FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahniuk
A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Before discussing the form of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), I would like to reconstruct its political content.
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The thirty-year-old narrator of Fight Club feels alive only when surrounded by decrepitude and death. He attends testicular cancer support groups in order to enhance his vitality: by distinguishing himself as much as possible from the sick, he attempts to wrest himself away from a consumerist culture that suppresses death; by exposing himself to the mortality of others (which grants him the knowledge that he also is going to die), every moment in his life becomes more valuable. One of the infinite number of go-betweens in this culture (his job is to determine the expenses of recalling lethally defective automobiles), the narrator yearns to die in an airplane crash in order to free himself from the superficiality of a world that trivializes death and immortalizes the unliving commodity (a “necrophilous” culture, as Erich Fromm would say). Only what he imagines to be a direct experience of death grants him a real and intense sense of life, and, as the novel proceeds, violence will come to be his salvation.
[Let me remark parenthetically: the word “violence,” etymologically, means “life.”]
And yet Western culture manufactures not merely inclinations and proclivities, but also aversions and forms of disgust: particularly relevant to a discussion of Palahniuk’s novel is the aversion toward violence and mortality that the narrator attempts to unlearn.
The narrator’s desires are prefabricated. Like countless others in a consumerist society, his selfhood is defined by the merchandise that he purchases: his “perfect life” is constituted by “his” Swedish furniture, “his” quilt cover set, “his” Hemlig hatboxes, and the IKEA catalogues that serve as the foundation of his identity. He is the member of a generation of men who identify themselves with commodities (“Everything, the lamp, the chairs, the rugs were me” ), commodities that, according to the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, serve as extensions of one’s personality in the capitalist world.
Enter Tyler Durden (a man who is, apparently, the same age as the narrator). Aggressive, virile, and charming, Durden represents alternative possibilities that the narrator could assume. Tyler is radically opposed to the progressive “improvement” of the self that has been so valorized by capitalist societies; he claims that the drive toward “perfection” has led to the loss of manhood and has transformed men into feminized purchasers and consumers who slave away in life-draining jobs.
By randomly destroying property (with which members of consumerist society identify), Tyler intends to explode the foundations of capitalist identity. Since Rousseau and Hegel, it has been assumed that the bourgeois self is divided into civil and private dimensions: the citizen and the “true” individual. Here we encounter two analogous versions of a single self: whenever the narrator (who subserves capitalist society) falls asleep, Tyler Durden (who represents the “authentic” self) inhabits his body.
Tyler and the narrator form a masculine unit that exists apart from the feminized support groups that are populated by man-women such as Bob, an estrogen-saturated former weight-lifter who sprouts what appear to be mammary glands, as well as Marla Singer (associated, at one point, with the narrator’s mother), who appropriates the narrator’s support groups and eventually unsettles the homoerotic / homosocial bond between the two men.
Tyler founds “fight club,” an underground boxing organization and a perverse version of the support group attended by the narrator. The split between the bourgeois and authentic selves is replicated in the difference between one’s work existence and fight club: “Who guys are in fight club is not who they are in the real world” . Fight club thus opens up a separate space, one that is divorced from the dependency and servility of the world of exchange; it posits a self-sufficient universe in which control and mastery, sovereignty and force are achieved, paradoxically, through self-destruction. The fights are not based on personal acrimony but on the exercise of power. It is the fight that is pure; it is through the fight that one’s human implications are drawn out. Norms learned from television (that mass accumulation is life’s goal, that success is equatable with financial success, that violence must be shunned)—all of these values are reversed in fight club, the sole objective of which is the reclamation of one’s manhood, which has been diminished in the feminizing world of capitalism (hence the phallic imagery that crystallizes throughout the novel).
The constituents of fight club (copy-center clerks, box boys, etc.) are members of the Lumpenproletariat, those who labor without a productive or positive relation to work, who are estranged from their own slavery, and who are excluded from every social totality. Even those on the higher levels of the bourgeoisie, it seems, conform to the same model. Their strength is vitiated; they, too, function as the refuse of a society that refuses to acknowledge them. Dying in offices where their lives are never challenged (and therefore lacking anything with which to contrast with life), they are the mere shadows of the proletariat, deprived of access not merely to the fortunes of the capitalist world, but also to consciousness of their own oppression: they are “[g]enerations [that] have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need” .
Eventually, fight club transcends and operates independently of the individuals who produced it (following Tyler’s anti-individualist creed) and becomes wholly acephalic: “The new rule is that nobody should be the center of fight club” . Fight club thus transmutes into Project Mayhem, a revolutionary group that begins with acts of vandalism and food contamination and eventually expands into full-blown guerilla terrorism. Its aim is regression: to reduce all of history to ground zero. Project Mayhem wants to blow the capitalist world to smithereens in order to give birth to a new form of humanity. What fight club did for selfhood and individuality (the formation of a new identity apart from the one mandated by capitalist society), Project Mayhem would do for capitalist society itself. In the same manner that fight club destroys capitalist identity, Project Mayhem aims to destroy Western civilization in order to “make something better of the world” —a world in which manhood would intensify through a non-moral relation to violence.
Here we are in territory already elaborated—much more richly—by J.G. Ballard. And John Zerzan, Portland anarchist.
Washing oneself clean, returning to one’s hidden origin, primitivism, regressionism, cleansing, and sacrifice… Soap, which Freud named “the yardstick of civilization,” is here emblematic of a reduction to primal manhood. The meaning of soap is not, in this context, propriety (as Freud would have it), nor, unfortunately, the ebullitions of language (Francis Ponge), nor, following Roland Barthes, the luxury of foaminess. Soap is indissociable from sacrifice.
[Fight Club does not merely imply, but states in the most obvious manner that bare-knuckled fist-fighting makes one more virile, more masculine. Palahniuk’s jock-fascism is jockalicious.]
If Western culture, as Freud claims in Unbehagen in der Kultur, is a culture of soap (sanitizing one from the awareness of death), the accustomed meaning of saponification is here transformed into its opposite. Western culture represses the sacrifices that were its origins through a process of cleansing: soap here would indicate a return to those repressed sources. Violence must be re-vived in order to reclaim the self, now unclean.
The dream of capitalism complements the dream of fascism: “We wanted to blast the world free of history” . Their common project is dehistoricization. By attempting to destroy history, Project Mayhem pretends to break with the capitalist world but ends up mirroring it. Capitalist culture homogenizes all of its inhabitants until individuality is lost—its alternative, communism, would lead, theoretically, to the redistribution of wealth and the elimination of rank. Neither is accepted by Fight Club. Nor, for that matter, are the utopian primitivism and fascistic terrorism represented by Project Mayhem. The refusal of the capitalist / communist / fascist alternatives does not imply nihilism, either. Fight Club posits nothing other than the impossibility of a way out. This is evident in the text. When the narrator attempts to demolish the fascist version of his self, his phantom double remerges. Neither capitalism nor its double is overcome. Tragedy is not death, the liberation from all forms of the political; it is, rather, the impossibility of dying.
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A few words on the form of Fight Club (the only section of this review that will be read).
This could have been an excellent novel.
Any strong writer knows that a dead page – a dead paragraph, a dead sentence, a dead word – is unacceptable. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be electric, vibrant, vivacious. Fight Club moves in the exact opposite direction: its prose is soul-deadening, life-negating, dull. It is a prose that neither confronts nor challenges.
Chuck Palahniuk does not have an easy way with words. The language of this book is metallic, anti-poetic, and illiterate.
The writer claims to write in the way that “people talk.”
This would be good advice if we lived in an age in which people knew how to talk.
Dr. Joseph Suglia