Getting Shit Wrong vs. Making Shit Up

I’ve been thinking a lot about realism in fiction lately. I’ve said several times before that I don’t expect strict realism in my fiction, and it’s true—if I did, I wouldn’t be as big a fan of fantasy and science fiction as I am. Having the fantastic happen in fiction is to be expected, in both big and little ways, even if the books try to adhere to real life as much as possible. Think about it: if mystery novels strictly reflected reality, then the majority of stories which featured cold crime scenes would end with the mystery unsolved, and serial killers and multiple murders would make up only the tiniest fraction of all mystery books instead of the fairly healthy percentage they enjoy today.

Then as I was reading Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk the other day, I was forcefully reminded that there’s a definite difference between making shit up and getting shit wrong, and that there’s a huge divide between making shit up convincingly, and making shit up in such a way that suspension of disbelief is impossible.

For those of you who are planning to read this book and can’t stand spoilers, stop reading right now. The rest of this entry is going to discuss this book in great detail and give away critical plot points. Also, don’t bother reading if you’re not interested in reading me nitpick about somewhat geeky science shit.

The book has an overarching storyline about a writer’s retreat gone horribly wrong. Interspersed with this main story are a host of short stories recounted by individual members of the retreat, all of them borderline (or outright) sociopaths and murderers.

The first short story, “Gut,” is really fun. As a teenager, the narrator for this story masturbated in his swimming pool while sitting on the inlet port of the circulation pump, which resulted in, erm, a rather visceral experience. That part of the story I had no problem with. It made me cringe and howl, but I bought it. One of the finest examples of making shit up I’d ever read.

Then at the end of the story, his young sister found out she’s pregnant, presumably with his child. How? Because of the sperm he blasted into the swimming pool while whacking off.

Now THAT gave me pause. First of all: the dilution factor would be immense. IMMENSE. Yes, there are billions of sperm in semen—but they’re contained in, what, a couple teaspoons of fluid? And it’s hard enough for a woman to get pregnant when the all those billions of spermatozoa are deposited DIRECTLY in the vagina. Disperse that sperm by many, many, many gallons of water and figure out the odds of somebody becoming pregnant because somebody jacked off in the pool. Answer: not bloody fucking likely.

Second of all: the chlorine in the pool would kill off a lot of those suckers. Not all, but a lot.

Third of all: The narrator noted that he removed much of the semen from the swimming pool after his aquatic jack-off sections, which means the vast majority of sperm would’ve been removed anyway, further decreasing the numbers of spermatozoa present in the swimming pool.

Fouth of all: Sperm can live outside the body for a maximum of 96 hours, but that’s assuming a friendly, stable, moist, pH-balanced environment like the Cowper’s gland of the penis, not a chlorinated swimming pool with water that’s constantly being circulated and filtered.

Fifth of all: Unless the sister liked to swim nude while douching herself with spermed-up swimming pool water, I find it difficult to believe that what few swimmers remained were hardy enough to penetrate her swimming suit and make it all the way to her uterus.

When ONE sentence in a short story makes a reader bust out a detailed five-point list on why she finds it highly implausible, I’d say that would be an example of making shit up that has failed, and failed rather spectacularly.

On to the “getting shit wrong” part of this rant: About 50 pages into the book, I started feeling bored, so I flipped way ahead and skimmed to see if the stories got any more interesting. I came across this sentence near the end of the book:

Among the dead celebrities roamed animals extinct on earth: passenger pigeons, duck-billed platypuses, giant dodos.

Wait a fucking second. What in the hell? The duck-billed platypus is extinct?

Such was my faith in Palahniuk that I actually looked this up. Hey, it’s not as if I’m a zoologist specializing in monotremes or Australian wildlife; maybe it had become extinct in recent years and I hadn’t heard about it.

No, the platypus is still alive and well and frolicking in the waters of the antipodes.

OK, fine. It’s an honest mistake, though one that a decent editor should’ve caught (a decent editor would’ve also caught and corrected Palahniuk’s tendency to switch from past to present tense for no discernible reason, or addressed why all these different stories narrated by extremely different people all sound as if they were being told by the exact same person, but those are other issues and beyond the scope of this particular rant). At any rate, shit happens, so while this mistake was startling, I didn’t hold it against the book too much.

