Category Archives: identity

Books about establishing or discovering identity.

Review 77: Identity Crisis


Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales

There are, traditionally, two modes of thought when it comes to comic book super-heroes. The first is that just as these people are stronger, faster and more powerful than we, so must they also be better than we.

This is the philosophy behind the immortal words penned by Stan Lee in the first Spider-Man story – “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s not enough to be able to see through walls, teleport, manipulate eldrich energies or talk to gods if you do not live up to the incredible burden that comes with such powers. Even if you’re a self-made hero, with nothing more than your wits, a jaunty cap and a quiver full of trick arrows, there is still the expectation that you will always do the right thing. Or at least try to.

There is a nobility to this kind of super-hero. He is not motivated by fear – he surpasses it. She does not fall prey to baser human nature – she provides a model for us all to be better. These heroes don’t do what is easy – they do what is right. They don’t ever do the wrong thing, even if it is for the right reasons. They are, in a word, heroic.

This story is not about those kinds of heroes. This story is about the other kind – the heroes who are, when you strip away the Batarangs and magic rings and masks and tights, just as human as we are. Just as fallible, just as vulnerable to anger, fear and weakness as we. Much like the traditional hero, they are us writ large – in every way, unfortunately.

Being a super-hero – either kind – has never been easy. Balancing your hero life and your private life is something that even the best heroes have trouble with, and the decision to involve someone else in your life is one that carries great danger with it. If you marry someone, if you have a father or mother or lover, they all become potential targets for those who would want to hurt you. At some point, you have to decide which one is more important to you, and the special people in your life need to be included in that.

For Ralph Dibney – The Elongated Man – the choice was simple. He loved his wife, Sue, and his heroism, so he decided to have them both and became one of the very few heroes to make his identity public. Together, they were a true celebrity couple, touring the world, solving mysteries and showing everyone what a truly happy marriage looked like. And they were so very happy. Sue became an honorary member of the Justice League (an honor that not even Lois Lane has been granted) and their love inspired everyone who knew them. The heroes’ love for Sue Dibney led them to one of their greatest mistakes – albeit one that would not come back to haunt them until the worst had already happened. Not until Sue Dibney was murdered.

The heroes of the DC Universe went into overdrive, searching every corner of the world for Sue’s killer. Whoever it was had bested the technology of four worlds and eluded the greatest detectives in history. And what’s more, this new villain was targeting others that heroes loved. It was only a matter of time before someone else died, and if they could not find the killer then the very fabric of the hero community would be torn apart.

While this is, with a few caveats, a good story, it’s not a pretty one by any means. It shows the darker side of the heroes we love. They act in morally questionable ways – something that the traditional super-hero would never do – in order to serve the greater good. By using their powers to adjust the personality of Dr. Light, turning him from a menacing villain to a laughable punching bag, they set in motion a chain of events that would have universe-wide repercussions.

All told, I liked this story. For one thing, the writing was really solid, with great care paid to pacing and visual impact. The story is not really about the heroes, at least not by themselves. It’s about the relationships they have with other people, and how those relationships affect their decisions. That’s why characters are constantly introduced in terms of their relationships to each other. You can see it on the very first page – “Lorraine Reilly and Ralph Dibney. Co-workers.” The fact that they’re both super-heroes is self-evident. The fact that they’re people, with a relationship to each other, is often taken for granted in comics.

Ray Palmer and Jean Loring go from “Divorcees” to “Lovers” in the span of two pages, while Firestorm goes from hero to atomic bomb. “Father and son,” “Husband and Wife,” “Partners” – characters are constantly being introduced by their relationships, and usually by their given names, rather than their superhero sobriquets. In fact, Green Arrow, who is one of the driving forces in this story, rarely refers to anyone by their code name. When he does, it’s an immediate signal that this is a person he doesn’t know well. To Ollie, and thus to us, these are people under those masks, and it’s important to remember that.

