Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (1996)
What it’s about: America, the mid 1990s. The novel opens with the unnamed Narrator being held hostage in a skyscraper while a man named Tyler Durden presses a gun into his mouth. We learn that the Narrator works as a product recall specialist for an unnamed car company and travels constantly, though is proud of his condominium filled with IKEA products. Seeking a cure for chronic insomnia, he starts attending illness support groups where he finds emotional comfort. At a testicular cancer support group, he meets Bob, a former weightlifter who has developed breasts from steroid abuse, and Marla, a chain-smoking femme fatale who exposes him as a fellow “tourist”. Marla’s exposure of his lie makes the Narrator again unable to sleep, and he negotiates with her to attend different support groups and thus avoid each other. At a nude beach, the Narrator meets Tyler Durden, a charismatic outsider who works as a movie projectionist, splicing single frames of pornography into screenings of G-rated cartoons. When the Narrator’s condo is destroyed in a mysterious explosion, he asks to stay with Tyler, who agrees, but asks the Narrator “to hit me as hard as you can“. The Narrator moves into Tyler’s house, a derelict wreck next to a paper mill, and they start fighting each other, gradually drawing other men into their fights. The Narrator experiences new meaning and purpose in his life, and enjoys shocking his boss with his bruised appearance. Tyler calls the group “Fight Club” and lays out a series of rules, the first and second being “You do not talk about Fight Club“. Meanwhile, Marla calls the Narrator, noting that he hasn’t been attending his support group, and explains that she has taken an overdose of sleeping tablets. Tyler takes the call, goes to Marla’s apartment and rescues her, and the two begin an affair, fuelling the Narrator’s jealousy. Fight Club attains a national presence, and Tyler utilises its popularity to spread his anti-capitalist philosophy, describing his generation as “God’s middle children” who “[work] in jobs they hate, just so that they can buy what they don’t really need“, and raising the possibility “that God doesn’t like you. Could be, God hates us.” Promoting self-destruction over self-improvement, Tyler organises Fight Club members to play pranks on corporate firms, and recruits his most devoted members into Project Mayhem, a cult-like army who make home-made bombs. Tyler “initiates” the Narrator into Project Mayhem by burning his hand with lye, forcing him to confront his own pain, and explaining “It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything“. Project Mayhem’s activities become increasingly violent, resulting in the death of Bob, one of Tyler’s earliest recruits. The Narrator and Tyler argue and Tyler disappears. The Narrator travels around the country to find and stop Tyler, but is confused at the reverence he is shown by Fight Club members. Marla confirms to the Narrator that he is Tyler Durden. The Narrator realises that Tyler is his own dissociative personality who manifests while he is asleep, and that Tyler’s radical activities are actually his own work. Tyler’s final plan is to blow up a skyscraper and martyr himself. The Narrator goes to the roof of the building, where Tyler holds him at gunpoint. Marla arrives with one of her support groups, and Tyler disappears. The Narrator waits for the bomb to explode and kill them both, but it malfunctions. He shoots himself in the mouth with his own gun, and wakes up in a mental hospital that he imagines to be Heaven. The book ends with hospital employees confiding in him that they are Project Mayhem members who wait in hope for the return of Tyler.
Why it’s a classic: Fight Club took a while to find its classic status. Published in 1996, it sold a respectable but unremarkable 50,000 copies in its first imprint and earned some respectful reviews, but otherwise fell into the long shadow cast by Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s huge and sprawling novel about heterosexual masculinity in decline, who rightly or wrongly became the Great White Male Novelist of the 1990s. It was only after the release of David Fincher’s 1999 film adaptation, starring Edward Norton as the Narrator, Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden and Helena Bonham-Carter as Marla, that the novel was catapulted into serious cult stardom – due largely, I think, to the screenplay’s close adherence to Palahniuk’s remarkable prose and the filmmakers’ bold embracing of the book’s radical ideology.
Twenty years later, and with the benefit of hindsight, there’s a case to be made for Fight Club as one of the definitive 1990s novels. Like Douglas Coupland’s seminal short story collection Generation X and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, Palahniuk described an America in the grip of a fin-de-siècle malaise, in which the idealism of 1960s counterculture had withered on the vine, replaced by a consumerist culture that failed to deliver its promised utopia. But whereas Coupland and Wurtzel took refuge in irony and introspection, Fight Club turned its disaffections outwards with a bellow of testosterone-soaked rage, channelling the same anarchic Fuck You spirit as grunge acts Nirvana and Marilyn Manson. What Palahniuk did that few of his contemporaries managed (at least outside of sci-fi or speculative fiction), was to propose a radical – if insane – solution to smash the machine of consumer capitalism, and articulate the dormant psychopathology of the average American heterosexual male.
