'Diary': Two people in comas, but one's still awake

By Janet Maslin

New York Times News Service

Discussing his dealings with fans in last week's Newsweek, Chuck Palahniuk acknowledged some unusual tactics. He likes to send out "a package of weird little surprises," he said, when communicating with readers, who become ever more smitten, for obvious reasons. But the author's weirdest surprises can still be found in bookstores. "Diary" is his sixth novel.

For all his trademark toughness, Palahniuk has never sounded more like a latter-day Kurt Vonnegut than he does here. Yes, Palahniuk remains best known for the violent twists of "Fight Club." But his use of singsong repetition, in the form of trademark tics or obsessively invoked subject matter, can be as soothing as a lullaby.

The heroine in "Diary" is a waitress with a background in art. Her name is Misty Wilmot, and she is a quasi-widow. Her husband, Peter, is in a mysterious coma as the book begins, and Misty is worn out and angered by the ordeal of monitoring his condition. In art school, where these two met, "you learn the symptoms of adult lead poisoning include tiredness, sadness, weakness, stupidity," Palahniuk writes, "symptoms Misty has had most of her adult life."


A lot of Palahniuk's attention is reserved for easier, barn-sized targets such as the rich summer vacationers, "asking for nondairy cream and sundresses in size 2," who descend upon the once-peaceful Waytansea Island. (The wordplay of Waytansea becomes one of the author's broad, effective ways of elbowing readers' ribs.)

In "Diary," Misty, "who doesn't have the spare time to throw a fit," keeps a journal about her husband's sleeping coma as well as her own waking one. But this is not a book in which even her simplest observations can be taken at face value.

So in addition to unraveling the story's opening mystery -- that certain rooms have been vanishing from certain houses, thanks to Peter's creative use of Sheetrock before his coma began -- the reader's game of wait-and-see involves wondering where all the hints, patterns and secular mantras will lead. Though the outcome is long overdue and less exotic than some of Palahniuk's previous denouements, it is worth the sometimes maddening wait.

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