suicide hotline. The odd catch with the suicide hotline is that he encourages those desperate enough to call him to commit suicide. Of course the author does not reveal the reasons behind Tender's preoccupation with death right off the bat and Tender comes off as an insensitive, callous ass.

Tender meets the sister of one of the people who called his "hotline" in a mausoleum where he collects silk flowers for his employer, and to keep it short here, they develop an odd friendship. The sister, "Fertility" knows things about people and can predict the future. (For example Tender and Fertility are sitting in a cafeteria and she knows the waitress taking care of them has cancer. Fertility also mentions the time when she took a cab and paid with a bad credit card because she knows that the cabby is going to die in a car accident before he turns in the charge)

As the book progresses you meet the other cast of characters and gain additional insight in Tender's background. You learn that the cult Tender was born into keeps the firstborn children in the cult and sends all other offspring out into the world to earn money for the cult. The leaders of the cult educate the children in such matters as home economics, mechanical repair and the like so they are prepared as adults to enter the working world. Tender works for a couple who have his day planned down to the last minute but yet call him on such matters as how to properly eat certain types of food, who are they meeting and when.

Then there is Tender's social worker. When the cult is exposed, those in the compound commit suicide and every cultist on the "outside" is assigned a social worker to prevent him or her from committing suicide, as they were trained to do so in the event of the reckoning (or whatever they called the mass suicide. I don't' remember the title). However, outside cultists begin committing suicide and as time progresses, murder is thrown into the mix. If the cultists are not killing themselves fast enough, someone is killing them.

Within the span of 10 years, Tender is the last surviving cultist and after his social worker dies in a suspicious accident, becomes an overnight celebrity for being the sole survivor from this cult. In my opinion, this is where Tender's worst flaw shines along with him in the spotlight. Tender cannot think for himself. He absolutely cannot think for himself. The leaders in the cult have told him what to do, how to think and behave all of his life and he continued on with his employers telling him what to do (yet they were nearly as stupid as he was at times and relied on him heavily to tell them where to go when and how to do this and that.) that suddenly he is lost. He has no one to follow. In the hours following his caseworker's death, an agent assigns himself to Tender and reassures him that life will be fine and even wonderful and he is going to be a superstar.

We are into Tender's next phase of life as a religious leader. While behind the scenes Tender is getting pumped full of steroids, botox injections, climbing the stairmaster to improve his image, his agents are writing scripts for him to read during his revivals, TV appearances and conventions, having him blindly sign contracts that create religious artifacts and tactless books of prayer (yes, there is a few pages on Tender's book of prayers. Prayer to get a parking spot, prayer to grow hair, prayer to make more money. I laughed out loud over some of the prayers. I don't have the book as it is with my brother-in-law in Chicago. Otherwise I would have included some of them in more detail) All through this period in his life, you see him bumbling along, following his agents instructions. He sometimes questions the actions and accountability of his agents and of his own actions, but he is quickly squelched and he continues to follow along.

Fertility pops in and out of his life and his twin brother Adam, reappears. He is not the sole survivor of the Cult after all, but his brother keeps mum on the secret. Eventually the FBI/police suspect Tender for murdering his social worker and during a televised event, one of his agents drops dead and Tender is on the run with Fertility and Adam.

I'll stop the detailed synopsis here as there are too many spoilers. If you really want to know more, you'll have to comment or email me.

Initially I did NOT like Tender and it was odd that I did not like the main character of a book I was reading. But as I continued reading, I began to understand some of Tender's actions, or his lack thereof. His inability to think for himself or to take actions for his own interests confounded me, but I believe this was one of the author's satires on the way our society functions today. It does seem the masses will believe almost anything and not question what they are told in a wide range of topics that include religion and politics to something as simple as the claims made on infomercials.

And the author gave a glimpse (albeit an exaggerated one)to the other side of the media and how the "superstars" primp to perfection and perhaps too they follow instructions blindly as well, not knowing or understanding their choices and actions affect the masses, especially those people who cannot think for themselves. But of course there are those superstars who know exactly what they're doing and aren't as naive as I hope them to be. *Shrug*

It was a good book and someone in the club asked a good question last night as we were wrapping up. She wondered if people reading the book 20-30 years from now would be able to relate to the terms, fads and issues posed in the book. And what issues will society face in the future? Hmmm

February's book will be In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson.

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