It’s back! The blog advent calendar. I enjoyed last year’s blog theme last year—re-reading twenty-four books of my youth—so much, so this year I’m applying the same approach to short stories, trawling through a myriad bunch of collections and anthologies I’ve read in the last few years.
December 21st: Guts by Chuck Palahniuk
Tell me about your first time: This story – this bloody story – got me suspended from school internet for three days.
Context: my family are weird, and so we didn’t have the internet. Literally my only access to the internet was at school (and later sixth form college). Can you imagine the only pornography you having access to is the thumbnails of a cached google image search (because they weren’t blocked, in case you’re wondering). (Plus you had to save them to floppy disc, which took ages, all while really hoping that no teachers wandered by, or basically anybody you knew.) So, getting banned put quite a crimp in my sex life.
Worse, when you got banned you had to go see the IT technicians all the way down at the computer hub, and ask why you were banned. Which meant a heart-palpitating walk of terror, imagining all the dodgy things it might be.
Turns out, it was Guts.
See, Guts did the rounds of our student email, like the dirty bits from paperbacks that people talk about sharing around the playground.* It was that for the digital age. I can’t really remember what we understood the story to be – we definitely knew it was fiction, because all of us geeks in the Film Studies class knew exactly who Chuck Palahniuk was (i.e. he wrote the Fight Club novel and obviously nothing else of worth ever, because they hadn’t adapted anything else into a film, and we were sixteen, and that was how you worked out if a book was worth anything**) but the jury was still out on whether this was a true story, somehow. It had that quality of urban legends. And so it circulated, within the school, until I made the mistake of trying to send it outside the school, and it got flagged for obscene content.
It was embarrassing, but only like halfway down the list of embarrassing things it could have been. The technicians presented me with a printout, made me stammer an apology, and then banned me for three days as a punishment. No doubt they were secretly highly entertained; it was probably one of them started the chain in the first place.***
(Mind you, Guts is where I also learned the phrase ‘esprit de l’escalier’. Because, y’know, culture.)
Sum it up: I actually don’t think I should. I think you should read it. But if this whets your appetite: this story is infamous for causing people to faint during readings.
Give me a quote: [Because contextless, this will mean nothing, and to everyone else…] “If I told you how it tasted, you would never, ever again eat calamari.”
Second reading: I’m the internet generation. We’ve seen everything. We were raised on Meatspin. We’ve seen Tubgirl and the Pain Olympics. I mean, how bad can it be?
Okay, so not that bad. I didn’t faint. But trust me when I say: this is still one hell of a visceral story, a healthy fistful of body horror with a nice sideline in sexual perversion. What I found absolutely fascinating on re-reading it is how much other stuff is in this story that I totally missed. I mean: how, aged, sixteen, did I not remember that this story also featured pegging, sounding, and autoerotic asphyxiation? All I remembered was the killer ending, and none of the shopping list of fucked-up-shit-to-google that preceded it.
Actually, it would be really easy to dismiss this story as basically teenage horror-porn that overloads on gross-out as a way of manipulating its reader – the fictional equivalent of Two Girls, One Cup – but that’s very reductive. For a start, you can make an argument that there’s a very sharp line of satire running through this about sexuality and youth, of the quest for the ever-more extreme, though it doesn’t present that with any sense of moral judgement or preachiness. In fact, it’s brazen, bordering on nostalgic, in its depiction of teenage experimentation: sure, go ahead, do what you want, you could imagine its saying, just be careful not to get your intestines sucked out through your arsehole. And to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else that manages to so well evoke the internet generation’s treatment of the body and sex as both arousing and morbid, the idea that something sexually perverse is both furtive and, in sharing it, a social bonding mechanism. In this way, the sharing of Guts on our student email, and the famous live readings of this story continue this thread: here, you are invited to be utterly revolted by this story, and yet you are also completely submitting yourself to hearing it, and bonding with others over your shared disgust.
And secondly, the Invisible Carrot metaphor is brilliant, and if something has a metaphor in it then it must clearly be Literature with a capital L. Which means I can probably tell my mother that my school once banned me for sharing Literature, and thus not be disowned.****
Where can I read it: Online, here.
* The only actual example of this in my era was when we all got really excited over a Shaun Hutson novel that said the phrase ‘moist cunt’.
** If you’d told me when I was sixteen that one day a story of mine would appear in the same Table of Contents as Chuck Palahniuk, I’d never have believed you, but once I did, I would probably have asked, ‘So is anyone making it into a film?’
*** Further to this, Chuck Palahniuk and Guts later featured in a minor act of rebellion a year or so later, when I absconded – shock-horror-but-no-seriously-it-was-a-big-deal-in-context – from church one morning, went into the city and bought books. One of those was Haunted, which includes Guts. The book disturbed the living hell out of me, and left me with little memory of it other than complete incomprehension and a vague image of homeless people shagging then killing each other.
**** According to Wikipedia, a New York City public school 11th grade teacher was suspended for letting his English class read ‘Guts’. I’m still deciding if that man was a hero or a fool.