It’s been more than 20 years since Chuck Palahniuk first unleashed Fight Club on the world and simultaneously inspired legions of impressionable young men and appalled their parents. But the themes Palahniuk explored in that book — the emasculation of late-capitalism and the creeping sense of worthlessness and dread that accompanies it — seems more relevant now than it did even back then. Modern men find themselves in a precarious position, where masculinity itself is being (justifiably) re-evaluated, and in some cases, derided as the source of all society’s ills. And many of them are facing the troubling realization that they will never be as successful as their parents.
In response, a substantial number of them have dug in to oppose that evolution — men who seem to worship at the altar of Tyler Durden, the Fight Club character who was a paragon of unfettered, unapologetic machismo. If Durden were alive today, he wouldn’t inspire Project Mayhem — he’d be wearing a MAGA hat, leading a group of disaffected young men through the streets with pitchforks and staging #GamerGate-esque online harassment campaigns.
And so, Fight Club seems to be a rallying cry for their anger.
MEL recently spoke with Palahniuk about the book’s influence on the toxic ideologies that have taken hold in our culture today; why he thinks another kind of toxic ideology — toxic masculinity — doesn’t exist; the meaning of Harvey Weinstein, Joseph Campbell and John Lennon’s assassination; and how he coined the derogatory term “snowflake.”
A lot of the things you wrote about in Fight Club and revisit in Fight Club 2 seem even more pertinent today than when you originally wrote them more than 20 years ago. Specifically, the disillusionment of men who haven’t radicalized but have adopted radical ideologies and the infantilization of the modern workplace. You were able to see the seeds of what has now grown into these very toxic elements in our culture.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, there’s a comment about how many people are being born every day. Someone else responds by saying, “And I suppose they’re all going to want dignity and respect.” This dovetails into a grueling dread that I felt as a younger person — that status and recognition would always be beyond my reach. I think subsequent generations, larger generations, are coming up against that same realization: That despite their expectations, they might never receive any kind of status. And they’re willing to do whatever it takes at this point to make their mark in the world.
It seems like a lot of these movements, though, have seized on the ideas expressed in Fight Club. They’ve co-opted these things that you wrote about and made it a part of their own ideologies. Do you feel any regrets or resentment about this? Or better put, how does it make you feel when you see men’s rights activists on Reddit quoting your work to rationalize the terrible shit they say online?
I feel a little frustrated that our culture hasn’t given these men a wider selection of narratives to choose from. Really, the only narratives they go to are The Matrix and Fight Club.
Yes, they get red pilled and then they look at Tyler Durden as the platonic ideal.
Exactly. Almost all the narratives being sold in our culture take place in this established, very static sense of reality. We have very few narratives that question reality and give people a way to step outside of it and establish something new. So far, the only two things are The Matrix and Fight Club. I feel bad that people have such slim pickings to choose from.
But it almost sounds like you have a certain level of sympathy for these guys as well.
I have sympathy in that I was young a long time ago. And I know the terror of worrying that my life wasn’t going to amount to anything — that I wouldn’t be able to establish a home or create a career for myself. I can totally empathize with that panicked place young people are in.
What are your politics?
My politics are about empowering the individual and allowing the individual to make what they see as the best choice. That’s all Fight Club was about. It was a lot of psychodrama and gestalt exercises that would empower each person. Then, ideally, each person would leave Fight Club and go on to live whatever their dream was — that they would have a sense of potential and ability they could carry into whatever it was they wanted to achieve in the world. It wasn’t about perpetuating Fight Club itself.
Have people come to you and said, “Fight Club helped me realize my potential”?
In a lot of different ways. Many people decided to, as a permission through nihilism, to go ahead and do the thing that they’ve dreamt of doing. And a lot of fathers and sons were able to connect to this story and express their frustration about what little parenting they themselves got from their fathers.
A lot of people think of you as a nihilist. Do you bristle at that label?
You know, I am kind of a nihilist, but I’m not a depressive nihilist. I’m a nihilist who says that if nothing inherently means anything, we have the choice to do whatever it is we dream of doing.
