Title: Fight Club
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
US Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Genre: Thriller, Philosophy (specifically Anarchist, with maybe a Nihilistic fling), How to (Start a Cult in 80 Days), some like to call it part-Mystery, and in the afterword of my copy Palahniuk refers to it as a Romance
Awards: 1997 Oregon Book Award for Best Novel, 1997 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award
Personal Score: 9/10
Status: Cult hit, though overshadowed by the film adaptation
Note: Despite the “cult classic” status of the story, I’ll still aim to avoid spoilers.
The Characters in the Middle of it All:
“We have a sort of triangle thing going here. I want Tyler. Tyler wants Marla. Marla wants me.” – the Narrator, page 14
The Narrator, co-founder of the eponymous fight clubs, is an insomniac who feels disconnected from the world. He attends support groups religiously (cancer, tuberculosis, brain parasites – if the group exists, he’ll go) because seeing their death makes him feel alive, helps him sleep. He uses fake names at each group, but neither these aliases nor his real name are ever revealed. Driven by a lust for power and freedom, but completely incapable of claiming it on his own, his story begins with an explosion and ends with a gunshot.
Marla Singer is a problem, at least for the Narrator; she attends the same support groups, but is as much a faker as he is. And as long as she’s there, he can’t get the peace he needs to sleep. Early on she becomes Tyler’s lover, bringing her into their shared house when the Narrator wants nothing to do with her. Yet despite her slightly psychotic tendencies, she nonetheless becomes one of the most stable facets of the Narrator’s life.
Tyler Durden is the other founder of the fight clubs, and in many ways the narrative belongs to him. Tyler is charismatic, philosophical, and everything that the Narrator is not. The two are drawn inexorably together; their friendship inevitable. Tyler transforms the impotence that society wants to thrust upon him, and others like him, into a source of power. Brutal and endlessly clever, Tyler is dedicated to bringing society and culture to its knees. To this end, he begins a cult of militant soap-makers in the house he shares with the Narrator.
A Brief Summary of My Thoughts:
Fight Club is a nonstop adrenaline rush – vicious, sensual, and unrelenting. Its exploration of masculinity in today’s society inspired real fight clubs to crop up around the world, journalists to ask Palahniuk how to locate the nearest club, and numerous fashion designers to try creating the “fight club” look. It spawned a cult movie adaptation starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter that I knew references to before the book or the movie was even a blip on my cultural radar. Much like the fight club becomes a bigger force than the Narrator could ever imagine, a bigger movement than any one man, the work itself has come to exist outside of itself, bigger than its bounds.
The philosophy driving the plot is as caustic as Tyler’s chemical kisses, reimagining a scene that many would designate a post-apocalyptic dystopia as an idyllic future. It is about claiming power and identity in a world that doesn’t care. And in a weird way, it’s addictive and intoxicating. Who hasn’t felt like the underdog at some point? Little David going against the Goliath of social hierarchy and greed, except that Goliath always wins. At least until a bunch of “little guys” band together to try and force the world to listen, like the ending of A Bug’s Life when the ants finally turn on Hopper. Two men, no shoes, no shirts, and the fight goes until it needs to stop. It is a philosophy of simplification. Everything is equal in the ring, so let’s apply that equality to culture. The problem, of course, is that to act on such a philosophy on a grand scale is as inherently selfish as the cultural overlords it tries to rip apart. A small, simple idea applied to a larger concept can be dangerous, and Fight Club shows that danger better and more eloquently than any work I’ve encountered so far.
Palahniuk’s writing style is dynamic, with powerful use of repetition that can hit like a freight train when you realize its significance and a stream-of-consciousness flow that keeps the plot feeling personal. A switch from first to second person for some sequences draws the reader even further in while also adding to the theme of identity running rampant through the work.
Meanwhile, the characters form a fascinating trio. The Narrator might be the center of the plot, everything told from his perspective, but Tyler Durden’s presence is overwhelming. Once he enters the story, he refuses to leave (for very good reason). In contrast, Marla often seems sidelined, but is in some ways the impetus of the entire plot and holds a pivotal role in the development of the climax. These characters essentially feed off each other in an increasingly unhealthy codependence, but their impact on and discovery of each other’s identities is an important journey.
While I might not agree with the philosophies of the book, I would be lying if I suggested the novel did not keep me thinking and feeling thrilled. I believe this book is one meant to be revisited and reviewed at various stages of life. It is a story built on shifting identities, so it is perhaps most fittingly seen through the development of our own.