Chuck Palahniuk


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Survivor Summary

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Survivor (1999), a satiric novel by Chuck Palahniuk, tells the story of Tender Branson, a member of the death cult Creedish Church. The nontraditional structure of the text finds the chapters and pages numbered backward running from chapter 47, page 289 to its ending on page 1, chapter 1. All members of the cult learn how to serve mankind, mostly as maids and butlers. They are afraid of human pleasures. They live waiting for a sign from God telling them to deliver themselves to him, meaning suicide.

As the story opens, Tender Branson is sitting in the cockpit of a 747, telling the story of his life to the black box. He is alone as he has hijacked the plane and released the crew and passengers. He is reciting the sequence of events leading to the hijacking. Tender belongs to the Creedish Church cult. It has been a decade since the cult was involved in a mass suicide. He was sent into the world to be a servant, his income going to the cult. Since the mass suicide, members have continued killing themselves, as they believe judgment day to be near. Tender is working for a rich couple in Oregon. He does not see them, receiving their instructions via a speakerphone. In the small apartment in which he lives, Tender gets calls from people thinking about suicide because his number was mistakenly put in the newspaper as a suicide hotline. He tells some to kill themselves and others not to. When a corrected number is published, he spreads his around so as to be able to continue receiving the calls.

As time goes on, he encounters Fertility, the sister of a man named Trevor whom Tender advised to kill himself. He also meets regularly with a caseworker at the Federal Survivor Retention Program, which is where the government keeps track of the survivors of suicide cults. He learns that one hundred and fifty-seven Creedish cult members remain. Tender explains that in the Creedish Church, firstborn sons and their spouses stay in the Nebraska community while the rest are sent elsewhere as servants. Tender, the reader learns, is a name that is given to all male children after the firstborn. The firstborn son is always named Adam. Females are named Biddy. Tender means one who tends, while Biddy implies that the woman is biddable. Once married, the woman is referred to as Author. They all wear the same easy to recognize clothing so as to be able to identify each other outside of the church community.

As Tender continues to tell his story, the reader learns that ten years earlier, someone made public the actions of the church, including brainwashing, not registering births, and not paying taxes. The local police in Nebraska turned the information over to the FBI. When agents arrived to arrest the leaders of the cult, they found that their pending arrival had led to the mass suicide. After having met Tender, Fertility gets him on the phone thinking she has reached the crisis line. He realizes it is her and disguises his voice. She is a psychic and knows it is Tender she is speaking with. She does not let on that she knows who it is as she talks about her brother’s suicide and of meeting a weird man named Tender who reminded her of a member of the cult. She tells him that she believes Tender to have been a former homosexual lover of her brother. Tender ends the call when she asks for phone sex. He no longer answers the phone for fear that it might be her calling again and that she will be more attracted to an anonymous voice than to him as a person.

Another meeting with his caseworker finds Tender dealing with frustration and telling her that the best way she can help him is to do some of his cleaning. She finds solace in this after so many years of dealing with suicide cases. She tells him that a good number of the cult suicides were murders that were made to look like suicides to prompt more of the survivors to take their own lives. Tender and Fertility meet again, and she tells him that Trevor was psychic. He later receives a phone call from someone who tells him that the survivors who were murdered were killed by a member of the Creedish cult. As the story continues, Tender and Fertility have a date during which they are taunted by a stranger making remarks about the mass suicide. Tender realizes that the stranger is his twin brother, but the man denies knowing him. Fertility takes Tender to a department store that she knows will catch on fire, but she also knows they will not be hurt. She admits to him that she, like her brother, can dream the future.

Tender is now one of the last two survivors of the Creedish Church. He and the caseworker look at pictures of the dead with the hope of finding who the other survivor is. Tender knows that it is his brother. The caseworker is overcome by chemicals she is using to clean a fireplace. The toxic chemicals were secretly mixed by Tender’s brother whose planed victim was Tender. The brother steals the caseworker’s Creedish suicide files. The police suspect Tender in the caseworker’s death and Tender flees to New York. After a series of events, including Tender gaining public recognition, and Fertility becoming pregnant and leaving for Australia, Tender reads in Fertility’s planner that a plane is going to be hijacked and crash in the outback of Australia. The narrative circles back to the beginning of the book. Tender realizes that he is the hijacker. The book ends on an ambiguous note as it is not clear whether or not Tender survives.