Invisible Monsters is a 1999 transgressive fiction novel by Chuck Palahniuk, and was his third novel published. The novel follows an unnamed, disfigured woman who also serves as the narrator. She travels across the United States and parts of Canada with Brandy Alexander, her glamorous transgender companion, who bestows upon her many aliases as they rip off wealthy open-houses for prescription drugs to sell.
The novel begins at the wedding of Evie Cottrell — the narrator’s former best friend — whose house is burning to the ground. Brandy has been shot, and is asking the narrator to tell her life story to her. Told in a non-linear fashion, the novel winds through the labyrinthine story of our narrator and her troubled family life, dysfunctional relationships, self-absorbed career, and graphic disfigurement.
While I was not particularly affected myself, it is worth noting now that many people may find this book rather disturbing. Extreme sexual acts, disfigurement, and self-mutilation are described in often grotesque detail. The most notable case of bodily harm is that of our narrator, who had their jaw shot off by a rifle, rendering her unable to speak anything more than garbled noise.
While the circumstances of the narrator’s gunshot wound are mysterious, the story is dominantly character driven, the discovery of her assailant seemingly being of little focus or concern to the narrator. We are given the circumstances at the opening as an eventual endpoint, but what really matters is what the reader gradually pieces together as the narrator tells her story.
As I’ve found to be a consistent motif running through Palahniuk’s fiction, the novel casts a critical — and often pessimistic — eye on facets of modern society. In this case it focuses heavily upon standards of beauty, fashion and modelling, with some touches upon prescription drugs as well. The novel involves a lot of LGBTQ issues as well, though not with the same critical perspective. These aspects often stand in contrast to what the novel appears critical of, such as how gorgeous Brandy is described as being, despite being transgender, which runs contrary to the standards of gender and beauty found in the narrator’s modelling career.
At first I found the novel to be disorienting and unsettling, as the narrator jumps between time and space at the drop of a hat and doesn’t pull any punches when talking about graphic material. The narrative was still easy enough to follow, but from the onset it felt a little unfocused. The story became increasing interesting for me, however, as it progressed, new facts became unveiled, and all these pieces started to come together.
While dealing with subject matter of an unsettling nature, the novel has a dark sense of humour about itself as well. A morbid example that sticks out to me is the narrator’s assertion that “birds ate my face,” after finding out that some of her remains after the incident had been consumed by them. The humour felt in keeping with the tone of the overall story, providing some degree of levity to an otherwise dismal situation. The narrator is quite consistently like this, with many of the messages she conveys to people in writing being of a very sarcastic nature.
Despite the constant shifting of time and place in the novel, there is an ultimately cohesive arc to the narrator’s experiences, coming to a satisfying, though bittersweet, conclusion. Unlike other darker toned fiction I’ve read its ending did not feel nihilistic or too open-ended. All the nebulous aspects of the story came together into something meaningful — though in the fashion of transgressional fiction, it gets to this point through violent and morally dubious ways.
The content isn’t for the faint of heart or those with a weak stomach, however, so if that sounds like you I would pass on this. Regardless, Invisible Monsters is a great novel that I would recommend to anyone looking for something modern and grounded that will take them out of their comfort zone. It stands firmly alongside Fight Club as a mark of Palahniuk’s skill as an author, where I find Lullaby — which I did like — falls a little short in comparison.