This originally appeared at Popmatters.com in May 2007:
Perhaps a million things have been said about Fight Club, and because of this, I avoided reading the book for some time. This is due in part to a conditioned desire to avoid anything too eagerly hyped because, while such offerings to the pop culture cauldron may have great visual appeal or emotional intensity, they often lack a vital intellectual ingredient—the kind of buttery cerebral indulgence whose residue coats the mind with analytical possibilities for days afterwards.
Also, I had read Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters first and found the spare prose, gambit of recurring photographer’s demands (employed to define emotion or irony) combined with its gory, gratuitous shock tactics, too cheap a route to my jugular. The story and characters behind Invisible Monsters call for a more baroque writing-style, one whose creeping tendrils should wind silently up the lower extremities while delivering the especially upsetting segments on the back of language more velvet.
In Fight Club (Owl Books, 1994), however, Palahniuk’s trademark laconic expression and deliberate reiteration works, and it works well. It points up the disjuncture and repetition of contemporary life, making them less invisible. But that’s not what makes it such an essential or innovative work.
Andy Warhol was pointing up media-based repetition and using icons to highlight our idolatry of graven images with his commodified, factory-made silk screens already in the ‘70s. No, what makes Palahniuk’s message so effective is that it is specifically delivered through the mouth of Tyler Durden, a figure whose core vibrates with a current of singular, disruptive charisma. And the narrator, named ‘Jack’ in the 1999 David Fincher-directed movie but an unidentified Everyman in the book, follows him with the bleak desperation of a groupie. It is a feeling with which every reader can identify: the hopeless trailing of one naturally cool.
Scrape away the thick patina of interpretation imposed on Fight Club by zealous publicists and passionate Durden fans, and one part of the story’s long-term significance is obvious: the heart of the contemporary human condition and its inevitable plunge into decay pulses at the story’s center. However, the most revealing part of Palahniuk’s book is less evident to the naked eye and media-nourished mind. It is an overt model of fascism, the type that would not be identified for what it truly is by at least part of the audience that idolizes Tyler Durden. All the components of fascism are present and come together right before our eyes, but we frequently fail to see it on our first reading or viewing. We, the audience, like all of Durden’s fictional devotees, become his suckers. We lie down for him in submission and awe. Instead of critically observing the more abstract concerns and anticipating their projected paths, we are captivated by the spectacle of Durden: his hip lawlessness, his seemingly offhanded anarchism, his violent renunciation of platitudes. His power lies solely in his ability to captivate the mind with cool, impassive defiance, which seems so much more genuine than the commercial media’s pre-packaged, simulated individuality. And by slipping this past us, Palahniuk has created a more valuable mirror of our times than he has ever been given credit for.
A postmodern Bodhisattva, who has cast off worldly possessions in order to reside (albeit, in the movie, with significant sartorial flamboyance) in the gutter, Tyler Durden is modeled after the existentially-strung Jim Stark of Rebel without a Cause and suffers from a similar malaise, although one that goes far beyond Stark’s restless instability. Rather than find temporary, if somewhat doubtful, sustenance in a woman, as Stark does in Judy, Durden renounces women as insufficient: “We were a generation raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is the answer.” Direct reference is also made to Durden’s post-Stark-dom in the movie’s bathroom scene, in which Durden describes to Jack the aimlessness of his life and his search for purpose through periodic phone interrogations of his father, who offers empty, unsatisfying answers only because, as the subtext seems to be, he has been just as directionless.
Further allusion to Durden’s apparent goal-lessness is made in the name of his collective terrorist plottings: Project Mayhem. It has no apparent purpose other than general disruption and irreverence, although it does serve as a conduit for the aimless rage of those who become part of it. The only professed direction that Durden has is the empowerment of the servile classes, the victims of minimum-wage living. And by blowing up the corporate headquarters of several credit card companies, he professes to seek liberation from the financial manacles that force them into eternal servitude. He is understood as champion of the service worker. And while preparing to slice the scrotum of the Police Commissioner Jacobs, Jack—finding Durden’s voice and purpose for the occasion—reminds his prey not to mistreat those who make his comparatively plush life possible: the limo drivers, the waiters, the elevator operators.
In justifying his own egress from societal expectation, Durden finds fault with the dazzling, unfulfilled promises of consumer culture and the commercial-driven illusions that his generation has been fed from childhood onward. Durden declares to an audience of adherents that his generation has been lied to, cheated, and is rightfully incandescent with rage. To alleviate this anger, they beat on each other in the shoeless, shirtless style of primitive man, and find that this works as therapy. Perhaps most important is that their meeting and skirmishes appeal to the innate human desire to belong. No man with broken teeth, purple bruises, cracked ribs, or wired jaw need feel an outsider anymore. These wounds replace the biker tattoo and the fraternity brand.
Brad Pitt in Fight ClubDurden speaks the language his followers want to hear, that of anti-establishment and anarchy, both of which imply a level of personal choice and thereby, empowerment—something they do not possess in society as it stands. Durden’s overall approach bears some resemblance to the way in which the National Socialists adapted Communist dogma in order to appeal to the working classes. Freedom, as with any emergent political system, is the most highly sought reward, and the most heavily freighted, if not directly spoken, expression. Durden offers up the prospect of freedom from desire, freedom from debt, freedom from the self-hatred that is engendered by an inability to achieve physical perfection, freedom from the belief that one can and should be successful…and freedom from the greatest lie, hope. Even as he appears to build up his adherents with his speeches—telling them ostensible truths that are intended to liberate them—he is also systematically breaking them down, urging them to let go of the socially-conditioned expectations they cling to, to renounce society’s ridiculous half-truths, and hit bottom. Under Durden, re-education begins.