My favorite example of the heroes’ humanity is the scene in the issue “Father’s Day,” wherein Robin and Batman are racing to save the life of Robin’s father. Set up by the mysterious killer who murdered Sue Dibney, Jack Drake tries desperately to tell his son not to blame himself while Tim tries just as desperately to save him. In the end, even the incredible Batman is unable to save this one life, and the reader is forced to feel every moment of it. It’s a painful, beautiful sequence, both in terms of the writing and the artwork.

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the villains as well. All too often they have been portrayed as madmen and megalomaniacs, driven by nothing more than nefarious purposes and misanthropy. The villains in this book are also humanized. They tell stories, have trouble making ends meet, even have hobbies outside of villainy. And, like the heroes, they have relationships with each other. They are fathers and sons, friends, employers and employees, and the tragedy being visited upon the heroes spills into their world as well. While we may not root for the bad guys, we can at least sympathize with them a little more.

There certainly are flaws to the story, though. For one, it’s been described as “tragedy porn,” and I can’t disagree. Much as regular pornography takes the sexual act and distorts it into a pleasurable fantasy, so does tragedy porn take an unfortunate event, such as rape or murder, and make it into something even more horrible than it normally would be. Whether this is entirely a bad thing, I can’t really say. Writers have always used pain and death for our entertainment – hell, look at Titus Andronicus. Not only was Lavinia raped, she was mutilated on top of it. Was Shakespeare just trying to get a rise out of the masses? Maybe. Is Meltzer doing the same here? Probably. Does it work? Hell, yes.

There have been a lot of objections raised to the use of rape as a plot device in this book – whether it was appropriate for a super-hero comic book, for one, and whether it was nothing more than a gut-punch. A story choice that’s effective, but ultimately unimaginative. All this may be true, but my take on it is this: That’s not what the story is about.

The story isn’t about rape or murder. It’s not about mind-wipes and magic. It’s about the relationships between these people, heroes and villains all. It’s about their identities, as the title implies – how they see themselves and how others see them. It’s about people, with all the flaws and defects that make them human. It’s a book of revelations, illumination and truth, none of which are ever easy to confront.

While this wasn’t the first comic book story to feature its characters as humans rather than heroes, it could be the most influential. At least in recent years. The events of this book started a chain reaction that has followed through to every universe-wide event that DC has published in the last six years, from Infinite Crisis all the way to Blackest Night. Meltzer built a story that provided a solid foundation for a new DC Universe. It’s a universe that gives us heroes more realistic than before, more human and fallible. While it may not be the kind of story that you like, you cannot deny the impact that it’s had.

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“Think about your own life, Wally – everything you’ve done to keep your secrets safe. You don’t just wear the mask for yourself. It’s for your wife, your parents, even for – one day – your children. There are animals out there, Wally. And when it comes to family, we can’t always be there to defend them. But the mask will.”
– Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) to Wally West (Flash), Identity Crisis
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Identity Crisis on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer on Wikipedia
Rags Morales on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer’s homepage
Rags Morales’ blog (last entry2006)
Identity Crisis at Amazon.com

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Filed under Batman, Brad Meltzer, comic books, DC Comics, death, detective fiction, ethics, identity, morality, murder, Rags Morales, rape, super-heroes, Superman

Review 67: The Graveyard Book


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As I’ve said before, Neil Gaiman is one of the very few authors whose books I’ll pick up without reservation. I can always be sure that I’ll enjoy what he does, so I always look forward to new work. I am happy to say that this book is no exception. It’s even made news recently – it won the Newberry Medal for Children’s Literature, a very prestigious American literary prize. So good for you, Neil….

It’s a well-deserved medal for a book that follows in the footsteps of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It’s a book that can appeal to young readers and adults alike, without being condescending or patronizing, something that many writers for young readers have trouble with. As can usually be expected from books aimed at young readers, it’s heavy on the themes of growing up, learning your place in the world, and eventually deciding who you want to be. The means by which this book does it, however, are slightly different.

The first line was enough to get me hooked: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

Ooo. Shivers.

The story begins with a gruesome triple murder, as all good childrens’ books do. But the intended fourth victim, a young toddler, manages to escape the bloodbath and wander, quite innocently, up to the graveyard on the hill. There, amidst tombs and graves that had lain there for centuries, he is saved from certain death and given protection by a most unusual new family: ghosts.