I flipped back to where I was and continued reading. Ooooh, the people were being fed nothing but freeze-dried food at the writer’s retreat. A bit eccentric, but hey, the whole book’s eccentric. Then I came across another example of Getting Shit Wrong. The bags of freeze-dried food were filled with nitrogen to “keep the contents dead.”

Actually, that’s untrue. Nitrogen is often used in food packaging to keep oxygen out, certainly, but the lack of oxygen doesn’t necessarily retard microorganism growth. Freeze-drying does that much more effectively. Keeping out oxygen prevents spoilage by preventing the oxidation of nutrients, especially fat. Oxygen and light contribute to make fats rancid, which in turn affects fat-soluble vitamins such as A and D. Other vitamins are also notoriously sensitive to oxygen, such as vitamins C and E, which is why they’re such effective antioxidants.

Besides that, many, many pathogenic organisms can multiply and spoil food just fine in the absence of oxygen, thankyouverymuch—that’s why bacteria and other microorganisms can be classified as “aerobic” (requires oxygen), “anaerobic” (requires absence of oxygen), or “facultative” (able to function with or without oxygen). Clostridium botulinum is anaerobic, for example, while salmonella, listeria and staphylococcus are generally considered facultative species.

Mind you, I’m not and have never been a biology major; I took two years of biology classes in high school and one 100-level biology class in college, and I managed to pick up enough knowledge to de-bunk THIS bit of bullshit.

This wasn’t the dumbest bit about the freeze-dried food, though. The worst part came when some people decided to deliberately sabotage the food supply by cutting open the Mylar packaging. Within days, the food was rotten, stinking to heaven and leaking pools of noxious fluid.

Excuse me? I thought the food was freeze-dried.

1. How in the fuck did it get bad so fast? Dehydration is one of THE most effective protections against food spoilage. Forget oxygen; water is one of the biggest (and most consistent) requirements for microorganisms to flourish—mostly because cells consist primarily of water.

Want to know how effective dehydration is in retarding spoilage? Just look at your average bag of dog or cat kibble. The moisture content can vary a little bit, but generally speaking, they contain less than 10% water (from the figures I’ve seen, 4-5% seems the average). Think of how many months you can keep that bag of kibble after breaking the seal without it going bad.

Or if you want another demonstration: How many of you have gone on weekend trips and just dumped a bunch of kibble into bowl or a timed feeder and called it good? When you came back, was the kibble rancid, stinking and dripping?

Yeah, didn’t think so.

2. Where in the hell did the fluid come from? Oh sure, freeze-dried food will absorb some atmospheric water, but so much that the bags actually leak and drip stinking fluid? Bitch, please. Here’s an experiment: leave out a small amount of freeze-dried coffee in a saucer on your kitchen counter and see how long it takes for it to gather discernible amounts of water from the atmosphere. Don’t have any freeze-dried coffee? That’s OK, leave out a bowl of cornflakes, which is basically dehydrated corn. See how long it takes before ANYTHING happens, aside from the flakes losing some of their crispness.

But then having the freeze-dried food remaining good for the duration of the story would not have served, because the story required the writers to starve and do drastic, gruesome things to stay alive. Why the hell Palahniuk didn’t just go with canned or frozen food instead is beyond me, because canned food that had its seal broken or thawed-out frozen food WOULD spoil quite spectacularly in a short amount of time. Maybe because canned corn, Hot Pockets and TV dinners aren’t as weird and cool as Mylar bags of freeze-dried space-age kibble? Who the hell knows?

I guess the point is: I am so much easier to piss off when an author gets science shit wrong vs. history shit wrong because I know more about science than I do about history.

No, wait, that’s not it. The point is: if you want to make shit up, make sure you do it WELL. I can buy into a story about a dude who has multi-colored chimps flying out of his ass, as long as I’m given sufficient backstory to explain the simian presence in his rectum. A genetic experiment gone wrong, an ancient gypsy curse, hey, sure, whatever—make it convincing. Make it detailed. Make it consistent. In short: Make it GOOD.

Most important of all: don’t get shit wrong. Especially basic shit.

Hmmm. Maybe I should re-title this essay and call it “Chuck Palahniuk’s Literary Offences.”



