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

 

 

 

Advertisements

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Five: INFINITE JEST / David Foster Wallace Was a Bad Writer / Is David Foster Wallace Overrated? Is INFINITE JEST Overrated? Critique of INFINITE JEST / Criticizing INFINITE JEST / Criticizing David Foster Wallace. A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Five: INFINITE JEST / David Foster Wallace Is Overrated

 

A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Five: INFINITE JEST

by Joseph Suglia

The writings of Lessing and Kant are the magna opera of the German Enlightenment.  The works of Novalis and Schelling are the magna opera of Early German Romanticism.  Joyce’s Ulysses is the magnum opus of European Modernism.  The poems of Trakl and the dramas of Wedekind are the magna opera of German Expressionism.  The films Un Chien andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930) are the magna opera of French Surrealism.

Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace is the magnum opus of American Hipsterism.

What is a “hipster,” you ask?  A hipster is one who has what Hegel described as an “unhappy consciousness”: He is a self that is at variance with itself.

* * * * *

Anyone who has spent any time in academia will instantly recognize Wallace’s pedigree upon opening this book.  Wallace was an academic writer.  Unhappily, all connotations of “academic” are intentional.  That is to say, the book is both fantastically banal and seems to have been composed, disconsolately and mechanistically, in a registrar’s office.  It is not arbitrary that the narrative begins in the Department of Admissions of a tennis college.  The language here recalls the world of registration and withdrawal forms and the world of classrooms where works such as this are spawned, dissected, and pickled—the world of the academic industry.

Wallace: “Matriculations, gender quotas, recruiting, financial aid, room-assignments, mealtimes, rankings, class v. drill schedules, prorector-hiring… It’s all the sort of thing that’s uninteresting unless you’re the one responsible…” [451].

I wonder if anyone besides Wallace has ever found these things interesting.

Since no one else has taken the trouble to encapsulate the narrative, permit me to attempt to do so here.  The novel seems to have two diegetic threads and a meta-narrative.  The first thread concerns the incandescent descent of Hal Incandenza, teenager and tennis student, into drug addiction.  (Well, no, it isn’t quite incandescent, not quite luciferous, at all, but I liked the way that sounded.)  The second outlines the shaky recovery of Don Gately, criminal, from Demerol.  The “woof,” I imagine, details the efforts of a cabal of Quebecois terrorists to inject a death-inducing motion picture of the same title as this book into the American bloodstream.  All of this takes place in a soupy, fuzzy future in which Mexico and Canada have been relegated to satellites of the onanistic “Organization of North American Nations.”  Predictably, and much like NAFTA, America is at the epicenter of this reconfiguration.

It is hard to care about any of this.  If Wallace had written fluidly, things would have been otherwise.  It is not that the book is complex, nor that its prose is burnished (if only it were!).  The problem is much different: The sentences are so awkwardly articulated and turgid that the language is nearly unreadable.  You wish that someone would fluidify the congested prose while struggling with the irritation and boredom that weave their way through you.

There is literary litter everywhere.  No, “nauseous” does not mean “nauseated.”  No, “presently” does not mean “at present.”  Such faults are mere peccadilloes, however, especially when one considers the clunkiness of Wallace’s language.  A few examples:

1.) “The unAmerican guys chase Lenz and then stop across the car facing him for a second and then get furious again and chase him” [610].  I am having a hard time visualizing this scene.

2.) “Avril Incandenza is the sort of tall beautiful woman who wasn’t ever quite world-class, shiny-magazine beautiful, but who early on hit a certain pretty high point on the beauty scale and has stayed right at that point as she ages and lots of other beautiful women age too and get less beautiful” [766].  It would take more effort to edit this see-Spot-run sentence than it did, I suspect, to write it.

3.) “The puppet-film is reminiscent enough of the late Himself that just about the only more depressing thing to pay attention to or think about would be advertising and the repercussions of O.N.A.N.ite Reconfiguration for the U.S. advertising industry” [411].  This is a particularly representative example of Wallace’s heavy, cluttered style—a sentence larded with substantives.

