Sunday, August 12, 2007

Chuck Palahniuk - Fight Club

This is a superb novel, arguably one of the last classics of the 20th century. Published in 1996, and only Chuck Palahniuk’s second novel, it was later made into an equally excellent film with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. For most people who know Fight Club, it’s through seeing the film. I was perhaps fortunate in reading the book first (although when it had already been made famous by the film), yet as I say, both are equally good in my opinion. The adaptation is done faithfully, while at the same time adding an extra edge to the work; the main noticeable disparity is the different endings. All I’ll say is, the book’s ending does not involve the Pixies!

Whether in print or in cinema, or whether considered internally or externally, Fight Club is primarily a cultural phenomenon. Its story centres on the invention, by a dispossessed and disillusioned office worker, of an underground ‘fight club’ – i.e., bareknuckle, no-holds barred fighting in the dark basements of unscrupulous bar owners. Within the book, this phenomenon provides young, white-collar drones with a disturbingly effective form of release from their lives, and validation of their existence. Beyond this, as the novel progresses, ‘fight club’ accelerates and expands into increasingly violent, nihilistic and subversive expressions of discontent.

Outside of the text, the theme of Fight Club clearly found a resonance amongst readers around the world, particularly those (like myself) who read it in their teenage years. Fight Club really is a quintessentially modern book, a kind of fin de siècle portrait of the hollowness of our post-industrial world and decadent capitalist society. (Or a portrait of something very, very bad, anyway!).

To leave it for a moment to the professionals - amongst the quotes on the back of my Vintage-published edition, the novel is variously described as: “an outrageously apocalyptic comedy of horrors” by none less than Bret Easton Ellis of American Psycho fame; or as a “haunting and strikingly original American urban nightmare”, by the Glasgow Herald. In fact, it is the Big Issue which puts it best, as:

“A terrifying roller-coaster read which rapidly goes out of control. Palahniuk’s debut novel reads like Franz Kafka updated to modern-day New York via Paul Auster. What begins as a vicious evening of bare-handed fighting suddenly becomes a terrifying, apocalyptic movement… wonderfully unpleasant”

Basically, this is novel is dark, both morally and psychologically. It merely begins with the subversion of authority and society, and then soon progresses to the subversion of humanity itself. As the story goes, when a publisher disparaged his previous effort, Invisible Monsters¸ as too disturbing, Palahniuk got mad and replied something along the lines of “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. Hence, and as a result of a wholly deliberate effort to produce a superlatively disturbing book, the world was given this wonderful work of violent, sado-masochistic anarchy. Yet at the same time, Fight Club isn’t a shock book and as a philosophical, if deeply cynical work of literature, is quite sublime in places.

Palahniuk has a distinctive writing style, built almost exclusively around narration and dialogue, terse and detached with a cutting sense of humour. Interspersed in the minimalism of his text is an abundance of factoids, delivered here by Tyler, the suave, confident anti-hero of the novel. Fight Club may become one of the first popular classics of post-modern literature; blending perhaps as it does the hyper-realistic, detached dialogue pioneered by Don DeLillo with a hyper-literate, culture- and media-steeped wash of the information age.

Here’s a extract which is typical of Palahniuk’s style in general. This scene, the ‘invention’ of fight club, should be very familiar to fans of the film:

"...When we invented fight club, Tyler and I, neither of us had ever been in a fight before. If you’ve never been in a fight, you wonder. About getting hurt, about what you’re capable of doing against another man. I was the first guy Tyler ever felt safe enough to ask, and we were both drunk in a bar where no one would care so Tyler said, “I want you to do me a favor. I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”

I didn’t want to, but Tyler explained it all, about not wanting to die without any scars, about being tired of watching only professionals fight, and wanting to know more about himself.

About self-destruction.

At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything down to make something better out of ourselves. I looked around and said, okay. Okay, I say, but outside in the parking lot. So we went outside, and I asked if Tyler wanted it in the face or in the stomach.

Tyler said, “Surprise me.”

I said I had never hit anybody.

Tyler said, “So go crazy, man.”

I said, close your eyes.

Tyler said, “No.”

Like every guy on his first night in fight club, I breathed in and swung my fist in a roundhouse at Tyler’s jaw like in every cowboy movie we’d ever seen, and me, my fist connected with the side of Tyler’s neck.

Shit, I said, that didn’t count. I want to try again.

Tyler said, “Yeah it counted,” and hit me, straight on, pow, just like a cartoon boxing glove on a spring on Saturday morning cartoons, right there in the middle of my chest and I fell back against a car. We both stood there, Tyler rubbing the side of his neck and me holding a hand on my chest, both of us knowing we’d gotten somewhere we’d never been and like the cat and mouse in cartoons, we were still alive and wanted to see how far we could take this thing and still be alive.

Tyler said, “Cool.”

I said, hit me again.

Tyler said, “No, you hit me.”

So I hit him, a girl’s wide roundhouse to right under his ear, and Tyler shoved me back and stomped the heel of his shoe in my stomach. What happened next and after that didn’t happen in words, but the bar closed and people came out and shouted around us in the parking lot.