The boy, rechristened as Nobody Owens, or Bod for short, is raised by the spirits of this tiny world through the intercession of Silas, a mysterious individual who straddles the boundary between the living and the dead. As far as places to grow up go, it’s not a bad one. He does end up learning some rather old-fashioned English from those who died half a millennium ago, and wanders around in a grey winding sheet instead of proper clothing, but he is safe there. He has the Freedom of the Graveyard, a gift from the ghosts that allows him the protection that only the dead can offer.

As Bod grows up, he learns the tricks that ghosts can do – how to fade from sight, or to rouse fear and terror, how to walk through walls. But he also learns that he’s very different from his adopted community. Their lives are ended, their stories are done. He is alive, and as he gets older, that difference becomes more and more vivid. While he may live among the ghosts, he is not one himself. Not yet, anyway.

But there are those who would like to make him one. The mysterious murderer who destroyed Bod’s family, a man named Jack, is one of many wicked men who would see Bod dead. He may have lost the boy once, but he and his confederates are determined to find him again. There is a prophecy, you see, and they mean to see that it’s stopped. And once Bod learns about his family’s fate, he becomes equally determined to see justice done.

The book is really good. It’s a bit simple for an adult audience, and there were a few plot points that I was able to predict pretty quickly. But the book isn’t really aimed at us – it’s aimed at the younger reader, around eleven or twelve years old. Such readers don’t quite have the experience to know that, say, when a new character is introduced two-thirds of the way through the book, that’s a character to be wary of. It’s the kind of book that’s best read to people,and that’s how Gaiman promoted the release of the book, by doing public readings of it.

As I said before, it dwells on the theme that most books of this genre do: growing up. As Bod gets older, as he starts to feel the pull of the outside world, he understands that he can’t stay with his family forever. The dead don’t grow, they don’t change, but young people do – often very radically in a very short span of time. While it is perhaps a stretch to compare parents to dead people, there is certainly a vague parallel to be drawn here. As adults, we don’t change very much, at least not unless we have to. We’re set in our ways and our beliefs. They’ve served us well, and if there’s no reason to go mucking about with them, then they’re better off left alone. Kids, however, are malleable and ever-changing. They go through phases and changes and switch from adorable little tyke to abominable little teenager with alacrity. Eventually, they have to discover who they are, and the only way to do that is to leave.

The nice thing about Bod is that, while he does get into trouble and disobey his guardians, he is, on the whole, obedient and self-aware. He understands that his freedom – indeed his very life – is a gift to him from the graveyard. The ghosts there taught him what he knows, and made sure that he lived through the traumas of childhood and the machinations of men who wanted him dead. He appreciates what his guardians have done for him, even as he prepares to leave them. It’s a good message, slipped in with the general motif of the challenges of growing up, and one that I hope young readers absorb.

It’s easy for a young person to look at the adults in his or her life and think of them like the ghosts in this book. Yes, their lives aren’t very exciting anymore, and yes they tend to be overprotective and kind of a pain in the ass. But it’s for a good reason, most of the time. Thanks to them, you have all the possibilities of life laid before you. And it won’t be easy, living. But you should do it while you have the chance….

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“You’re always you, and that don’t change, and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
– Mother Slaughter, The Graveyard Book
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Filed under children, coming of age, death, family, fantasy, friendship, ghosts, identity, murder, Neil Gaiman, young adult

Review 44: Shutting Out the Sun


Shutting out the Sun – How Japan Created its own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger

One of the things you learn about Japan when you get here – and you learn it pretty quickly – is that there can be a vast difference between the appearance of Japan and the reality of it. The faces that people show you, or even that the city shows you, is not necessarily their true face.

