Last Man Standing

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Survivor  by Chuck PalahniukTender Branson is on a plane and now he has already cleared the plane of all other passengers and he is the only man left, he is planning on letting it crash. Before dying, he wants to tell the world about his life. Tender is Creedish and brought up in the beliefs of a religious cult. As the second child (his twin brother was born a few minutes before him), he is destined for a life of servitude, and, as soon as he was old enough, he was sent out to make his living. Then the police began investigating the Creedish, and rather than share their world with the outside one, all the Creedish, with the exception of those working outside the Creedish camp, commit suicide. Tender’s entire family is wiped out, while Tender is one of the few survivors. As all Creedish people are programmed to commit suicide eventually in this situation, he knows his fate. Or will he be able to find a way to override this fate?

As Chuck Palahniuk is the author of Fight Club, I had an idea that this book wouldn’t be run of the mill, and I couldn’t have been more correct. Very little of the world that we see through Tender’s eyes is a world that we would recognise – in fact, the Creedish cult is the most normal part of the book. Tender works for a couple whose names are never mentioned, but they seem obsessed with knowing how to eat different types of food, constantly ringing Tender to ask him for his advice. Tender’s only real friend, Fertility, is able to predict the future, with interesting consequences. And Tender’s home number has been confused with a suicide helpline, and rather than fix it, he decides to persuade callers that they would be better off going ahead with their plans To top it all, once Tender is the only Creedish survivor, he becomes a religious leader, both loved and maligned by the media. Yet somehow it all seems perfectly acceptable.

It isn’t easy to feel all that much sympathy for Tender, despite his predicament. He doesn’t really seem to have much of a personality, behaving more like a work-horse than anything else. He describes himself as an overweight, ugly virgin and really doesn’t try hard to convince the reader that there is more to him than meets the eye. Yet it is obvious that his strange childhood helped to shape most of his personality and the fact that it is never clear what is going to happen next makes the story intriguing. His attraction to Fertility, whose brother he persuaded to commit suicide, almost seems out of character because for once, he shows an interest in another human being. A little more depth to his character might have made the book a little more compelling, but as I think the whole point is that we aren’t supposed to understand Tender on any level, it really doesn’t make that much difference.

“It probably won’t sound like most people’s idea of a good read, but it actually is surprisingly readable. Definitely recommended.”

There are all sorts of ways that this book could be interpreted, depending on the reader’s viewpoint. For me, Tender’s predicament represents society and its stronghold on people, forcing them to behave in a certain way, meaning that those who don’t conform (or don’t want to conform) are eventually destroyed. There was little direct mention of mental health, apart from the suicide helpline, but I had a strong feeling that Palahniuk was referring to mental health issues a lot of the time, sympathising with those that have problems and therefore aren’t considered to conform to the social norm. What I liked most about the book was the way that it made me think. I suspect everyone will interpret the book slightly differently, and that is absolutely fine – people should be able to make their own minds up.

The way the book is written is fascinating. The language used is very simple and often highly repetitive, yet isn’t boring. For example, Tender will be telling the story of his life, interspersed with descriptions of how to remove stains from clothes, upholstery, etc. The atmosphere that this creates is one of monotony – that Tender’s life is basically one long cleaning task and he carries out his duties like a robot with no thought behind why he is behaving in the way that he does. At times, it is even amusing despite the oddness of the situations – the reasons that Tender’s suicidal customers have for wanting to die are, for example, quite wacky and original. I really enjoyed this style of writing – it probably isn’t one that I would like to read too much of, but it certainly made a refreshing change and it will be one that I will remember for some time.

I was quite surprised, at first, to discover that the numbering of the pages begins at the end (page 289) and ends on page 1. The chapters are also back to front, probably representing the fact that the story begins at the end. However, it wasn’t off-putting at all, and I quite liked the way that I could constantly tell how many pages I had left until the end. The chapters are a great length – usually no more than 5 or 6 pages – which makes it perfect for putting down and picking up again. And the fact that the story is so memorable means that it is hard to forget what had happened previously.

This is a fascinating book. It is very different from the type of fiction I would usually choose – straightforward and to the point, but that made it refreshing, and I will most certainly be looking out for other books by the same author. I would recommend that people go into it with an open mind and see where it takes them – I have my opinion of what it all means, but it is up to the individual to make up their own minds. It probably won’t sound like most people’s idea of a good read, but it actually is surprisingly readable. Definitely recommended.

Published by Vintage, it has 304 pages.

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by Chuck Palahniuk

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Written by sunmeilan

My background is varied. I studied Chinese at Durham University in the UK, Renmin University in Beijing and Nanjing University. I then lived in China for many years, before returning to the UK to study criminology at the London School of Economics, from where I have a Masters. I have published articles on drug treatment and the criminal justice system. Although I have now left this field, I do enjoy crime fiction and reviewing books from this genre. I also have a strong interest in Chinese modern fiction.

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