“It's so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.”
The book is written, obviously enough, as a diary. Misty Wilmot, a once-aspiring artist is now working as a waitress in a seaside hotel on Waytansea Island, which stands in for a Martha's Vineyard tragically gone wrong. Her husband is in a coma after an apparent suicide attempt. The book thus opens as a "coma diary" that she is writing to her husband as she wonders if he will ever come out of it. As the book unfolds Misty, and her latent artistic talent, become pawns in a twisted and slightly supernatural conspiracy that threatens not only her husband's life but hers and many others.
Diary is an odd combination, even for Palahniuk. It is part Choke, part Stephen King's Misery, mixed with a little bit of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. The novel is just hard to classify. On the one hand it fits in the modern horror genre, though the horror is more psychological in nature and like all of Palahniuk's books there is plenty of dark humor. After reading quite a few of these, I am used to the constant odd educational trivia diversions he takes both to perversely advance the plot as well as satirically poke fun at his own characters. (The first five pages alone have over 15 different scientific words for “fat” and “wrinkle” as Misty describes in detail exactly what her husband looks like after 100 days in a coma.) But while a novel like Choke seemed to rely heavily on this narrative device to tell his story, in Diary something more significant is going on.
This novel may actually be better classified as a work of neo-meta-fiction. Certainly the fictional blind-leads and dead-end plot contrivances give the reader a solid mental workout. There is no subtlety in Palahniuk's writing here. His words seem to dig into the reader, more often than not borrowing their way right under your skin. In telling the story of a once-ambitious artist and her struggle with the very concept of art, whether suffering is a prerequisite, whether you can ever create something that matters, one can almost hear the author himself grasping at what it all means.
“Any time some well-meaning person forces you to demonstrate you have no talent and rubs your nose in the fact you're a failure at the only dream you ever had, take another drink.”
In the end what Palahnuik seems to say is that all we ever create is what we already are and therefore the struggle is meaningless. Diary appropriately references Plato's Cave. It is here where all we see are our own shadows. We never see others for what they actually are; instead we only see aspects of ourselves reflected in others. We see what we want to see, which is of course only ourselves, for it is all a self portrait, a diary.