Take Kyoto as an example: it prides itself on being a city of traditional culture, the touchstone of all that is Truly Japanese. When you first see it, though, you think, “Really? Because it looks like a big ol’ jumbled-up city to me.” And it does – aside from the temples, which remain more or less relegated to the edges of the city, the vestiges of Old Japan have been swept away in favor of concrete and glass. Kyoto Station is a glimmering lump in the middle of the city, and Kyoto Tower, as many have said, is a stake through its heart. But ask anyone and we’ll say, “Kyoto is a beautiful city.” Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

This is how it is to live in Japan. There is a gulf between the true nature of things and the way we want them to be. For someone born and raised here, this kind of thinking is taught from birth, and without the ability to divide oneself in twain, life in Japanese society can be very difficult. These two states have names, too – tatemae is the face that you present to the world, the one that everyone expects of you. Honne is your “true self,” the feelings and thoughts that you hold in reserve so as not to cause conflict with the greater society around you.

The origins of this dichotomy are unclear, although there are those who attribute it to a culture with roots in collective agriculture. If your life and the lives of everyone in your village depends on getting the rice crop in, you have to learn to hold back certain feelings or desires for the good of the group. You sublimate yourself into the group structure, because that’s what has to be done. So, tatemae isn’t a lie, or a deliberate performance designed to deceive people. It’s a bargain between oneself and society – “This is what society needs me to be? Fine. I can be that.” What remains is honne, the inner self that society cannot touch, but can never see.

So what happens when someone can’t hold up their end of this social contract? What happens when the modern world makes demands of people that this ancient compact can’t handle? Well, that’s when things start to go wrong….

For many years, this bargain between the individual and society worked, mainly because society kept up its end of the deal. People were protected, employed, and given a place in the world, whether it was the feudal culture of the Edo era, the wartime mobilization of the 30s and 40s, or the indomitable Japan Inc. of the post-war years. As the world progressed, however, it soon became evident that the old ways weren’t enough. Japan needed to change, or face stagnation and irrelevance.

In this book, Zielenziger tries to figure out how Japan got into the state it’s in – a decade and a half of stagnation, with no end in sight, and the very real possibility of a slide into graying irrelevance by the middle of the century. To do so, he looks first on the human scale, at the people who have given up on Japan’s social contract – the hikkikomori.

Like so many other things Japanese, the hikkikomori phenomenon is said to be unique to Japan. Not quite agoraphobics, not quite dropouts or depressives, the hikkikomori are people – usually men – who have given up on the world. They usually live in a single room, often in the homes of parents who enable their hermit lifestyle, and refuse to come out. They sit in there and read, or watch TV, or think. They see no place for themselves in the outside world, and so they give up on it. The men that Zielenziger interviewed suggested that the outside world was too much for them. In many cases they were bullied by others – a pattern of social control that is unfortunately ingrained here – or they simply looked at their parents and thought, “Is this what I will become?”

An American child, faced with the knowledge that he doesn’t fit with the rest of the world, will probably see it as an opportunity to shape his own identity. A hikkikomori sees it as a personal failure. He knows how Japanese society works, and rather than blame the world for not accepting him, he blames himself for not being able to fit in. Thus, retiring from the world is seen as the only option available, other than suicide. Some hikkikomori spend years in their rooms, refusing to speak even with their parents, who – often out of a sense of shame or the nurturing love known as amae – support their boys’ choice of lifestyle.

At the other end are the people who give their identity over to an outside source. In more dangerous cases, this outside source might be a cult, like the Aum Shinrinkyo group who carried out the deadly sarin attack against the Tokyo subway in 1995. A more benign manifestation, however, is brand mania. Zielenziger talks to women who identify themselves through the brands they buy. These people will spend money they don’t have in order to get a bag from Louis Vuitton or Gucci or Chanel. They distinguish themselves with their brand identity, willingly giving up their own in the process. In a country where one can no longer trust the government to look after your best interests, or the media to tell you the truth, or business to give you a job, putting all your faith in Louis Vuitton – with its worldwide reputation for quality – seems to be a good idea.