You’ve been known to go after some of your critics throughout your career. Is that something you wish you hadn’t done in retrospect?
I willingly did it twice. And they were both instances very early in my career. I’ve never done it otherwise, so I can forgive myself for maybe taking actions I shouldn’t have taken. But what the hell? I had to learn.
This was before social media had taken off, too, and everyone was a critic. What is it like now when everyone can either directly give you praise or tell you what a terrible writer you are and how you should go die in a fire?
You have to completely ignore it. Because if it’s all praise, it just gets you high and that’s not healthy. And if it’s all criticism, it just gets you depressed and that’s not healthy. So I ignore it as much as I possibly can. And the people who bring me the news, I know those people aren’t my friends. It’s like Nora Ephron, one of my favorite writers, once wrote: It takes two people to hurt you — one person to actually say or do the thing, and a second person to tell you that this thing has been done against you.
Both Fight Club and Choke have been made into movies. Did you take any issue with the film versions?
No. You know, there is no point. The book will always be there. The film needs to be its own thing; it’s a different medium. It needs to express itself through different aspects of this story. So you can’t expect the film to be completely the book.
But with Fight Club specifically, there were so many people who got rich and famous and whose entire careers were changed by that movie. I mean, David Fincher became one of the biggest directors in Hollywood afterwards. Is there any type of resentment that people are dining out on this thing that you created and that maybe your role in it has been lost somewhat?
Not in the slightest. Because when that movie came out, it was an enormous failure. It was a failure in a way that Blade Runner was initially a failure. It was out of release within maybe two weeks and considered a massive massive tank. Pretty much everyone associated with the movie lost their jobs. It took a year or two of putting together the meticulous DVD to dig that movie back into profitability.
Earlier, you mentioned the terror you experienced as a young man about maybe never being successful. But now that you are successful — and I imagine successful beyond your wildest dreams — are you fulfilled? Or do you have the same sense of dread?
I’m very fulfilled. Because I get to work with many gifted creative and passionate people. That’s great because we all want to live our lives in the company of other people who love what they’re doing. There’s no better life than that. On the other hand, I’ve started to teach because I do want to be back in touch with what it was like to be that kid who couldn’t write a great story. I want to be able to be with those people until they break through and can write something fantastic.
I ask because in Fight Club 2, we find that the narrator has successfully put his Tyler Durden alter ego to the side. He got married and had a kid and is living the American dream in his house in suburbia. But he’s deeply unfulfilled. He worries his wife doesn’t love him, and he’s worried his kid doesn’t respect him. So Tyler Durden starts popping back up. To me, that seemed to express that there’s a certain hollowness or lack of fulfillment in achieving what you want.
It’s funny, it isn’t the process of getting stuff, it’s the stuff itself that becomes the anchor. It’s buy the house, buy the car and then what? It’s that isolated stasis that’s the unfulfilling part you ultimately have to destroy.
That’s the American pattern — you achieve a success that allows you isolation. Then you do something subconsciously to destroy the circumstance because you can come down into community after that. Maybe you’ve got this great career where you can do whatever you want, but on the side, you’re sexually harassing and assaulting women. You’re doing something that’s going to force you out of the isolation of success. It’s going to push you back into the community with other people. We like to move between isolation and community and back to isolation again.
Are you referencing Harvey Weinstein specifically?
Well, whether it’s Weinstein or successful people who abuse drugs or have affairs like Tiger Woods, people always create the circumstances along the way that will destroy the pedestal that they’ve found themselves on. Then they can come back to earth and just be a person among people. Lance Armstrong is another good example.
So more of a self-destructive impulse. But is there any way to keep those two things in balance? Can those two things co-exist as a part of a man’s personality? Or are they irreconcilable?
Can you build a house on a plot of land without tearing down the house that’s already there? I think it’s inaccurate to call it self-destructive. In a way, it’s a different form of self-improvement or a different form of creativity. That act of demolition in order to replace the thing with a more profound and better thing.