4.) “So after the incident with the flaming cat from hell and before Halloween Lenz had moved on and up to the Browning X444 Serrated he even had a shoulder-holster for, from his previous life Out There” [545].  So… Lenz moves “on and up” to a knife… “from” his previous life?  If this is a sentence, it is the ugliest I’ve yet read.

To say such a thing would be to say too little.  Nearly every sentence is overpoweringly ugly and repellently clumsy.  Not a single sentence–not one–is beautiful, defamiliarizing, or engaging.  I am sorry to write this, but Infinite Jest is a joylessly, zestlessly, toxically written book and the poisonous fruit of academic bureaucracy.

* * * * *

A few valedictory words: It would be tasteless–raffish, even–to malign the literary estate of a recent suicide.  Wallace was nothing if not intelligent, and his death is a real loss.  Had he lived longer, he might have left us books that impress and delight.  Let me advise the reader to avoid this plasticized piece of academic flotsam and pick up and at instead Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, his true gift to the afterlife and the afterdeath.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: CONSIDER THE LOBSTER / David Foster Wallace Was a Bad Writer / A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Four: Consider the Lobster / CONSIDER THE LOBSTER by David Foster Wallace / Is David Foster Wallace Overrated? / David Foster Wallace Is Overrated / CONSIDER THE LOBSTER IS Overrated

 

 

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: CONSIDER THE LOBSTER

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

It is said often of David Foster Wallace (or “DFW,” as his ovine fanboys have christened him, as if he were a shoe store or an airport) that he was a genius.  Would it be curmudgeonly of me to ask, “What kind of a genius was he?”?  He certainly was not a literary genius.  I would be willing to allow that he was, perhaps, a mathematical genius.  But a literary genius?  No, absolutely not.

Anyone who reads D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace will recognize that Wallace was a likable, sincere, soft-spoken person who had interludes of mean-spiritedness, and his death is an absolute loss.  At some stage, however, one must put one’s sentimentality aside and examine, coldly and soberly, the assertion that his writing is great literature.

* * * * *

Consider the Lobster is an agglutination of athetic “essays.”  (Athetic = “lacking a thesis.”)  The collection itself lacks a driving thesis, a sense of cohesion, a thread that would bind all of the pieces together.  Not a single one of the “essays”—such as they are—contains an argument, sustained or otherwise.

Because the book itself is disjointed, it might be useful to pause over each individual text.

“Big Red Son”: An appraisal of the pornography industry from which we learn that this industry is “vulgar” [7] (shocking!) and that Las Vegas is “the least pretentious city in America” [4].  It is disheartening when someone who seemed to care so much about English usage abuses the word “pretentious.”  “Pretentious” means “making the claim to be something that one is not.”  It does not mean “upscale,” “upmarket,” or “snooty.”  If we keep the proper meaning of “pretentious” in mind, it could just as easily be said that Las Vegas is the most pretentious city in America.

“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”: Not so much a negative review of Updike’s Toward the End of Time as a negative review of John Updike the Human Being as he appears to Wallace.  From reading the first five paragraphs, one would sort of have to think that Wallace would eventually make a general statement about phallocratic American writers such as Updike, Mailer, Roth or American virility or fading masculinity, etc., but, no, the review has no implications beyond itself.

“Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed”: At the beginning of this astounding lecture, Wallace makes the disarming comment that he is “direly underqualified” [60] to speak on the subject of humor in Kafka.  This assertion is correct.  Wallace knows nothing about Kafka or his work.  If you are not qualified to speak on a subject, then why speak on it at all?

“Authority and American Usage”: An “essay” on the conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism, ruined by ingratiatory implorations (“DO YOU LIKE ME?”; “PLEASE LIKE ME!”).  I found the piece to be smarmy and bizarrely cloying, and the racist nonsense about African-Americans made me cringe.

“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”: The most inappropriate response to the September 11, 2001 attacks ever written, with the exception of “Chuck” Palahniuk’s “The View from Smalltown, USA.”  Palahniuk’s response, incidentally, is a plagiarism of Wallace’s.

