“Guts,” by Chuck Palahniuk
First appeared in Playboy in March 2004; published as part of the novel Haunted; read it on the author’s website here; audio version on YouTube here; live reading by the author on YouTube in three parts
You have to love this story for just running with its premise, all the way. (Lots of spoilers ahead, for those who haven’t read it.) I hear a lot of writers talk about inspiration and craft and the relative merits of each, but for my money, the important thing is conviction. Which is what’s so great about urban legends: they’re told as though they’re true, and they don’t need to be true (or even plausible) to work. The comic/horrific timing of “Then my sister missed her period” kills me every time.
There are really three stories here, building up from “friend[s] of mine” to the narrator himself and from the relatively innocuous to the nearly fatal. It works nicely because the real story isn’t about any particular character, it’s about horror. Horror stories (and nightmares) seem like a sort of reverse wish-fulfillment. You imagine the worst thing that could ever happen, and it makes you feel a little better. It’s comforting just to know what the worst thing is, even if there’s no rational way to prepare for it. Knowing you have the guts to imagine it feels good, too. And of course it can put your immediate real-life problems in perspective. I think this point gets missed a lot in discussions of “shock value” in entertainment. One person’s gratuitous shock is another person’s catharsis.
The funny thing about this story is that once you get used to the subject matter, you start to realize how disproportionate the characters’ shame is to the things they’re ashamed of. And everyone is in on it. Parents clean up their self-asphyxiated kids to look like “[t]he regular kind of sad, teen suicide,” as though it’s impossible to feel normal sadness about a fatal masturbation accident. The narrator’s father can’t even bring himself to tell the pool repairer a partial truth like “My kid got sucked in and almost died.” The narrator’s mother says, “You didn’t know what you were doing, honey. You were in shock.” As though he needs reassurance that he wasn’t really himself when he chewed through his own intestine. Think about that. She’s not talking about a violent or immoral act. She’s not talking about her son’s failure to practice good pool safety or to find a less hazardous sex toy. She’s talking about something he had to do in order to save his own life. There’s something really wrong with our culture. I don’t think that’s the intended message of “Guts,” but it’s all there in the text.
Anyway, now that I’ve spent over 400 words on an anal evisceration story, I feel like I’ve finally broken this blog in.