It’s a nation in crisis, according to Zielenziger. It’s a country that’s gone from feudalism to full modernity in only a century and a half, but the culture hasn’t changed nearly as much as the country has. It’s a bustling, 21st-century nation built on a foundation that was laid in the 17th century, and things are starting to fall apart. It’s a country that puts society before the individual, but that premise is cracking under the weight of a world that values individuality. It’s a place where responsibility is distributed and accountability doesn’t exist, where mistakes go unexamined lest they bring shame upon those who made them, and where the past is a thing that can be easily ignored if it troubles you. Zielenziger believes that the underlying social structure of Japan is holding it back, leading the entire country to another withdrawal from the world. Much like the hikkikomori that no one likes to talk about, Japan may one day find itself alone and isolated, not knowing its place in the world and not knowing how it can get back to what it used to be.

The book is quite a read, going from small one-on-one interviews to historical and sociological analyses, but it is overwhelmingly negative in tone. Zielenziger isn’t wrong, necessarily, but he is of the mind-set that Japan is irrevocably screwed and that only Western cultural intervention can save it.

He lays the hikkikomori problem – and the problem of parasite singles, NEETs, and all the other dysfunctional youth – at the foot of Japan’s collectivist culture, as well as the intense bond of amae that exists between the parent and child. While he doesn’t say it in so many words, he does imply that the traditional social structure of Japan is simply incapable of keeping Japan competitive in the modern era. He believes that Western values, especially those stemming from Christianity, are what Japan needs to survive.

The bit about Christianity seemed to come from left field, but he does make a case for it. Christianity, he believes, places the onus of salvation on the individual. It is a person’s works (or faith) that ensure his place in the afterlife. This focus on one’s personal responsibility, and ultimate judgment, fosters a Self that is harder to suppress. From that strong sense of individuality, a culture can foster more competition, thereby preventing stagnation.

There’s a long, not entirely interesting chapter on Korea that he uses to illustrate this point. Unlike Japan, Korea – once called “The Hermit Kingdom” – found itself facing economic turmoil and got themselves out of it. Not because Korean ways were better, but because they knew that if they stuck to their traditions they’d be screwed. Korea is a nation strongly influenced by Christianity, and the individuality that Christianity fosters, suggests Zielenziger, is what gave Korea the courage to risk social turmoil for the betterment of their nation.

There may be something to this, but I doubt that adopting Christianity en masse will save Japan from Zielenziger’s dire future. Honestly, it was tough to stay objective while reading this, mainly because of the gulf between what I see, having lived here for the better part of a decade, and how Zielenziger describes the place. If I didn’t know better, I would have read this and thought that Japan was a zombie nation, populated either by hermits or soulless consumers. From what I’ve seen, I know that this is not the case.

Granted, I haven’t completely immersed myself in the culture, mainly because that’s an extremely difficult thing for a non-Japanese to do. Most of the people I talk to are my students, and people with the desire and the resources to study English are probably not an accurate cross-section of the country. So I don’t claim to have any more insight into the Japanese mind than Mr. Zielenziger does, but from my experience it seems that all hope is not lost. Yes, the government is a faceless bureaucracy, the media is completely complacent and the corporate community that once offered jobs for life has vanished. But Japan has proved resilient in the past, adapting to great changes that were thrust upon it from the outside. And a quick look at Japanese history shows that, when the times need it, people emerge to challenge the established order.

That’s what Japan needs now. Someone – or, more effectively, a group of someones – to stand up, stick out and risk themselves for the betterment of their country. It won’t be easy – revolution never is – but it needs to be done. Perhaps one day, instead of shutting themselves in their rooms, there might be young men and women who take to the streets and show Japan that there is value in the individual. I hope I get to see it.

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“To survive in Japan, you have to kill off your own original voice.”
Kaz Ueyama, Shutting Out the Sun
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Michael Zielenziger on Wikipedia
Michael Zielenziger’s Homepage
Shutting Out the Sun on Amazon.com
Hikkikomori at Wikipedia
Amae at Wikipedia

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Filed under identity, Japan, Michael Zielenziger, nonfiction, psychology, society

Review 30: Fight Club


Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Well, now I reckon y’all have seen the movie, so there’s probably not a whole lot that you need to know about this book.