Ranty McRant

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    fiveandfour says:

    Chuck Palahniuk is one of those authors I keep meaning to check out, but haven’t.  I’m interested in Fugitives and Refugees since I love the concept of “keep Portland weird” that I understand he espouses in that one. 

    Now I’m wondering if his other books are as full of plot holes as Haunted.  The freeze dried food thing would have caught my attention in a negative way, too.  The pregnancy thing, I suppose that would have depended on the tone of how it was done.  As in, if it were like a story told ‘round the campfire that is supposed to be outlandish but potentially plausible in only the most remotest of ways it wouldn’t have bugged me.  But if it were told in seriousness, no way would I have bought it.

    So any comments on other books?  Is he worth my time?

  2. 2

    When I was being trained as an editor, she had this to say on researching: if your mother tells you she loves you, check her sources. Interesting, especially since she IS my mother.

    My point is, these mistakes shouldn’t have been made by the author. But since they were, they shouldn’t have been missed by the editor. Somebody should have picked up on this. That’s just weak.

  3. 3
    Candy says:

    Fight Club is the only other book of his that I read, and it was all right. Cool story told in a rather mediocre fashion. When I heard they were making it into a movie—a movie starring Brad Pitt, no less—I was extremely skeptical about how they’d make it work. To my surprise, they did a great job. It’s one of the few instances of a movie actually being better than the book, in my opinion.

    The thing is, Palahniuk has a very distinct voice. If you love the voice (and many people do), you’ll love his books. If you’re only so-so on the voice, like I am, then his books will be passably entertaining but not really great.

    The pregnancy thing: well, all the short stories are told in a fireside fashion, sort of, but the whole schtick of the book is (near as I can tell) is that these stories are Really Real and reflect the true experiences of the characters. So reading about dude radically prolapsing his colon while bashing the bishop is implausible, but given the context and the backstory, it was believable. The pregnancy thing? No. Fucking. Way.

  4. 4
    Sarah says:

    I vote we name Candy’s car “The Simian Rectum.”

  5. 5
    Sandy says:

    Is it possible that this story was set in the future, where platypi (platypusses?) have gone extinct? 

    I expect some historical mistakes to creep into books (like tomatoes & maize in pre-1492 Europe), but to get the present wrong takes real cluelessness.

  6. 6
    Candy says:

    I vote we name Candy’s car “The Simian Rectum.”

    Well, shit, Sarah, I can’t give the prize to you! You’re already the Duchess of Cuntington!

    Is it possible that this story was set in the future, where platypi (platypusses?) have gone extinct?

    That’s a possibility, though from the way the stories are written, everything is happenening in the Here and Now. But platypuses? Why not mention other animals that are much more likely to go extinct in the near future, like the Siberian tiger, the snow leopard or the hawksbill turtle? Platypuses aren’t rare; the reason people don’t encounter them very often is because they’re so reclusive. The juxtaposition of a rather exotic (but by no means endangered) species together with two bona fide extinct animals is also odd.

    I’m leaning towards “genuine boneheaded mistake” unless I learn otherwise.

  7. 7
    Rinda says:

    Oh man, that pool thing brought back a funny memory.  I was in the eleventh grade in NC when they passed the law to have English teachers teach a week of AIDS education.  We had this loner chick in highschool—you know, the type who wasn’t in the popular crowd but was so confident and cool everyone liked her. She had white, spiked hair, smoked cigarettes and drove this expensive little foreign sports car. 

    She asked the teacher about catching aids in a swimming pool.  Teacher didn’t get it.  Girl tried again in a polite way.  Teacher didn’t get it.  Girl finally said, “Jesus!  What if some guy with aids whacks off in the pool and I swim around with my mouth open.  Am I gonna fucking swallow the little guys and get sick or what?” 

    This teacher, when she recovered,  actually did research on it and according to her, “the little guys wouldn’t survive long.”

  8. 8

    Now I’m reallyglad I didn’t pick up the book at full price; that’s just the sort of stuff that makes my eyelid twitch. I try my damndest to Do A Little Research when I have an outlandish assertion I want to make in fiction, it irritates me when writers who think their readers are stupid don’t bother to.

