[Spoiler Alert. This is the first time I have read this novel, but a video of the movie used to be in the house and I saw enough to know the big reveal about the two main characters. I wrote nothing about to start with but, from the start, what I know about the film has affected the way I thought about the novel. I make it clear when I’m about to tell all.]
9 July 2018
Chapters 1-8 (of 30)
I’m not convinced so far. The unreliable-seeming first-person narrator seems straight out of American Psycho—it’s no surprise that quotes from Brett Easton Ellis have pride of place on both the back and front covers of my paperback copy—and the all-out American maleness of it is the little brother of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, published the same year. Except… as I made my way through the early chapters I was even more unconvinced by the would-be hardboiled tone than I was by those two novels. By about Chapter 4, I was thinking it sounded like the kind of pastiche a clever woman might write. By about Chapter 6 I was wondering, is Palahniuk gay? The female characters are scrutinised, but instead of being subjected to the usual male gaze, Chloe the terminally ill woman is presented as a grotesque, sex-obsessed skeleton while Marla Singer is a death-obsessed neurotic whose down time activities—it’s all down time with her—are self-harm and suicide attempts. Our man gives us the low-down, in running-gag form, of the pangs he feels when his associate Tyler is the one who gets to screw Marla, several times a night. But there’s no heat in his Reader’s Digest-parodying list (‘I am Joe’s… whatever), it’s jealous frustration by the book. The joke-book. Did it surprise anyone that Palahniuk came out as gay something like eight years after this book was published?
I’m fine with gay writers, but the problem for me is that when Palahniuk goes for hardboiled straight it just doesn’t ring true. An adolescent-sounding obsession with death, masquerading as a kind of existential cynicism at the meaninglessness of it all (yawn) stomps over the opening chapter, before death is turned into a comic motif from then on. Then there’s the violence of the fights, lovingly detailed in that particularly 1990s American way. It reads like an exercise in style, and I don’t believe a word of it. The sex is… what? Either sublimated, unconsummated or offstage. And always disgusting. It’s the close relative of that death-obsession, a dirty smear on our man’s consciousness as he tries not to hate the father who left before was six. I’m not saying our man isn’t screwed-up—even before he throws in his lot with Tyler he’s as obsessed by his condo and branded goods as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho—but his neuroses seem to be assembled by the book, like a lot of things in this novel. I’m not saying Palahniuk isn’t a neat stylist—our man’s description of how he finds out about the catastrophic explosion in his apartment is brilliantly done—but, so?
What the first readers of this novel didn’t know—and there can’t be many new readers now in the same position—is that this is a new take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Like the first readers of Stevenson’s novella, they wouldn’t have known that the two main characters are one and the same person. Like Jekyll, our unnamed narrator has created his alter-ego, although this one doesn’t know he’s done it. Tyler Durdon only exists in his imagination—so our man’s reluctance to let Tyler shoot him in the suicide pact in the opening chapter is an argument with himself. This is what I mean about the way my prior knowledge colours any reading of this novel, but it’s something that I suspect most readers have to live with. Chapter 1 is a framing device, telling us (if it’s real, and not all a psychotic dream) of how he and Tyler have set up a spectacular explosion. They are at the top of the tallest building in the world, and its fall on to the museum below—‘our real target,’ I think he calls it—will destroy the culture of millennia of pointless human activity. Are we supposed to regard this as a stupid premise? Unique artefacts might be reduced to dust and ashes, but there’ll still be plenty of stuff left in the world…. Maybe that’s the point: in the end, nihilism is self-defeating. Maybe.
After this chapter our man rewinds. He’s masquerading as one of the cancer victims in a support group, and is with his usual go-to partner. This is Bob, a huge man with ‘bitch-tits’—a more genteel term just wouldn’t cut it in this universe—which are side-effects of the hormone therapy he gets following the removal of his testicles. Our man has been attending this group, and a different one every night, because it works as a cure for his chronic insomnia. Being in the presence of so many people close to death, each one a living memento mori, calms him and allows him to sleep. But there’s a problem. For nearly a week there’s been a new faker on the block, Marla, and they recognise each other for what they are. It ruins it for him—and he tries to force her to make a deal. But she’ll only give up one night, testicular cancer—it figures—and there’s nothing he can do about it. If he wonders why she hasn’t already been thrown out of that particular group as a fake I don’t remember it. He’s very accepting of a lot of weird stuff—and just before the point I’ve reached in the novel, he’s wondering about how real she is. Is she Tyler’s alter-ego? As soon as she comes into a room, Tyler disappears, almost literally….
