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The Beating Path

Bro Bibles: ‘Fight Club’ by Chuck Palahniuk

Greetings and welcome to Bro Bibles, a series in which I ruin my summer by reading the books your worst ex-boyfriend holds dear to his heart. It’s my hope that by engaging with these often problematic and rarely rewarding texts, I will save everybody else the trouble — and perhaps learn why they are so popular among my cursed gender.

Do hygiene-challenged freshmen still have Fight Club posters on their dorm room wall, next to Scarface and Reservoir Dogs? Or has the oiled-up, camera-slicked violence in David Fincher’s turn-of-the-millennium homosocial satire lost its punch at last? If so, what does that say about its source material, Chuck Palahniuk’s bruising debut novel?

Fight Club the book, though lots of the film’s most ardent fans were never aware of it, anointed Palahniuk as the rare literary celebrity. He has repaid that success, and his supporters, with a prolific career and uniquely generous public events, autographing for a dozen hours at a time, engaging with every reader. Contrary to the stereotype of a neckbeard Fight Club devotee, his audience spans fringe to fringe; he has been an idol to those who, for whatever reason, feel like outcasts, misfits, freaks, and weirdos. His stories tap into symptoms of dispossession and disordered living especially acute in American youth, including, for a number of years, myself. As a teen, I returned time and again to the novels that followed Fight Club — my favorites were Lullaby, Choke, and Survivor. Later on, though, Diary disappointed, and in college, I was outright insulted by Haunted, a schlocky collection of urban myths in want of actual narrative. By then, it seemed to me, Chuck was more invested in grossing you out than casting a spell.

I stopped reading him after that — till now, more than a decade later, when I picked up a paperback of Fight Club for the very first time. I don’t know why I avoided it in the heat of my Palahniuk obsession, but I suspect I had some pretentious anxiety around reading an author’s best-known work, more so if it had already been a Hollywood blockbuster. Looking at it now, I recognize the genome of his craft, which tends to thrive or die on the knife’s edge of his pattern-making. As in any Palahniuk book, lines get echoed. “That old saying, about how you always kill the thing you love, well, it works both ways,” is a sentence that shows up near the beginning and toward the end, imbued with different meaning, sort of. While his aphorisms fall into a reflex of cheap inversion (“‘If you don’t know what you want,’ the doorman said, ‘you end up with a lot you don’t’”), his motifs can be hypnotically mutable, barreling through the action — I’m sure you remember the likes of “I am Joe’s Broken Heart” or “I am Joe’s Complete Lack of Surprise.” The virality of language, thought and mantra is at its strongest in what became Fight Club’s pop cultural legacy: the endlessly restated rules of fight club itself.

Of those rules, everyone recalls the first two, both of which are: “You don’t talk about fight club.” But as the club’s founder, Tyler Durden, enjoys pointing out, any new member is proof that these rules have been broken. Properly followed, his code of macho silence forecloses any chance of male connection promised by an underground, bare-knuckle brawl. The words resist themselves, serving as the vector of transmission rather than an obstacle: “‘The good news,’ Big Bob says, ‘is there’s a new group, but the first rule about this new group is you aren’t supposed to talk about it.’” This is a cunning paradox, and it speaks to Palahniuk’s modern concern with the place where gossip and legend intersect. Elsewhere, unfortunately, he just regurgitates the apocrypha of his age. As he writes in a decidedly weird afterword, Fight Club was originally a seven-page short story, the chapter that covers the first meeting and first recitation of the rules. “To make the short story into a book,” Palahniuk explains, “I added every story my friends could tell.” This is how you get stuff like caterers urinating in banquet soup and film projectionists splicing porn into children’s cartoons. The puerile anarchist stunts, I mean.

This kitchen-sink approach accounts for multiple messes. For one thing, the plot pinballs between premises instead of sprinting for the cataclysm we’re promised in the flash-forward opening. For another, it drives fight club’s evolution from brutal basement catharsis to the recruitment tool of Project Mayhem, a fascist militia that… does pranks? It’s hard to understand what has escalated when Durden opens a barracks in his house, sets an all-black dress code, hands down a new set of rules (most notably, “Don’t ask questions”), and then has his minions go around putting “I Drive Better When I’m Drunk” bumper stickers on cars. Eventually, they do threaten a police commissioner with castration — the worst punishment their testosterone-addled minds can cook up — but that’s after he threatens to crack down on the fight clubs. Durden’s ultimate terrorist scheme is not only a dud, it’s entirely unmotivated. Who cares if he can pull it off?

The lack of directionality is the result of Fight Club’s manifold furies, which cannot find a center. Are its men anti-consumerist, or anti-intellectual? Are they plain old nihilists? They’re mad at everything, which is like being mad at nothing, so you can’t tell when Palahniuk is cheering them on or having fun at their expense. It’s also why the men of the far right have unironically adopted parts of Durden’s dogma as gospel. Fight Club popularized one of their favorite insults (“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake,” the disciples of Project Mayhem learn) and trafficks in notions of femininity as a decadent weakness, the inability to give up luxury in pursuit of elemental truth (see: the high-priced soap made with fat liposuctioned out of the women who buy it). The book contains a disturbing fantasy of shooting up a white-collar office as well as what resemble passages from a mass murderer’s manifesto: “These are the quiet young men who listen until it’s time to decide.” When it comes to interpreting this dangerous material, Palahniuk is a maddening guide; he told MEL in an interview last year that he doesn’t believe toxic masculinity exists, and in the afterword to Fight Club wrote that his novel “presented a new social model for men to share their lives.” Not reassuring!

Migrating away from the boy-specific issues, Fight Club puts a voice to dynastic dread. We discover that we are “God’s middle children,” forgotten and confused, with no world war to fight or global catastrophe to endure. Yet we are somehow still the victims of an atrocity: “For thousands of years,” the narrator tells us, “human beings had screwed up and trashed and crapped on this planet, and now history expected me to clean up after everyone.” The same style of contradiction hobbles Palahniuk’s critique of capitalism. The protagonist claims he was “too complete,” with a nice condo and fashionable furniture, and had to lose it all, while Tyler complains that his people were “raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t.” Are they they haves and have-nots? Too comfortable and materially unfulfilled? There’s a case to be made that this dissonance is the real suffering (or a nod to the schizoid identity steering the tale), but I can tell you this for sure: A post-9/11 generation that grew up in the Great Recession isn’t worried about their opportunities for military adventure or the malaise they’d feel if they could afford a decent couch.

No, Palahniuk’s prescience here was in the ideal, since evangelized by the boys’ club known as Silicon Valley, of disruption. There’s nowhere else his crypto-libertarian politics of “empowering the individual” could have led. The intuition that radicalized white men would rather rip society up and start from scratch than try to cure its ills — that the privileged class would be indifferent and ruthless and absolutist enough to praise President Trump for “shaking things up” — was nothing short of brilliant. Fight Club got plenty right with regard to male rage and entitlement; the problem is, it didn’t do much to condemn or complicate it. Project Mayhem and Tyler Durden are heroic outlaws, burning down the world so something can rise from the ashes, but they have no reason to believe something would. One of them proclaims, “I see the strongest and the smartest men who have ever lived, and these men are pumping gas and waiting tables,” the implication being that such men would be better off in a post-industrial cult, an all-pervading fraternity of pain that takes meaning from the hurt they absorb or inflict.

And I’m not so sure that Palahniuk doesn’t agree with him.