FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahniuk – A Review by Dr. Joseph Suglia / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

 

 

An Analysis of FIGHT CLUB (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Before discussing the form of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), I would like to reconstruct its political content.

* * * * *

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.  As 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” [111]), 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” [49].  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” [49].

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” [142].  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” [125]—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” [124].  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.

* * * * *

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.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

DAMNED by Chuck Palahniuk. Critique. Analysis. Chuck Palahniuk: DAMNED. Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

 

 

DAMNED by Chuck Palahniuk

The English language contains approximately 600,000 words, if you believe that words are things that are housed in dictionaries.  What of neologisms?  What of inartfulMicrosoft Word underlines inartful in red, and you won’t find it in any dictionary that I’ve ever come across, but President Obama used that word (if it is one) and used it well, and it seems right.  What about sacrality?  Jean-Francois Lyotard used that “word.”  Is it a word?  What of words that are no longer in currency?  What of paleonyms?  What of sireniform and egrote?  What of names?  Are names words?  Is elbow one word or two (a noun and a verb)?  What of plurals and possessives?  Are head, head’s, heads’, and heads four separate words?  Or are they variations of a single word?  On what basis could we say one or the other?  When does a word become a word?  If a linguistic sign is spoken or written, does it then become a word?  Let us say, as a hypothesis, that a word is a word if it is articulated and employed.  If meaning is predicated on usage, as Wittgenstein believed, shouldn’t all words be used?  The English language is rich and various, full of nuance and synonymy.  Why, then, do so many English speakers limit themselves to the most common Anglo-Saxon vocabulary?  When someone employs “too many” words of French-Latin origin, that person will usually be accused of using “big words.”  There is no such thing as a “big word,” however, unless we are talking about morphology.  There are familiar words, and there are unfamiliar words.  The familiar words in English are of Anglo-Saxon origin; the less familiar ones are mostly Latinate.  You will hear simple-minded English speakers tell you that Latinate words should be avoided, as if William the Conquerer’s French Latin were somehow a corrosion of a pure and original idiom.  English, however, would not be English were it not the happy marriage of Germanic Anglo-Saxon and French Latin.

“Chuck” Palahniuk dwells within a micro-subdivision of the ever-expanding multiverse which is the English language.  He “knows” approximately as many English words as a subnormal ten-year-old American boy.  This explains why he writes on the level of a subnormal ten-year-old American boy and why he is beloved by so many subnormal ten-year-old American boys, his dwindling Hitler-Jugend.  His ovine followers are entranced, as was I, by David Fincher’s visually captivating film Fight Club (1999) and mistakenly equate Fincher’s brilliant vision to that of “Chuck” (they refer to the writer by his given name, projecting an imaginary familiarity with the Leader who has bilked them out of their allowance money).  Many of them are failed or failing elementary or high-school students, white, crypto-Christian, reactionary, American, and male.  (Yes, there are chuckettes.  But the chuckettes outgrow Palahniuk more quickly than the boychicks and the boychucks do.)  And many of them, too many of them, think of themselves as writers: “If Chuck can be a famous writer, so can I…”

And this is the most nauseating thing about “Chuck” Palahniuk: He engendered a band of adolescents who think they have facility in literature because they read Choke.  He is a slovenly, lazy writer who has given birth to a band of slovenly, lazy “aspiring writers” who think that fiction is EZ-2-write.

D.H. Lawrence once said of Herman Melville that his weakness as an author was that he felt his audience in front of him.  “Chuck,” non-artist, writes juvenilia to appease a juvenile audience that, as I suggested above, still misidentifies “Chuck” with filmmaker David Fincher.  If he thinks that horror fiction is selling, “Chuck” will read one book by Shirley Jackson and another by Ira Levin and upchuck what he believes to be horror fiction.  If he thinks that young-adult novels are selling, he will read one book by Dale Basye and upchuck a very bad, very inept Dale Basye pastiche.  Damned is such a pastiche, yet another atrociously written, publicly edited novel by the Tarzan of American letters.

* * * * *

Damned, it’s about a girl called Madison Spencer.  Madison Spencer’s a real bad girl.  She, like, uses big words so that people think she’s smart and stuff.  But she’s not really smart.  She just uses big words which is real dumb.  Hell is a place for people who are deluded, pretentious poseurs and use fancy words and stuff:

“Yes, I know the word excrement” [19].