Instead of Tyler, I felt finally I could get my hands on everything in the world that didn’t work, my cleaning that came back with the collar buttons broken, the bank that says I’m hundred of dollars overdrawn. My job where my boss got on my computer and fiddled with my DOS execute commands. And Marla Singer, who stole the support groups from me.

Nothing was solved when the fight was over, but nothing mattered..."

(Ch. 6)

This next extract is similar, but is taken from a bit later on in the book, where the events have progressed somewhat. This I think gives a better feel for the inner spirit of the book, the sense of meaning (and no-meaning) which ties together the plot. Psychologically, Palahniuk’s character seems designed to be both familiar and unsettling. Part of the black comedy of Fight Club is what I might call its simultaneous portrayal of humanity and inhumanity. Here, the narrator is perched on the edge between the mundanity of his office lifestyle and the transcendence of his nihilistic violence:

"My boss sends me home because of all the dried blood on my pants, and I am overjoyed.

The hole punched through my cheek doesn’t ever heal. I’m going to work, and my punched-out eye sockets are two swollen-up black bagels around the little piss holes I have left to see through. Until today, it really pissed me off that I’d become this totally centered Zen Master and nobody had noticed. Still, I’m doing the little FAX thing, I write little HAIKU things and FAX them around to everyone. When I pass people in the hall at work, I get totally ZEN right in everyone’s hostile little FACE

Worker bees can leave

Even drones can fly away

The queen is their slave

You give up all your worldly possessions and your car and go live in a rented house in the toxic waste part of town where late at night, you can hear Marla and Tyler in his room, calling each other human butt wipe.

Take it, human butt wipe.

Do it, human butt wipe.

Choke it down. Keep it down, baby.

Just by contrast, this makes me the calm little center of the world.

Me, with my punched out eyes and dried blood in big black crusty stains on my pants, I’m saying HELLO to everybody at work. HELLO! Look at me. HELLO! I am so ZEN. This is BLOOD. That is nothing. Hello. Everything is nothing, and it’s so cool to be ENLIGHTENED. Like me.


Look. Outside the window. A bird.

My boss asked if the blood was my blood.

The bird flies downwind. I’m writing a little haiku in my head.

Without just one nest

A bird can call the world home

Life is your career

I’m counting on my fingers: five, seven, five.

The blood, is it mine?

Yeah, I say. Some of it.

This is the wrong answer."

(Ch. 8)

Fight Club is many things; a cult novel effectively and powerfully transformed into a cult film, a dark yet comic tract of psychological horror, a philosophical rebuke to the modern world, and a post-modern psychological thriller. Most effortlessly of all, though, it is one thing: pure, 100% proof, distilled cynicism.

Hence Tyler Durden’s acrid reply to the supposed “Zen spirit” of the above passage, delivered perhaps not in a haiku, but in a passable koan:

“Sticking feathers up your butt,” Tyler says, “does not make you a chicken.”


sweet baby jaysus said...

by god man, this book fucked me up the first time i read it. such pure vitriol in paragraph form, and the film, even though it missed out on a few things, was life-affirming. chuck is one of my favorite authors, each book of his has it's on underlying charms, but fight club is the darkend heart of man, each of us with our own tyler's to bare, it's only how we choose to deal with it.
great post!
and you should start yr sister blog as well, pipedreams should only ever be the dazed daydream of pipe smoke.

gabbagabbahey said...

You're totally right, it is vitriol in paragraph form. Where I said Fight Club isn't a shock book, I was wondering. I mean, it certainly isn't compared to Palahniuk's later work (er... Guts anyone?), but at the same time it is a superbly, pervasively nasty book.

Thanks for the comment! And yes, I think I may well run with a sister blog... watch this space!

blend77 said...

i never read this book, and i personally felt very cheated and annoyed when reading Diary... the characters were so helpless, it just pissed me off, but there are certain things i like about his writing...

maybe i should read this one... and what else of his should i try??

sweet baby jaysus said...

choke was pretty good, as was invisible monsters, but the true genius is fight club. i can't think of another book that had such a profound effect on my life that wasn't about punk rock.

gabbagabbahey said...

The nearest thing to Fight Club is really Survivor, I think... hah, between us we've named nearly all his books, that's a great help!

But seriously, Survivor is the lesser-known Fight Club. It's got this cool style thing where the chapters read in descending order, i.e. the book ends with Ch. 1... I'll post it sometime soon.

Mind you, Blend, I really liked Diary. I was kinda getting jaded with Palahniuk, and then I read it in one night. It's a much more prosaic book than Fight Club, and the 'helplessness' of the characters is all just part of this vast horror story... another post, so help me God!

sweet baby jaysus said...

i forgot about survivor! that book was awesome, damn the ex for stealing my books!

Scott Sommers said...

I read the book because a lot of people have commented that my impressions of the movie were confused. I didn't find the book changed my mind. While there may be a powerful message somewhere in there, most of it seems ripped off from somewhere else. The book Fight Club seems unoriginal and its message better said in other places.