“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”: A very strange review of the tennis star’s autobiography Beyond Center Court: My Story.  Wallace seems puzzled that Tracy Austin is a skillful tennis player AND a bad writer.  I am puzzled by his puzzlement.

“Up, Simba”: Painful-to-read meanders through John McCain’s doomed campaign for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.  Completely irrelevant since McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.  Incidentally, did you know that Palahniuk considers “meander” to be a “gay” word?

“Consider the Lobster”: From which you will learn, among other things, that the lobster and the cockroach (for instance) are cousins.  I thought that everyone already knew that.  The “essay” is nothing more than a catalogue of facts and is devoid of anything like an organizing thought.  Unless “lobsters exist” is an organizing thought.  As Hegel reminds us in the preface to Die Phänomenologie des Geistes, factual knowledge is not genuine knowledge at all.  It is possible to memorize facts Jeopardy-style without ever understanding anything.

“Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”: Wallace did not have a background in classical or modern literature.  He read the postmodernists, and that was the extent of his knowledge of the literary arts.  His solipsism is painfully evident in the Dostoevsky essay.  He doesn’t even seem very interested in Dostoevsky’s work, except to the degree that it affects American readers and writers: “The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we—here, today—cannot or do not permit ourselves” [271].  A Russian writer is significant only insofar as he has an impact on an American writer or reader, then.  Is America the epicenter of the universe?  Of the multiverse?  Wallace’s solipsism reminds me of the obituaries of J.G. Ballard.  I paraphrase: “Ballard’s short story ‘The Sound-Sweep’ inspired the Buggles’ song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’ which became the first music video ever to be broadcast on MTV.”

“Host”: The editorial, annotative remarks will seem original to anyone who has not read Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.

Consider the Lobster is superficial, not radical.  I intend “radical” in its strict etymological sense of the word: “to the root.”  Wallace never even attempts to get at the root, the radix, the core, the heart of the subjects that he pretends to analyze.

But who cares?  No one cares about logic these days.  No one cares about language these days.  No one cares about logos these days.  No one cares about writing these days.

The blind, slavish, uncritical worship of David Foster Wallace represents one of the dangers of ad hominem “thinking.”  An ad hominem attack attacks the musician instead of the music, the philosopher instead of the philosophy, the artist instead of the art, the sociologist instead of the sociology.  But the reverse is also the case: Ad hominem praise praises the musician at the expense of the music, the philosopher at the expense of the philosophy, the artist at the expense of the art, the sociologist at the expense of the sociology, the writer at the expense of the writing.

David Foster Wallace’s fanboys worship the ghost of the bandana-wearing writer, not the writing that he generated.

A DFW follower once explained his worship of the Dear Leader in these terms: “He is a genius, but he says, ‘like’ and ‘whatever.’”  He was a down-to-Earth genius, then.  An interactive genius.  A nice genius.  A friendly genius.  If the Friendly Genius attends your wedding, your son’s Bar Mitzvah, your son’s confirmation, etc., well, then, he is a good writer.  If he brings a casserole, then he is an especially good writer.  The Friendly Genius smiles at you.  The Friendly Genius smiles at you because he likes you.  If the Friendly Genius likes you, then maybe YOU are a genius, too!  Fanboys like writers who are nice and friendly and hip.  Accommodating and accessible.

[For a nice discussion of the competitiveness behind DFW’s ‘niceness,’ see Rivka Galchen’s review of the Wallace biography.]

The Cult of Genius has no interest in the letter.  The Cult of Genius is not interested in writing at all.  The Cult of Genius is obsessed with the appearance and personality of the author, not the extent to which he or she knows how to write.  Fanboys are preoccupied with Writers, not with Writing.  And they want to become Writers themselves, without bothering very much about Writing.  They don’t want their unwritten books to be published and read; THEY want to be published.

A genuine author, however, loves writing for the sake of writing.  This is one the things that Nietzsche might have intended when he wrote, in Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister: Der beste Autor wird der sein, welcher sich schämt, Schriftsteller zu werden: “The best author will be the one who is ashamed of becoming a writer.”

Dr. Joseph Suglia