Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk, 1996)

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Fight club, by Chuck Palahniuk (1996).

Score: must-read.

When you’re a teenager you think no one can brood harder than you do. Then quarter-life crisis comes, knocks you to the ground and makes you see how wrong you were. I first read this about a decade ago. Like every other eighteen-year-old who reads this or watches the movie, it becomes sort of a bible of the edgy, reasserting what you already thought of the kind of world you were entering as a young adult. Fast forward ten years. You have been fighting to get those good jobs that the old folks refuse to let go without a fight. You were told you had to study hard to be someone but you’re flipping burgers anyway. You either have a stable relationship or you don’t, but neither is what they promised you. Anything other than living one paycheck away from bankruptcy seems like a bad taste joke. You pick this book up again. And you laugh bitterly at yourself.

Fight club is told first-person by a thirty-something everyman. Ikea-furnished condo, stable clerical job, the guy can’t sleep due to existential crisis. Doctor tries to hand-wave him by telling him terminally ill people have it much worse. Narrator ends up hugging and crying in the arms of the hopeless, the only place where he can let go of his angst. Until he realises Marla Singer is a tourist just like him. Shortly after, he meets Tyler Durden in a work trip. “We have a sort of a triangle thing going here. I want Tyler. Tyler wants Marla. Marla wants me.” What follows is a downward spiral of petty protesting against a world where these people don’t belong and they cannot change into something they can enjoy, in the form of peeing in rich people’s food, splicing porn stills into children’s movies or picking fights with random people.

Palahniuk loves his beige prose, and the grammar inconsistencies and limited vocabulary make the first-person narrator work superbly. In a similar fashion as in Ellis’ style, the narrator’s litanies and juxtaposition of contrasting scenes give the whole text a symbolic and lyrical value. The linguistic simplicity doesn’t mean the book hasn’t got layers upon layers of meaning, symbols and metaphors. But if you take this as a philosophical treatise, you’re making a teenager’s mistake. This is not a metaphysical statement. This is not a book to live by. Ultimately, it’s the story of a young man who is too sensitive for a tragically flawed world.

If you liked the movie, if you want to understand more of the pop culture of the last two decades, if you want to read a plain good book, read this one.

***SPOILERS***

Out of the many possible interpretations and layers of meaning in this work, there’s one I’d like to point out: the reflection on masculinity. I know I’m not the first one to point it out, but it’s hard to resist such an interesting theme when it’s jumping out of the pages so obviously.

There are twenty-two instances of the word “father” and the first one appears in chapter 5. It is brought up that Tyler never knew his father, and later revealed that the narrator was dumped by his. “My father never went to college so it was really important that I go to college. After college, I called him long distance and said, now what? My dad didn’t know. When I got a job and turned twenty-five, long distance, I said, now what? My dad didn’t know, so he said, get married.” The father figure is absent, and what little it does is give a conventional vision of what a man should be: educated, a successful professional, a husband and potentially a head of family, though that last step is never reached by the narrator. Throughout the novel there is an equivalence between God, the father and the successful businessman, an aspect of the traditional view of masculinity.

The first outlet for Tyler and the narrator is fight club, where violence, strength and fraternity are also staples of traditional masculinity. Tyler admits he was fighting his father the first time he fights the narrator. As adulthood is reached, the father is replaced by God: “How Tyler saw it was that getting God’s attention for being bad was better than getting no attention at all. Maybe because God’s hate was better than His indifference.” The mechanic’s speech in chapter 15 spells out the whole father and God equivalence pretty clearly.

There is another small detail in this chapter: Big Bob might be running his own fight club. Fight club is a sort of franchise and Tyler is the successful businessman that created it. Ironically, it’s also mentioned in chapter 5 that the narrator’s father started a new family in a new town every six years: “that’s so much like a family as it’s like he sets up a franchise”, the narrator says. The narrator’s father is at the same time the absent God, the head of family and the successful businessman.

Later on, Tyler starts Project Mayhem. It starts out by filling the basement with tripledecker army surplus bunk beds. “We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression”, Tyler says. So the missing war is replaced by army-like conditions and mindless service to a leader. As the founder of the project, Tyler becomes both an exploitative boss (Space Monkeys are given menial tasks such as boiling rice or cleaning for hours straight, or asked to go retrieve raw materials at ungodly hours) and a God. In his quest for masculinity, Tyler has become the very thing he hates, because he was craving its attention.

And what happens when you become a God? That your children disobey you sooner or later. This is what happens when the narrator loses control of Project Mayhem and also fails to leave it: even a God who dislikes His children can’t escape them.

Finally, the conflict between Tyler and the narrator can be seen as the conflict between conforming to normative masculinity and trying to escape it. Tyler is perfectly comfortable with being the God, the father and the successful businessman, while the narrator isn’t.

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