Fight Club is a book made famous by David Fincher’s excellent film of the same name. Brad Pitt’s career was revitalized by his gritty portrayal of Tyler Durden while Norton continued acting in a vein of socially provocative roles. I remember watching the film when I was 18, right in the middle of my terminal exams that promised a way for me to leave my industrialised Midlands town (for an industrialised Norther town…). It was unlike anything else in my cultural diet at that time, and, although not-rewatched for a while, is certainly on my top lists of recommended viewings.
The book matches up to the film in a tricky light, perhaps because I now lead a socially-responsible career. The unnamed narrator is supposedly ‘Jack’ in the film and Joe in the book. The attack on the boss to secure funding for Project Mayhem is more cogently played in the film with Grenier playing the role with magnificently understated corporate disdain. In general, the plotting is a little tighter in the film, the best lines delivered with panache (the airport luggage scene is still a hilarious favourite). The soundtrack is magnificent with the Dust Brothers and The Pixies providing a 90s backdrop to a tale of urban angst.
One theme that struck me upon first viewing, and on reading twenty or so years later, is its anticommercialism message. The narrator, through Tyler Durden, gives us stark truisms about advertising and capitalism: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shi*t we don’t need.”
Contemporary Western society relies upon spending and encourages a debt culture. Most premiership football clubs are sponsored by gambling agencies; my own football team Wolverhampton Wanderers were notoriously sponsored by a high-street Loan Shark business for too many years. To many, especially as they fail in the world of conspicuous consumption, this sentiment voices the general unease of modern life. Incoherent and in gobbet form only, but true.
For those who are attempting to build something in a post-modern world where authority is stripped of meaning and a current sitting president openly strives for the next big PR win that will stir the emotions of his voting body, a belief in materialism is understandable but flawed:
“You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.”
Without community, and certainly without a partner and family, commercialism becomes an easily derided and spiritually bereft substitution in a secular society. Without community, how can the common person hope for dignity? The lack of a mother figure (presumably too busy earning money) with an equally directionless father offering no emotional advice apparently taken means that the narrator takes direction instead from the dangerously charismatic Durden.
And it is here that Palahniuk is most smart: as we are encouraged to agree with the narrator and admire how he sticks it to the man, the narrator’s nihilism leaves him open to manipulation to a source perhaps as nefarious as materialism. That he equates Buddhists with the Space Monkeys (as he names Fight Club members), so he equates a coherent philosophy of thousands of years to a guy with a nice leather jacket.
Palahniuk preferred the ending of the film to his book: the book ends with the implication that Project Mayhem’s ideas have infiltrated wider society. However, I feel the hand metaphor of the book plays well into the nihilistic, Luddite philosophy of the narrator, that the idea of perfectionism is both dangerous and debilitating. Durden claims, admirably, that he ‘[doesn’t] want to die without any scars’. But how these scars are claimed in another matter.
The plot seems like a series of set pieces more than anything particularly coherent, a suitable narrative for the message the narrator wishes to portray. Rather than appearing transgressive and brave, in 2018, these men seem like alt-Right incels, domestic terrorists both silly and dangerous. That is not to say they aren’t striving for a nobility of sorts, but rather that they lack cultural capital and wholesome family influences that would offer that. Where the film, and the book, succeeds universally is how the Fight Club of the book attacks the meatheadishness of some male culture. Rejecting the worldview of anyone else, and undermining their own, we are greeted with dangerously impressionable people attracted to a man who represents a powerful American ideal: freedom. Freedom from, of course – not freedom to.
This text is not really suitable for young teenagers. It is influential yet in a nihilistically and purposefully ignorant fashion. In that way it is art, but it should be read alongside The Road for an example of other ways to respond to the modern abyss of consumerist life.
While difficult to rate highly now, this book has its place and happily earns its four stars. Its writing style influenced mine at the time; its limitations at least frame my new perceptions in comparison.