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Chuck Palahniuk hates cozy mysteries so he decided to write his own

By Peter Larsen, The Orange County Register
Published: September 16, 2023, 6:05am
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Chuck Palahniuk, seen in 2006, released his new novel, "Not Forever, But For Now," Sept. 5.
Chuck Palahniuk, seen in 2006, released his new novel, "Not Forever, But For Now," Sept. 5. (File photo) Photo Gallery

For Chuck Palahniuk, inspiration for his new novel, “Not Forever, But For Now,” came from his unvarnished distaste for that most genteel of genres: the cozy mystery.

“I had bought a whole stack of cozy mysteries,” says Palahniuk on a call from his home in Portland. “Barnes & Noble just always has a giant wall of cozies — these mysteries typically set in England or Ireland where cats and vicars and old ladies solve these grisly mysteries and murders.

“And I just hated every single one of them,” he says, perhaps unsurprisingly for the author of “Fight Club” and other tales of horror beyond the milieu of the Miss Marples or Jessica Fletchers of the world.

But in them, Palahniuk says he saw something with which he could work.

“There was a common quality to them that I really loved,” he says. “Where these mild-mannered people would come across this brutally murdered person and instead of having any kind of shocked reaction it was almost turned into a good thing.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, great, now we have a mystery,’” Palahniuk says. “There was never any upset. There was never any trauma over the loss of the person.”

The lack of emotional response “seemed as bad as the murder itself,” he says. “So I just thought I’d take the cozy and kind of push it to its limit.”

That he did and then some in the horror satire of “Not Forever, But For Now,” which unfolds like a bad acid trip of an English cozy mystery, alternately shocking and hilarious, disturbing and ultimately beautiful in its own peculiar way.

It’s the story of Otto and Cecil, two brothers of indeterminate age, living mostly by themselves in a sprawling mansion in Wales. Their grandfather and mother are often away tending to the family business, which is assassinating the rich and famous and making their deaths look like anything but murder.

Father disappeared years ago, so the boys idle away the weeks, months and years watching gory nature documentaries and offing their maids, tutors and staff.

The book arrived Tuesday.

In an interview edited for length and clarity, Palahniuk talked about the voice of his narrator Cecil, themes of addiction and conspiracy theories.

Talk a little about Otto and Cecil and their obsession with nature documentaries.

Every once in a while, I’ll remember something that was really upsetting and just emotionally engaging as a kid. And one was always those nature documentaries where predators would come across a baby and its nest.

Whenever you saw a baby animal at risk, whether it was a kangaroo trying to get to the pouch or a baby fawn trying not to be torn apart, as a kid that just killed you. And so I wanted to revisit that because it hooked me so intensely.

We’re never really sure how old Otto and Cecil are. They seem like kids at the start, and then suddenly perhaps they’re much, much older.

I was originally going to have them as little kids. And then one day, my editor, who was reading along as I was turning in chapters, he said, ‘How old do you see these guys being?’ I said, ‘You know, secretly I think they might be like 35 and 38, or in their 40s.’ He laughed so hard that I thought that’s what it’s gonna be.

And on another really powerful level, I wanted it to be a book about addiction and how, boom, once you kind of fall into that rut of addiction, 30 years can go by and you realize you’re still kind of emotionally trapped back in whatever time you became addicted. And it feels like this enormous waste and you can’t believe that so much of your life has just disappeared.

Mother is addicted to opiates. What did you see as Otto and Cecil’s addictions — idleness, sex, killing the help?

I wanted to make it so nonspecific that it was all these euphemisms like ‘having a go’ and ‘having it off.’ Lemon syllabub and all those sweets and candied rose petals. All of those things that it would seem really nonthreatening. It would seem not like a big painful book about addiction, but the second or third time it could be read that way.

Grandfather’s assassination of Judy Garland — he made it look like a drug overdose — is repeatedly mentioned through the book. The boys know the story by heart and repeat it to each other often. Why did you use her in that prominent of a role?

I’m really fascinated with all the conspiracy theory stuff. Because when I see all these, primarily men, just sort of dwelling over these fantastically detailed aspects of conspiracy theory, it strikes me that these are the same guys 200 years ago who would be arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. All of these tiny, impossible, diminutive facts or details of theology.

In a way, when Grandfather goes to have this talk with Judy Garland, he is the archangel approaching the Virgin Mary, and saying, ‘I’m going to choose you to have Christ, and this is why you’ve been chosen and this is what the whole mission is. It is really the visitation that I’m putting on the page and sort of repopulating with contemporary figures.

The casualness of violence, whether it’s baby animals or celebrities getting bumped off, has led some to label your work as nihilistic, though you don’t agree. How would you describe your writing?

In a way, I think of them all as romances, because it’s always about somebody who is just wildly in love with somebody. In this case, it’s Cecil who is just so in admiration of his older brother that he can depict all of Otto’s actions, but it never really dawns on him that Otto is pretty despicable.

In terms of Cecil’s voice as the narrator, he sounds British, for sure, so I’m curious how you found his particular way of speaking.

It’s all over the place in terms of station. Sometimes it’s kind of ‘Upstairs Downstairs.’ Sometimes Cecil’s voice is very upstairs plummy, and sometimes the voice is very downstairs Cockney. So the slang is just all over the board.

That was the funnest part, when you know the voice is going to work, and you know that half the sentences are going to start with the word ‘here,’ or the phrase, ‘You see,’ or ‘Clever Otto.’ Those little two words, almost like a couplet: ‘Dismal mother,’ ‘Downtrodden mother.’ Those little pacing devices are just such a joy to work. I would read 100 books in that voice.

The book is very funny at times, such as the Queen having an ATM card worth 6 billion pounds but it has a daily limit of 300 pounds. How fun are the funny bits for you to write?

I was more thrilled with the Queen falling victim for the old fish-and-chips delivery scam. That she would actually come to the door with her crown on and go, ‘Oh, what the hell, can you break a 500 pound note.’ By that point, the story is just writing itself. I’m kind of holding on. That was a toboggan ride at the end. Every moment was surprising me.

The title — ‘Not Forever, But For Now’ — shows up in the text in different forms every so often. What did you hope that meant for readers?

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I wanted it to be a kind of bittersweet acknowledgment of the transitory nature of love. That even the people we care for the most, are only here for parts of our lives. Or we’re only here for parts of their lives. It’s similar to the fatalism in ‘Fight Club.’ In a way, this was like ‘Baby Fight Club.’ Because Cecil has very much the narrator’s starry-eyed admiration that the narrator had in ‘Fight Club’ for Tyler Durden. And he does lead to the demise of the other character in the way that the narrator in ‘Fight Club’ led to the demise of Tyler Durden.