On one hand, Durden’s measured ascent towards fascism may be virtually unrecognizable to many because it does not come clad in black leather or an SS uniform. These are the visual signifiers that have come to replace a true intellectual understanding of fascism and have inhibited our ability to spot the phenomenon’s development outside these representative confines. To the contemporary reader, when there is violence in Fight Club, even as it is graphic and bloody, it seems warranted and dignified, like a duel intended to restore honor. It appears as an inoffensive exorcism of monotony and disappointment or a reassertion of economically and socially trampled machismo.
Unlike the fascism we have been raised to identify, the fulcrum of power resides in the center between two Club adversaries; they meet one another on equal planes. They appear to have authentic lives and emotions rather than fetishes and perversions with which we cannot identify: in the movie, they remove and safely stash wedding rings, eliminate belts, strip down to their essential physicality. And while there is a depraved vulgarity to their combat and a distinct current of fear involved in it, this is evidence of a return to more fundamental instincts, to a tribal culture. On any given night of Fight Club, it is obvious that we, the readers, are not among the insidious enclave of maniacs that had once comprised National Socialism. Yet fascism is a distinct outgrowth and byproduct of Durden’s budding cult of activists. Palahniuk writes that men who arrive soft and doughy appear, after a few weeks, to be “carved out of wood”. With characteristic shrewdness, Durden is training an army.
As Durden accrues lackeys and devotees by giving them secret solidarity and a channel for their violent inclinations, he continues to offer them sage remarks and prescriptions for liberation. Yet once he begins to recruit men for Project Mayhem, amassing a select cast of reconditioned and re-educated mercenaries to make soap, undertake Mayhem-related missions, and carry out the routine tasks necessary to running the house on Paper Street, it becomes clear that he has employed their emotional and psychological neediness to found a corporation: slavery has been imposed and all too eagerly assumed, even though liberation had initially been the ideal. The men chosen for Project Mayhem bow to Durden’s whims, and even allow their own humiliation and disfigurement. Their collective life on Paper Street marks the foundation of an entirely militant culture and purpose. The minutiae of everyday life are regulated by the dictates of the Project and a war against society is undertaken. And even as none of them intends to kill, killing begins nonetheless.
It is easy, as the story progresses, to idolize Durden—even in his ostensible absence, when he abandons Jack—and misunderstand both the narrative’s direction and Durden’s ultimate intentions. This is especially true of the movie version, in which Durden is played to authentic and detached perfection by a lean and sinewy Brad Pitt, whose character we cannot help but focus on and project ourselves into. He is what Jack wants to be, what we want to be: handsome, hip, capable and ostensibly above anxiety and fear. Whether it is a deliberate or an entirely unintentional conceptual maneuver, Palahniuk’s Durden demonstrates how easily we can be taken, how effortlessly we will follow the glamorous into purgatory because they look good and because the commercialization of our culture has conditioned us to believe that thoughtless rebellion and impulsive dissent—within circumscribed confines and only on a superficial level—is acceptable, paradoxically mollifying, and a potential route to historical immortality.
Even as we champion free speech, our culture does not encourage critical, independent thinking, but harnesses us instead to political objectives by way of glittering spectacle and appeals to personal longings. We are not eagerly taught the fundaments of fascism or how to recognize its components lest we become apt to recognize them too quickly in our own society. Like Durden’s followers, we are both victim and accomplice: while we are subjugated by our culture, we also assist in perpetuating its problems.
Palahniuk was at least partially conscious of the political implications of his narrative machinery. A wily nod to this fact is made with the segment on celluloid tampering, or the insertion of pornographic frames into children’s films so that the images enter the viewer’s consciousness on a partially subliminal level. Like his character’s own impudent splicing, Palahniuk first slides Durden in on both us and his central character, into whose life Durden flickers, first as an intermittent apparition and finally, as a full-blown delusion. And while we’re busy admiring Durden, Palahniuk silently inserts the makings of a mini fascist state, whose actual blatancy might well knock us out if we were truly paying attention. This is then food for thought: how often does this happen in our own society? What do we unconsciously submit ourselves to because the spectacle is so alluring?
In making the narrator a split personality, the person who carried the germ of Tyler Durden inside himself and allowed Durden to blossom outward with all his eventual deviance, has Palahniuk devalued a conceptual jewel? Some complain that Jack’s mental instability is an easy way to tie up loose ends and explain away troublesome narrative disjunctures. But Palahniuk is more cunning than that. This split is telegraphed throughout both book and movie and, when both are reread or replayed with knowledge of the ending, the genius of the relationship, the conversations, the lapses and segues, cannot be denied.
Having Jack suffer from mental defect would seem to be the only politically suitable resolution to the story. How could someone who establishes a nascent fascist-style insurgency from geographically disparate club nuclei be painted as anything but insane, if we are talking about a politically responsible author? It is a fascinating plot twist, and one that is also politically prudent. It points to the psychosis of fascism, not only of its leaders but the questionable mental state of its supporters, as well. It seems impossible that a man with so many apparent lapses could find such an incredible following.
And this begs the question: would so many men actually follow one man so blindly, one man who apparently operates so paradoxically, and with such obvious disregard for the welfare of his supporters? One need only look into history, no, to current leadership to see that yes, yes they do. With Fight Club, whether he intended to or not, Palahniuk has shown us that fascism can be created right before our eyes, almost invisibly, and we won’t even see it happening. It is a valuable lesson to be learned and one, whose myriad ramifications we should begin to fully consider with eyes wide open and minds more critically engaged.