In the book, you also seem to portray suburbia as an affront to masculinity and manhood itself. Do you personally feel that way? I know you’re an outdoorsman and live in a rural area. Is that something that you seek out to maintain your edge?
That’s a tough one. Because I’m not so much talking about suburbia as I am talking about this self-isolation that goes back to the whole snowflake metaphor where we’re taught that we’re special and hyper-individualized by being told that we’re unique and innately a treasure. It’s that idea of ourselves as different that drives us apart from one another. It was only once I realized, No, actually, all of us have far more in common than we have differences, and I’m not a snowflake, that I recognized myself in other people. That’s when I started to write about myself as part of a larger pattern of a larger experience.
“Snowflake” is an interesting word. It’s what Tyler Durden uses to tell men that they’re not unique or special. But now it’s been coopted by the alt-right as their favorite epithet of liberals and people who have no toughness. Which gets back to what we were talking about before…
You know, you want people to adopt the thing. You want to put the book in the movie producer’s hand and have them adopt it like a baby, raise it and put a huge amount of energy into it. In doing so, the movie producer is going to change it so that it reflects the movie producer’s experience. And once that material passes on to an audience, the audience adopts it. It will become the child of the audience and will serve whatever purpose the audience has for it. It would be insane to think that the author could control every iteration or every interpretation of their work.
So you just feel like an innocent bystander to how it’s being used? You don’t feel any type of feeling either way — good or bad?
No, I do not. You know, it’s like J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye and the death of John Lennon. I don’t think Salinger felt huge remorse that he’d written a fantastic book, and this book was interpreted by a damaged person. Nor do I think it was Salinger’s fault.
There’s one passage in Fight Club 2 that I found particularly interesting. You write, “Throughout childhood, people tell you to be less sensitive. Adulthood begins the moment someone tells you that you need to be more sensitive.” Is that something that you’ve specifically had to work on as you’ve grown older?
Oh, hell yeah. It’s one of those little truisms. You have so many people telling you, “Don’t be so sensitive.” Then, suddenly one day, it turns around.
You seem very soft and gentle over the phone, I’m surprised that the man who wrote Fight Club seems so tender in his voice.
I’m a much older man now too. Fight Club was 20 years ago for me.
It seems like you’re saying that you’ve released a lot of the rage you had as a young man.
I was going through a huge disillusionment. I’d been a really good student. I kept my nose clean. I followed this blueprint society had presented to me that said that if I did all these things — get my degree, pay back my student loans and work very hard — eventually I’d achieve some sort of satisfying success.
But it just wasn’t working. Around the age of 30, all of that good boy stuff starts to fall apart. You have to make a choice as to whether you’re going to continue along that road, or whether you’re going to veer off that road and find ways to succeed you weren’t taught. That’s where I was. I was really disillusioned that I’d been given the same roadmap everyone else was given, but that none of us were finding it effective.
We hear the term “toxic masculinity” a lot these days. As someone who writes a lot about manhood, what does it mean to you?
Oh boy, I’m not sure if I really believe in it.
It seems like a label put on a certain type of behavior from the outside. It’s just such a vague term that it’s hard to address.
Let me take the opposite approach then: Who would be the male role model in today’s culture? Is there somebody who young men have to look up to as the ideal man and is someone who I should aspire to be like?
Joseph Campbell said that beyond a person’s biological father, people needed a secondary father — especially men. Typically that was a teacher, coach, military officer or priest. But it would be someone who isn’t the biological father but would take the adolescent and coach him into manhood from that point. The problem is that so many of these secondary fathers are being brought down in recent history. Sports coaches have become stigmatized. Priests have become pariahs. For whatever reason, men are leaving teaching. And so, many of these secondary fathers are disappearing altogether. When that happens, what are we left with? Are these children or young men ever going to grow up?
Is that what you fear — that we’re going to have a generation of young men who have never been fully socialized? Who have never been fully taught, not just how to be men, but how to be fully realized people?