“I comprehend the term passive-aggressive” [17].

“Yeah, I know the word construct” [Ibid.].

“Yes, I know the word absentia [sic]” [3].

At the end of the book, this girl, her name’s Madison, she knows that, like, she’s just like the simple people.  A simple person just like you and me.  And she learns to talk simple just like the simple people later on in the book.  A simple person.  Just like you.  Just like me.  Just like Chuck.  She’s in Hell ’cause she uses big words but at the end of the book she becomes good when she uses simple words like the simple people do:

“Even now, I hesitate to use words such as eschew and convey and weltschmerz [sic], so thoroughly is my faith shaken.  The actual nature of my death reveals me to be an idiot, no longer a Bright Young Thing, but instead a deluded, pretentious poseur.  Not brilliant, but an impostor who would craft my own illusory reality out of a handful of impressive words.  Such vocabulary props served as my eye shadow, my breast implants, my physical coordination, my confidence.  These words: erudite and insidious and obfuscate, served as my crutches” [177].

She just an idiot like us simple people too.  So, like, at the end of the book and stuff, she don’t use big, fancy words anymore and talks real simple and good like the simple people do.  She was bad when she used the big words.  Now that she don’t use the big words she real good.  Just like us.  Just like Chuck.

Groundling “lit.”

Lilliputian “lit.”

Two things in the passage cited above immediately strike the attention:

1.) Palahniuk-Howard believes that insidious and convey are “big words.”

2.) In a paragraph that denounces “big words,” the word illusory is employed–which the non-literate would consider a “big word.”

Sloshing through this slush, it is easy to see why Doubleday delayed the publication of Damned for five months.  Even after Gerry Howard edited (i.e. recreated) the manuscript, it is still unpublishable.  What we are left with is a fetid and fetal scrawl that is far below the level of your neighborhood writers’ workshop.

If Hell were a library, Damned would be burned on the ninth floor.

* * * * *

Why, precisely, is Palahniuk’s Hell a place where The English Patient (1996) and The Piano (1993) are endlessly spooling and screening?  Why are showings of THESE films considered “punitive presentation[s]” [19]?  What exactly do these films hold in common?

The answer: They both limn the elegant bodies of beautiful women.  The lovely, flowing, alabaster skin of beautiful women.  The svelte, exquisitely sculpted, rotund bodies of Juliette Binoche, Holly Hunter, and Kristin Scott Thomas.  Whereas the female body is seen by many of us as a locus of fecundity and as a wonderland of infinite delights, for Palahniuk, the body of a woman is Hell.  I am not exaggerating.  In Damned, “the actual terrain of Hell” [73] is the body of a woman, with all of its creases and crevices and folds, all of its loops and nodes and lobes.

Did you hear that?  Palahniuk’s Hell is the body of a woman.

* * * * *

The time has passed when “Chuck” could be taken seriously as a serious novelist, postmodern or otherwise (though phrases such as “attachments to a fixed identity” [179] demonstrate that he still has postmodernist aspirations).  It is now generally recognized that this forty-nine-year-old Average American Male writes insufficient young-adult fiction and that his books belong in the ‘Young Adult’ section of libraries and bookstores, or perhaps in the ‘Special Interest’ category.  It is saddening that D students wasted their youth on hasty fictions agonizingly scribbled out by a dopey yokel.

As I suggested above, the Palahniuk cult is dissolving, though there remain fanatic boys and apostolic Lumpen “writers” who still slavishly cry out their Leader’s given name in the same way that religious zealots cry out the name of their tombstone messiah: “Chuuuuuuccckkk…  I will dress up in a wedding gown for youuuuuuu…!”  At the core of Palahniuk’s die-hard following are rabid mall rats who are ripe for fascist indoctrination.  In general, however, the Cult has moved from proselytization to disillusionment and is slowly shifting toward its eventual decontamination.

THEOREM

We live in a sad society in which opportunistic hacks are hailed as “artists” and genuine art is ignored.  It is time for the intelligent to stand up and denounce these hacks and to show them for what they truly are: money-sucking subliterate robots.

Dr. Joseph Suglia