Eight chapters in, our man’s mind is in as much of a poor state as his face. Tyler has had him send Marla out to buy the ingredients for soap so he, the narrator, can wash one of his two pairs of work trousers after the boss sent him home in disgust at the bloody mess. (I’m not making this up.) In this universe, as bizarre as Patrick Bateman’s at the end of American Psycho, this is a perfectly reasonable request. But it seems that by-products of the process are some of the ingredients for nitro-glycerine, their explosive of choice in that opening chapter. And Palahniuk is making it easy for the reader to piece together the circumstances of that explosion in the apartment. Tyler must have done it, to force our man to have to move into his, Tyler’s, semi-derelict rented hulk of a mansion. Or, if you know (or have guessed) that Tyler is really our man, the doorman at the condo was right in his musings: some people go away and leave a bomb on a long fuse, to claim the insurance. If our man has insurance, he isn’t making any claim. He’s brought about his own crisis—and Tyler is talking about him joining him in a waiter’s job. Maybe our man’s already been fired, and forgot to mention it.
But I need to rewind to fill in a few details. I’ll be quick. Our man’s job is cynical capitalism personified: he is involved in decisions as to whether product recalls by his car-manufacturing employers are financially worthwhile. If only a few people are likely to die, it’s cheaper to simply hand out occasional big settlements because recalls cost tens of millions. He demonstrates the maths for us…. It’s no wonder he can’t sleep at night, and no wonder he’s spent his twenties finding himself a cocoon-like apartment full of pointlessly high-end products. We know about his unfulfilled life, starting with that (literally) absent father whose only contribution was to fund him, pointlessly, to go to university. At the support group meetings there’s always a form of guided meditation that takes him through various stages, ending with an ever-new discovery of his inner child. (The parallels with a similar group in Infinite Jest are so close they must both be based on mid-1990s practices.) Unfortunately, Marla’s intrusion forces him to find only her at the end of his inner journey….
I’m tempted to ask whether she, at some level, is his inner neurotic woman. This novel is full of questions of what maleness means in a world where all men do is make themselves feel ever more safe. Our man states this quite explicitly, and Tyler’s, or his, decision to bring it all to an end with a bang is obviously a part of a journey he feels he needs to make. It runs alongside an even more extreme journey, the Fight Club of the title. One Sunday night Tyler—who he’s met, of all ambiguous places, on a nudist beach—asks him to punch him. He does, reluctantly, and Tyler punches him back, hard. Soon they are scrapping in the car-park, and spectators are gathering. It becomes a weekly thing, then a club, with rules. The main one is that outside of its ungodly hours each Sunday night nobody can mention it—so our man gets used to not acknowledging other men he’s seen at the fights, nursing broken noses and other injuries. How does it go? The person—i.e. the man—you are at fight club is not the person you are otherwise. A lowly clerk can be a figure of awe.
So death—including the dark comedy of our man’s job—and violence, and contact with other men—hugging and other physical support at the group meetings, punches in the eye at fight club—and safety versus danger, and meaning versus non-meaning, and the idea of sex with women—sex we never witness, admittedly—and what it means to be a man in the late 20th Century in America… they’re all here. Palahniuk wants to take us into some deeply problematic territory, and plenty of people take this novel seriously. Maybe I’ll be more convinced after I’ve read a few more chapters.
Nope. Not convinced… although I’m asking myself whether this might be a more interesting read in 2018 than it would have been when it was first published. Fight club, in the novel, has grown. First, our man discovers that the testicular cancer support group has disbanded—it’s ‘big’ Bob who’s told him after his first visit in months, because he hasn’t needed it since fight club started, but now he does because… never mind for now—and everyone’s going to one of the nightly fight club sessions instead. Then there are several sessions per night, and Tyler is reaching mythic status among the participants, most of whom have never met him. And after our man has a psychotic incident, pummelling an angelic-looking young man in his bid to destroy any beauty in the world (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s about it), Tyler decides they need something new. Welcome—this time with capital letters—to Project Mayhem.
