Doubleday, 2003, 272 pages
Misty Marie Wilmot was an artist. Misty Marie Wilmot was full of talent. Misty Marie Wilmot was in love. Was is the important word here.
A maid in a hotel on the beautiful tourist island Waytansea, Misty is playing clean-up crew for her comatose husband, Peter. He was a contractor who wrote despicable messages in the walls of homes he remodeled before his failed suicide attempt. Now he is being sued by the angry owners who are discovering these messages, leaving Misty with nothing but failed dreams of being a famous artist.
With her mother-in-law and daughter cheering her on—or coercing her with backwards threats—Misty starts painting again. Each piece she paints becomes a masterpiece to be shown at the hotel for all of the tourists to fawn over. Her husband’s expected death and daughter’s unexpected death put her in a state of pure creativity during which she gets locked up in the hotel, given a catheter so she doesn’t have to leave the room, and fed every so often.
People start acting abnormally, interesting things start happening, and Misty is no longer sure if she is painting because she wants to or painting because they are forcing her to.
Palahniuk gives readers a look into the convoluted world of a washed up artist with no idea how to think for herself. He hands out a gaze into an island of seriously venomous people. A twisting end brings Misty full circle in Diary and leaves us wanting to never travel to an island again.
Looking at reviews for Palahniuk's novels, he seems to be all over the place. Just about every book he's written seems to have a number of reviews that go something like this:
"I used to love Palahniuk, but this book sucked and I think he's losing it."
My previous attempt at Palahniuk, years ago, was Lullaby. It was one of my few DNFs because less than a quarter of the way through, I was overwhelmed with a profound and abiding sense of Don't Give a Fuck.
I can't say I felt much different about Diary, but at least I finished it, and it was kind of interesting... eventually. But Palahniuk's writing style is like pickles in my PB&J... it tastes funny and I don't like it.
I know he has a very dedicated following, and his books seems to vary wildly. I have not read his most famous book, Fight Club. (I am one of those who was also underwhelmed by the movie; I didn't hate it, but I didn't think it was a monumental work of subversive genius, either.)
"Just for the record, the weather today is calm and sunny, but the air is full of bullshit."
Diary is written in the form of... a diary. The writer never explicitly identifies herself, but she addresses the comatose Peter Wilmot directly, as if writing her epistles to him, and while she refers to his wife, Misty Wilmot, in the third person, it seems we are meant to assume that it is Misty writing it.
Misty, like nearly all of Palahniuk's characters, as far as I can tell, is not very likeable. She was an art student before she inexplicably fell for the dweeby, weird, completely unappealing Peter, who brought her to Waytansea (pronounced "wait-an'-see") Island, where his family has lived for generations. Waytansea Island's economy is dependent on rich summer tourists. Misty and Peter have a daughter, Tabbi, and Misty slowly becomes fat, neglected, and unhappy, until the point where the diary begins, shortly after Peter tried to kill himself and wound up in a coma. Now Misty cleans hotel rooms and addresses herself in bitter words to her unloving schmuck of a failed suicide husband. About the only ray of sunlight in her life is Tabbi... and then Tabbi drowns in a freak accident.
"Just for the record, the weather today is partly suspicious with chances of betrayal.”
Grief over Tabbi's death brings forth an unexpected burst of long-dormant creativity in Misty, and she begins to paint. As the islanders take an extraordinary interest in her painting, and Misty begins to uncover strange clues, from messages left by women artists who resided on the island previously to hints that both her husband's and daughter's accidents may not have been what they seem, the story finally takes an intriguing turn, becoming less a tiresome narrative by an unhappy art school dropout and more of a mystery/horror novel. Waytansea Island begins to resemble less a chintzy tourist trap and more one of those creepy Lovecraftian seaside towns where you just know something ain't right.
Palahniuk can write. He tosses off lots of quotable one-liners:
“There is nothing special in the world. Nothing magic. Just physics.”
“It's so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.”
There are ominous recurring phrases whose significance only becomes apparent when all is revealed ("If you're here, then you've failed again"), or which reinforce the tone of the Diary's author ("The weather today is increasing concern followed by full-blown dread").
If only so much else about Pahlaniuk's writing didn't distract me with banal unpleasantness.
Surprisingly, Diary ends on a relatively positive note, or at least, less nihilistic than it began. Misty doesn't exactly turn into a bad-ass heroine, but she does take her agency back from the people who would have deprived her of it. I can't really say more than that without spoilers.
If the premise sounds intriguing and if you are a Palahniuk fan, you may like this book. I still find myself a bit confused by Palahniuk and his cult following, but so many of his books sound interesting, I will probably give him another chance eventually.
Verdict: An odd, sinister small-town thriller with a touch of horror and general strangeness, I should have enjoyed Diary more than I did. Nothing about Palahniuk's writing is bad, I just don't like his characters, his descriptions, or the slightly creepy vibe I get from everything he writes, and I couldn't get into it. So while this wasn't to my taste, I think this is a very much a YMMV book, and Palahniuk is very much a YMMV author.