I’m not afraid that it won’t happen, because it’s gonna happen. One of the things that I loved about Campbell is that he explained gangs by saying this is what happens when there’s no secondary father. These gangs are taking young men and giving them impossible tasks, giving them praise and rewards and coaching them to an adulthood. But it’s a negative adulthood. And so, as these secondary fathers disappear for everyone, there will be similar forms that will appear and fulfill that function. But they will coach these young men to maybe more negative manhoods.
Yet it also seems like there’s a lack of universally accepted male role models at the national level. There’s no Frank Sinatra or Hugh Hefner anymore — no one who, for better or worse, everyone looks up to. Do you think I’m wrong in that assessment?
I think you’re wrong in that these were maybe not the healthiest male role models to model yourself after. I prefer to think of someone like John Glenn.
Okay, I’ll buy that. Is there a modern-day John Glenn?
Maybe not on the big, big level that everyone can emulate. But I think that on a more local level, there are teachers who mentor students. The man who taught me minimalist writing, Tom Spanbauer, was very much the master of this workshop of students. And among his apprentices — the people who could produce work that was marketable — bought their way out of his workshop. They achieved a mastery of their own. I’d like to see more of that happening. Instead of people just being given grades and being given loans to repay. I’d like to see them actually demonstrate a mastery in something useful in this kind of apprentice/mentor student role.
You’ve experienced a lot of death in your life and even volunteered at a hospice for a time. Why were you drawn to something so morbid?
It panicked me as a young person to first get a sense of my mortality — that at some point, I was going to be called upon to die. Because I had no idea what it was like to die. By working at a hospice, I was able to see what the process was like — that some people die beautifully and some people die horribly, but that if they could do it, I could do it, too. It gave me a greater sense of ease around the inevitability of dying.
Later in life, your father was murdered by the ex-husband of his new girlfriend. When something that terrible and seemingly random happens, how do you try to make sense of it?
By using my journalism degree. By going to the trials and talking about all the details. By understanding moment by moment everything that took place. And by establishing a sense of, not quite control, but a sense of having mastered the narrative of what led to what.
On another strange and inevitable level, my father had almost been killed as a child. His father had become very upset and killed his mother and himself. But he also tried to kill my father. He just gave up searching for him before he committed suicide. When my father was finally killed by this woman’s ex-husband all these years later, a mattress fell on top of his body as the building he was in burned. The mattress is what preserved his body well enough that they could identify him as my father. Crazy enough, the reason my father survived as a child when his father went insane was that he had hidden underneath a mattress.
There were so many coincidences like that. So in a way, my father’s death seemed like this perfect circle back to this past event actually coming to fruition. There were just too many odd coincidences to completely ignore them all.
And yet, despite all these coincidences, you still identify as a nihilist? Something like that is uncanny. It almost seems otherworldly that there would be that many parallels.
There’s a choice — you can either identify as a nihilist, or you can try to impose your own belief system on something you don’t understand. The latter option says more about controlling other people, and I prefer not to do that. I’d rather work from a position of nihilism, because I think that’s the best base for creativity and play.
Still, you needed to process your father’s murder as a story and have some control of it in order to get past it.
I treat storytelling as a digestive function. You ruminate like a chewing animal. And you chew a story over and over again until it has absolutely no emotional reaction, and you’ve resolved your emotional reaction to it. First by distancing it as a craft exercise — by turning it into a story — that’s one step. But the big step is to tell that story over and over again until you’ve completely assimilated the event into your identity, and you’ve exhausted your emotional reaction. You are no longer used by the story; you’re using the story at that point.
You also supported your father’s killer being sentenced to death, a sentence that ended up getting commuted. I can’t imagine you arrived at that conclusion lightly.
Some of the officials showed me documents from this man’s lifetime of incarceration. It was unethical, maybe even illegal, but there were a long string of things that he’d been convicted of doing since childhood. This man had created so much pain and had destroyed so many people’s lives that it just seemed like the cleanest way of resolving his life.
