As most everyone knows by now, Fight Club centers around disaffected middle-class American males who meet in an underground secret society and pummel one another. The fighting is an existential metaphor for men trying desperately to reassert their masculine identities in the face of dehumanizing jobs and meaningless lives. Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel had a cult following until being thrust into the mainstream with a big-budget Hollywood film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. This bloody and violent little book is now being mass-marketed as a profound parable for our times. It’s written in terse, hardboiled sentences and pinched epigrammatic dialogue that mimics Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the novel which set the standard for minimalist fiction and modernist irony (not to mention Hemingway’s fascination with boxing and bullfighting as masculine testing grounds). Fight Club, however, is nothing but surface effects and glib posturing.
The novel is narrated by a nameless insomniac who is so dissociated from reality that "everything is a copy of a copy of a copy." He works as a "recall campaign coordinator" for an automobile company that never recalls anything, especially when fatalities point to defects. So thoroughly is he out of touch with his feelings that he attends support groups for cancer patients just so he can experience pain and awfulness up close. The novel immediately loses its way in these scenes which mock New Age psychobabble while at the same time portraying the sick and dying as grotesque and freakish. One quickly realizes that Palahniuk is playing a game of chicken to see who blinks first, the author or his readers. Every page is guaranteed to shock or offend.
When the narrator meets a support group member named Marla, who is pretending – like he is – to be terminally ill, he is both attracted and repelled: "Marla’s lie reflects my lie, and all I can see are lies." "If you tell on me," Marla warns him, "I’ll tell on you." While traveling on business, he also meets the enigmatic and charismatic Tyler Durden, a movie projectionist and small-time anarchist. Durden rebels at work by adding subliminal frames of pornography – "a lunging red penis or a yawning wet vagina close-up" – to the children’s films he screens at the theater. It’s a creepy and effective Freudian metaphor for the submerged sexuality of our dreamlives and the "hidden persuaders" of media culture. But like many of the novel’s themes, it’s outdated by about 30 years.
After a mysterious explosion destroys the narrator’s apartment, he asks Durden to take him in as a roommate. Durden says yes, but only under one condition: "I want you to hit me as hard as you can." This, of course, is the genesis of fight club. Marla moves into the apartment with the two men. She becomes Durden’s lover, much to the narrator’s chagrin. While this love/hate triangle is developing and mutating, Durden and the narrator gather recruits for the "men only" fight club that meets in the basement of a local barroom:
Fight club is not football on television. You aren’t watching a bunch of men you don’t know halfway around the world beating on each other live by satellite with a two-minute delay, commercials pitching beer every ten minutes, and a pause now for station identification. After you’ve been to fight club, watching football on television is watching pornography when you could be having great sex.
The fight club scenes are the best in the novel. Palahniuk finds the right mix of scary satire that eludes him in the scenes with the New Age support groups. But typical of the ironies this novel enjoys too easily, one of the most pathetic of the support group members – called Big Bob, who lost his testicles to cancer – also joins fight club and becomes a "new man." In the world of Fight Club, cancer is a byproduct of our desiccated consumer culture. It’s a dumb message and it seems clear that Palahniuk wants his satire two ways: both as an indictment of middle-class complacency and as an indicator of deeper truths that the book isn’t competent enough to articulate before self-destructing.
A story like this has nowhere to go but to extremes. The three-way relationship with Marla becomes increasingly sadistic. And fight club itself escalates into a terrorist cell that begins bombing office buildings. These "mad as hell" revolutionaries disseminate "misinformation" by placing bumper stickers on automobiles that say things like, "Drunk Drivers Against Mothers." The satire here is about as heavy-handed as it can be, and is little different from Bret Easton Ellis’s similarly unfocused novel, Glamorama, which gave us fashion models as terrorists. The "joke" seems to be that we’re all so alienated that the only way we can feel alive is by throwing bombs or by putting out cigarettes on our arms.
As Palahniuk attempts to tighten the screws, he also loses his nerve. In Chapter 20, the now pistol-packing narrator sticks up a late-night pedestrian. He threatens to shoot the man unless he promises to go home and take charge of his life. "I’d rather kill you than see you work a shit job," he tells the stranger. Suddenly the banal moral imperative of Fight Club comes into focus: Go for the Gusto. Palahniuk is selling us male-bonding beer commercial platitudes dressed up as the dark night of the soul for American manhood.
There is worse to come. The novel’s conclusion – which I won’t spoil by revealing – is inexcusable. After 200 pages of brutal social satire and take-no-prisoners physical violence, Fight Club opts for a conventional "surprise" ending that undermines any appreciation one might have mustered for Palahniuk’s integrity as a writer of dark-edged fiction. He falls for the oldest temptation of first-time novelists who lack the courage of their convictions. Palahniuk proves himself a two-fisted threat: not only does he pull the rug out from under our feet, he also pulls the wool over our eyes.
– Bob Wake