    Thanks, Candy: you’ve not only performed a public service by keeping me fromt he rage that would no doubt result from me reading the book, but you’ve also saved me money. I’ll buy you a cuppa coffee sometime, LOL. Or even a Powell’s GC.

  9. 9
    Lorette says:

    Palhniuk is like a psychotic three year old playing in his own shit.  If it ain’t gross, don’t write it.  He takes men behaving badly to extreme heights.  I mean depths.  I don’t think he gives a shit if he’s accurate or not.

    Fight Club wasn’t a bad book, but, yeah, the movie was incrementally better.  If it hadn’t been for FC, would we even be seeing him on bookstore shelves now?

  10. 10
    CindyS says:

    Hmmm, the swimming pool thing, I would have been laughing my ass off.  However, we do have a pool and now I am not *ever* going to leave someone alone in it!  She-yit, there’s enough bio-crap I have to kill on a normal day and yeah, I try not to think about kids peeing in the pool.

    Not sure I would have picked up on the freeze dried food rotting but then, this is sooo not my kind of book.

    I’ve never seen Fight Club but maybe I should try it out.

    I had a ton of fun reading about the Platypus – I always thought of them as cuddly like the drawings on the site but that was probably the first time I have ever seen a real picture. The whole concept of where on the ancestoral tree they came from was interesting stuff.


  11. 11
    Amy E says:

    Oh my God!  I just realized—my firstborn child probably isn’t even mine!

    I mean, when I got preggers with him, I lived in an apartment complex.  I frequented the hot tub.  Sweet Jesus, who knows what stranger’s semen invaded my womb?  What if his girlfriend was ovulating (while sitting over the intake valve) and EVEN THE EGG MIGHT NOT BE MINE!

    Now the blond hair makes sense.  (Forget the blondes in my family tree.)  Oh my God, I need Montel.  I need Springer.  I need Dr. Phil.

    We need DNA tests of every man who’s ever lived at that apartment complex!  Some bastard owes me 9 years of back child support, and I’m coming for his ass.

  12. 12
    Alyssa says:

    Amy, I hope your search for the real father of your child goes well.

    Actually, the pool pregnancy thing isn’t so shocking. I used to think that sperm crawled across beds, so staying alive in pool water isn’t such a stretch.

    Of course, I was about seven at the time I thought that.

  13. 13
    Gabriele says:

    Noo, you’re getting it all wrong. This book is Literature with a capital L and all those seemingly illogical or wrong things are metaphors, symbols, allegories, whatever for the deeper meanings of life and love.  :-)

  14. 14
    Candy says:

    Yes! I see it all now! The freeze-dried food represents capitalism! And the incestuous pregnancy via spunky poolwater a representation of man’s drive to define himself as an isolato!

    *mind boggles*

  15. 15
    Weasel says:

    What bugged me most about the pool-pregnancy is why would anyone be swimming in that pool after such a disgusting accident?

    I guess, in theory, if such a thing were going to be possible, it could have happened from an earlier jack-off session, but it sounded to me like the pregnancy was supposed to be from that last, disastrous one.

  16. 16
    Kerry says:

    Oh, thank you thank you thank you thank you for this rant!  I thought I was a lone geek in the reading universe; it’s great to read someone else nail the egregious errors that drive me nuts.  Know what really gets me?  That mistakes like that get past even science fiction editors . . .


    On the other hand, my sister was complaining just the other day about how she’s the only one of the three of us who doesn’t look like one or the other of our parents . . .

  17. 17
    Cora says:

    I’ve never understood the appeal of Palahniuk anyway. I read the “Guts” story when it was excerpted in a newspaper and the swimming pool pregnancy made me laugh out loud. If that was truly possible (and everyone who’s ever been in an sex education class should know that it isn’t, because it’s one of those questions that will always be asked), the world would be full of virgin births.

  18. 18
    Susan says:

    Nothing bugs me more then huge mistakes in fiction.
    I read a book where a day after being shot in the gut, thigh, broke 3 ribs and a arm he was having vigerous sex and then climbed up a mountain.

    Some how i dont think he could do that. An no it was not a science fiction story where he was immortal or something. Just a ordinary guy.

    I am loving the rants on this site.

    Good job!

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