What was the most important thing that your dad taught you?
When I was little, we lived out in the country and had this chopping block where we killed chickens. My father had told me not to put metal washers over my fingers and get them stuck. But I did it anyway. The washer got stuck, and my finger turned black. I went to my father, and he said, “We’re going to have to cut this off.” It was completely clear to me that it was my fault, that there was a price to pay and that my father was doing me a favor by washing my finger and putting rubbing alcohol on the axe so it would be sterile.
When we got to the chopping block, my father had me kneel down and put my finger on it. Then, he swung the axe and missed by an inch. Afterward, he took me inside and took the washer off with soap and water. But in that moment, I was very clear — and I’ve been very clear since — that if things are going to happen in my life, I’m gonna have to make them happen — and if they don’t happen, I’m going to have to take responsibility.
That’s one parenting technique…
He was like a 22-year-old guy. So I don’t want to be too hard on him.
That’s very gracious of you. Nowadays, someone would call DCFS if something like that happened.
Again, he was a 22-year-old guy whose father had killed himself and his mother in a murder suicide. He’d been beaten as a child and had grown up to the best of his abilities. He had no parenting skills. I think he did a marvelous job when you consider his circumstances.
Aside from your father’s murder, the other big element of your personal life that’s become public is your sexuality. You didn’t, however, come out until 2003. And, in fact, even gave the impression that you were married to a woman. Why?
Because of my partner. He doesn’t want to be a public person. And the next question they ask you after coming out is, “Who are you with?” So I chose not to go down that road. For the same reasons so many celebrities will refuse to talk about their children — they don’t want to make their children into public figures.
If you were to start your career today, would you be more willing to come out? I imagine it would be much easier now socially speaking.
I’d probably do it exactly the opposite way. I’d say no picture on the book. I’d use a pseudonym like the author of The Hunger Games. I’d refuse to do any kind of public relations. I’d keep myself entirely out of the process.
Because I’d like the work to stand on its own and to be judged on its own. I’ve become exhausted with the constant explanation of the work, which I don’t think is necessary. Too much of the presence of the author can get between the reader and the story. Afterwards, the reader will no longer see themselves in the story; they will see too much of the author.
That’s interesting because there’s a certain kind of bro-y, straight white guy who really loves the Fight Club movie — and the book if they happen to read it. I imagine that they’re a little surprised when they find out the author is gay. Would you consider that accurate?
They are, and they aren’t. I don’t think it’s a big deal. I also wrote Invisible Monsters, which gay guys love as well as straight women because it’s all about that panicky feeling that this beautiful thing isn’t going to be beautiful forever and that you’ve got to transition that beauty into a different, more lasting form of power. That’s something so many beautiful women face and why people really attach to Invisible Monsters. And so, I think that by the time that book came out, I had such a variety of books in the world that the particulars about me were less important.
You’re really downplaying your own role in this. You don’t take pride in the fact that people really resonate with your work and want to discuss it with you?
That’s because my degree is in journalism. My job is to listen to people at parties and to identify their stories and to find a commonality in the pattern between them. Because when someone tells an anecdote that goes over well, it evokes other people to tell almost identical anecdotes from their own life. Then you choose the very best of these to demonstrate a very human dynamic. In a way, what I do isn’t so much invent things as it is identifying them. Later, I just put them together in a report that looks like a novel.
You think of your fiction as reporting?
It is. I have so little imagination. But I have so much admiration when I hear a great story from someone — the journalist in me wants to preserve it, archive it and honor it in some way.
Not long ago, we were talking about male role models, but it just dawned on me that I never asked you who yours was when you were growing up.
Dr. Christiaan Barnard. He was a heart transplant surgeon in South Africa. There was an article about him in a magazine when I was a small child, and something about him just completely captivated my attention.
Do you know what it was exactly?
The idea that he had dedicated his life to heart transplant research but that he had developed arthritis so severe that he could no longer do the work himself. That seemed like such a tragedy and made him infinitely more appealing.