You know Tyler Durden.

He’s the Id, the unchained spirit that wants what he wants and he wants it now. He’s the voice in your head that tells you that everything is worthless, that chaos, death and the end of civilization would be better than anything our so-called “society” could ever create. He’s the one standing over your left shoulder, whispering “Burn it all down. It’ll be fun.” He acts in secret, he has an army of minions, and he has a plan.

Oh yes, you know Tyler Durden.

The narrator of this dark and strange cautionary tale knows Tyler all too well, and tells us of how he and Tyler tried to change the world. It all started very simply – with basement fight clubs where men could let out their rage and frustration on each other. There were very few rules to fight club, but that was okay. Rules were, in fact, the problem. The regimented society in which we live imposes constant rules on us – social rules, cultural rules, corporate rules – that tell us who to be and what to think. The rules of our society have sapped us of our strength and purpose, making us soft. Pliable. Weak.

But Tyler’s plan doesn’t end there – the fight clubs morph into Project Mayhem, a well-oiled anarchist movement, determined to bring down the very fundamentals of our society. With an army at his beck and call, Tyler is sure that his plan will succeed.

It’s a book with a couple of very powerful messages, one overt and incorrect, the other subtle and accurate. The overt message is Tyler’s message – we are a generation with no cause, no purpose. Our lives are governed by what we buy and what we wear, and none of us will die having done anything with our lives. In order to be Real Men, we need to strip away the veneer of civilization – our Ikea furniture, our make-work jobs and our cornflower blue neckties – and rediscover the inner core of ourselves. The brutal, unafraid, unapologetic beast that is Man.

This, to no one’s surprise, appealed to a lot of people when the film came out because it’s a very believable world view. Those of Gen X and beyond are reminded over and over again that the generations before us were the ones who actually did things. The Baby Boomers got herded into the slaughterhouse that was Vietnam, toppled a President, faced down the chaos of the Sixties and fought to change the world. Their parents, of course, were the Greatest Generation – a label that I have come to despise – who fought Hitler and freed Europe. Their parents struggled through the Depression, and their parents fought in the trenches of World War One.

What have we done? Until the beginning of the 21st Century, how had we suffered? What had we sacrificed? Not a whole lot, and I think a lot of us secretly believe that we’re not only not pulling our weight in the world, but that since we have not suffered, we’re not really adult. Our miseries have not been those born of chaos, war and destruction. Ours have been tiny, personal tragedies that are, in their way, insignificant.

I can see where Tyler Durden is coming from on this point – I do sometimes look around me and ask, “Where are our great challenges, our Normandy or our moon landing?” And I fear that without these milestones, my generation will never really be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, this is about where most folks stopped thinking and decided, “Shit, man, he’s right! I wanna start a fight club!” And short-lived fight clubs sprang up all over the country, lasting about as long as it took for people to realize that while Brad Pitt on the movie screen can get beaten within an inch of his life and still look cool, a normal human cannot. They missed the subtle message because it wasn’t one that they really wanted to hear.

The book is not about the triumph of nihilism over a consumer-driven culture. It’s not about being a Real Man. It’s not about being a unique snowflake or a space monkey.

It’s about overcoming both the desire to destroy society and the desire to be completely subsumed by it. It’s about the need for purpose, and the need for connection with other people, and what can happen when one is deprived of those things. Tyler doesn’t show up because the narrator is rootless or bored – Tyler shows up because the narrator has forsaken people for things. He has replaced personal achievement with material gain, and that’s not a very fulfilling way to live.

It is a cautionary tale for our generation – you are not your tragedies. You are not the club you belong to. You are not your scars. You are neither worthless nor undeserving.

You are what you make yourself to be, no matter what Tyler Durden wants.

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“If you could either be God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose?”
– The Narrator, Fight Club
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Fight Club on Wikipedia
Chuck Palahniuk on Wikipedia
Fight Club on Amazon.com
Official Chuck Palahniuk Fan Site

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Filed under anarchy, Chuck Palahniuk, fiction, identity, made into movies, satire, society, terrorism