I have adored so many novels that I regularly change my mind about which is my favourite. On some days I will tell you that it’s Scarecrow, by Matthew Reilly. On others it might be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Dan Well’s I Am Not A Serial Killer, or perhaps The Messenger, by Markus Zusak. I love Siren by Tara Moss, and Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg, and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. I could do this for hours.
But today, my favourite book is Diary, by Chuck Palahniuk. I started reading it as a 19-year old boy, sitting in a hotel lobby after my first literary festival. Chapter 1 gave me goosebumps. Chapter 2 brought me to the verge of tears. I have no memory of the limousine, aeroplane and taxi that took me home; I didn’t look up from the book until I’d finished it five hours later.
The power to elicit a physical reaction in the reader, be it goosebumps, tears or laughter, is the mark of a great novel. So is a story that hasn’t been done before; and Diary‘s plot – a failed painter writes a diary for her comatose husband, who scrawled cryptic warnings across walled-off rooms before his suicide attempt – is like nothing I’ve read before or since. Like many of Palahniuk’s books, it begins with a nihilistic protagonist in a painfully realistic world, but then leads you down the rabbit hole so seamlessly that you may not notice you’ve stumbled into a dream – or a nightmare.
“The philistine provides the best definition of art,” Louis Dudek once said. “Anything that makes him rage is first class.” After devouring Diary twice, I discovered that many other people loathed it. “Reading this is like being cornered by a dim-witted and semi-belligerent drunk possessed by an idée fixe he keeps reciting over and over again, jabbing your shoulder each time,” writes Laura Miller of Salon. But this hostility only made me love the book more; I can’t shake the feeling that if everyone else hates it, then it must have been written specifically for me. (Or perhaps I’m just contrary.)
Of all the reasons that I love Diary, this is the most potent: it’s a book I couldn’t write. I’ve produced action-packed sci-fi, philosophical crime and frightening YA, but I’ve never produced anything even remotely like this. I can’t wrap a ghost story in a conspiracy thriller in a tragidrama in a diary. But that never felt like a shortcoming until I read this book.
Actually, it’s not exactly a ghost story, and I’m not even sure if “tragidrama” is a word. I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe Diary, let alone write it.
Jack Heath’s latest book is Hit List (Pan Macmillan Australia). For more, visit his website.