It’s unclear exactly how Fight Club satirises the anarchic, hyper-violent world it describes. Palahniuk loads the bases by creating a narrator whose intelligence and articulacy demands that we take him seriously, but who’s so unreliable that even he doesn’t realise that Tyler is his repressed “other” self. Normally an unreliable narrator destabilises our belief in what we’re being told, but this split between the Narrator and Tyler seems to be Palahniuk’s point: within every frustrated beta-male, sitting in their bathrooms with IKEA furniture catalogues, a furious masculine energy ferments, desperate to find release. Tyler exists because he has to, as the embodiment of atavistic forces that the Narrator has repressed to fit inside capitalist culture. Palahniuk’s vision of men beating each other unconscious as a latter-day form of consciousness raising is both funny and terrifying, but is presented as a more potent agent of change than the insular self-help groups that the Narrator frequents at the novel’s opening. Fight Club‘s manifesto of self-destruction leads, inevitably, to the Narrator’s death, suggesting it’s of limited usefulness as a political manifesto. That said, the book and film seemed to strike a nerve in late 1990s popular culture. “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club” became a meme (before they were called memes) and even more bizarrely, reports of copycat fight clubs sprang up all over the world. What Palahniuk intended as a literary exploration of an extreme ideology became something that disaffected beta-males decided they really needed in their lives, though cult followings like Project Mayhem seem to have been less popular. Finally, Fight Club owns the distinction of using the word “snowflake” as a pejorative, a term loved and much-Tweeted by the current President of the United States – which may be the truly scariest thing of all.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet made of bricks that can be chucked through a glass window. Given my passionate love of the film, I was pre-set to love Fight Club, and was delighted to find many of the film’s best lines lifted straight from Palahniuk’s prose: the Narrator’s opening monologue, “With a gun stuck in your mouth and the barrel of the gun between your teeth, you can only talk in vowels”; “The condom is the glass slipper of our generation. You slip it on when you meet a stranger. You dance all night, then you throw it away. The condom, I mean. Not the stranger”; “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.” That said, reading the book is a considerably darker, denser experience, shorter on laughs and requiring intense concentration as Palahniuk darts back and forwards in time, relaying his plot while introducing Tyler’s Zen Buddhist meets Nietzschean Unabomber philosophy. For a relatively short book, told in thirty brief tersely-constructed chapters, he packs in an extraordinary amount of visceral detail, from “The fart smell of steam from the paper mill, and the hamster cage smell of wood chips in orange pyramids around the mill” to “[t]he colour of Marla’s brown eyes… like an animal that’s been heated in a furnace and dropped into cold water,” to the fighters, “breathing through their teeth, hands slapping for a hold, the whistle and impact when fists hammer and hammer on thin hollow ribs, point-blank in a clinch. You see tendons and muscle and veins under the skin of these guys jump. Their skin shines, sweating, corded, and wet under the one light.” Writing of that precision and potency belongs nowhere else, for my money anyway, but in a great work of literature.
While Palahniuk’s prose has clearly held up over time, whether his subject matter does is more open to debate. Reading Fight Club over twenty years later in the age of global warming and Extinction Rebellion, I’m struck by how prophetic so much of it is. Some of the Narrator’s laments could have been written by (or for) Greta Thunberg: “For thousands of years, human beings had screwed up and trashed and crapped on this planet, and now history expected me to clean up after everyone. I have to wash out and flatten my soup cans. And account for every drop of used motor oil. And I have to foot the bill for nuclear waste and buried gasoline tanks and landfilled toxic sludge dumped a generation before I was born.” In other ways, the nihilism and destruction at the core of Project Mayhem feels a bit dated and 1990s, like my brother’s black Iron Maiden t-shirt that no longer fits but which he can’t bring to throw away.
The lingering misogyny of Fight Club, with its undertow of homoerotic attraction between the Narrator and Tyler, also hasn’t aged well. “What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women,” the Narrator says, adding “I’m a thirty-year old boy, and I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer I need.” Within this all-male conclave, women don’t really stand a chance. Even Marla with her nihilist cool (“[H]er philosophy of life, she told me, is that she can die at any moment. The tragedy of her life is that she doesn’t“), doesn’t partake of the book’s political discourse, existing mostly as the love interest or as the foil to the Narrator’s journey of discovery. The book’s only feminine space, the support groups, are populated with victims like the dying Chloe, who is “the way Joni Mitchell’s skeleton would look if you made it smile and walk around a party being extra special nice to everyone” or Bob, whose feminisation because of steroid abuse makes him the novel’s running joke, a squeaky voiced eunuch with “bitch tits” who is conveniently gunned down, never quite making it as one of the Fight Club soldiers “carved out of wood“. One could give Palahniuk the benefit of the doubt and argue that his trashing of contemporary masculinity is just as thorough, but ultimately he’s too much in thrall of the feral, go-for-broke energy of his fighting men to pay much meaningful attention to female experience. Similarly, the bromance between the Narrator and Tyler never feels fully worked out, and Palahniuk’s continual referencing of the “butt” and anal sex has the tone of a beleaguered straight man who can’t quite face his own taboo obsessions.
While I’m delighted to have read Fight Club at last, and loved re-encountering the dark, hyper-literate, psychopathology of the late 1990s, I doubt that I’ll read it or any of Palahniuk’s work again. I will, however, watch and rewatch Fincher’s movie version, which is still one of the most radical pieces of cinema that Hollywood has ever produced.
Quotable Quote: “Remember this,” Tyler said. “The people you’re trying to step on, we’re everyone you depend on. We’re the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers and we know everything about you. We process your insurance claims and credit card charges. We control every part of your life. “We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re just learning this fact,” Tyler said. “So don’t fuck with us.”