Let me quote you a paragraph from Chapter 8, one of many one-word paragraphs in this book:
There is a TV show on the BBC called Would I Lie to You?—and I’m not mentioning it because everyone on it thought it was a lie when a participant claimed, truthfully, that he had written a novel for a joke, but that so many people took it seriously it was made into a movie. I’m mentioning it because at least two of the comedians on the show often tell stories about the pranks they used to get up to in their childhood, often in groups that gave themselves serious-sounding names. Project Mayhem wasn’t one of them, but it might have been. In this grown-up version they perform acts of vandalism and indulge in anti-social behaviour for reasons that Tyler convinces the members are politically important. It’s bullshit, obviously, and our man becomes more and more disaffected by his associate’s nonsense. (And no, I haven’t forgotten they’re the same person. Palahniuk has been dropping so many clues it wouldn’t be difficult to guess if you didn’t know.) Soon, it’s like ISIS in the Middle East—testosterone-fuelled men following cleverer men’s orders. However…
…if such a thing is possible, the novel becomes even more American. Tyler Durdon isn’t a run-of-the-mill loser who pisses in the rich guests’ soup as a supposed act of political solidarity with the downtrodden hotel workers—I warned you about the bullshit—but a charismatic entrepreneur. Those soap ingredients he had Marla fetch—and I’ll come back to them, because they’re an ingredient in another sub-plot, as well as in nitro-glycerine—help him fund his terrorist activities. He has something like 72 ‘space monkeys’—our man’s name for the operatives who have bought into Tyler’s snake-oil pitch and now just do the mindless jobs they’ve been assigned—not only going out to cause some mayhem, but also to, well, make highly exclusive and expensive bars of soap. You couldn’t make it up. Unless, perhaps, you were a DC executive wondering what new prank they could get the Joker to do in the next Batman movie. That’s who Tyler has become, a very American capitalist with a nihilistic twist. Bless.
There’s an awful lot going on—and, at times, I really mean awful—but I should mention a few key things. Marla, who had been quite an interesting force in the early chapters, is now conforming to the stereotype of her role—albeit with her own nihilistic twist, as ever, and subject to the same metafictional tweaks as before. She’s pining for the man in her life—Tyler, our man assumes, despite her exasperation that he still doesn’t get it, does he—and she’s obsessing about her appearance. That key ingredient of Tyler’s schemes isn’t any old product, it’s the by-product of Marla’s mother’s liposuction. As she puts it, with some feeling, they’re rendering down her mother. How we laughed—and we split our sides when Tyler forges a note from Marla to old Mrs Singer about how WRINKLED she’s getting, complete with a huge box of chocolates to get her fat intake up.
Did I mention before how much bodily disgust there is in this novel? When Big Bob is hugging our man, it’s like being smothered by a fleshy blanket (I’m paraphrasing), and Marla hates herself so much she covers her arms in cigarette burns. And she, like our man, are the recipients of Tyler’s kiss, an elaborately-contrived badge of honour in which a wet kiss on the back of the hand activates the lye he then pours over it. At least that has a kind of horrific aesthetic appeal—unlike the constantly reopened hole in our man’s cheek, a ghastly ‘sphincter’. Which, now I think of it, is as near as we get to anything remotely sexual. There’s no more actual sex in these middle chapters than there was in the earlier ones, and although we do get to see Tyler’s penis, it’s a pink, worm-like thing with its end in the soup he’s adulterating. Sometimes I worry about Palahniuk’s state of mind. None of his characters are comfortable in their own bodies.
We get the biggest clue of all about the co-identities of Tyler and the narrator when Tyler tells him he can use their food-spoiling activities for financial gain. He finds himself speaking Tyler’s words—his phrase as he describes what he’s saying—as he takes the hotel manager through not only what they have done, but what he will say to the liberal media outlets about his fancy big-shot establishment’s terrible food hygiene checks. The manage doesn’t seem fazed—until our man starts to beat himself up in front of him. It takes him back to—wait for it—that time when Tyler told him to hit him, hard. Ah.
And one last thing, a line that stood out for me. After telling his Assault Committee about how to pick fights with strangers—‘give them permission to beat the crap out of you’—he comes out with it: ‘What we have to do, people, is remind these guys what kind of power they still have.’ Ah, again. Like Donald Trump in the election campaign, Project Mayhem is giving permission to people—specifically men, in this instance—to forget about discussion and debate and coming off worst against the clever bastards. Tyler, the great populist, knows the best way to anarchy is to get people to go with their gut instincts. That’s where the power is, they think—while all Tyler is interested in is its potential for destruction.
Chapters 18-30—to the end
It’s four months since I last wrote. I finished reading the novel at that time, forgot about it, then re-read these final chapters just now.
Is it a mess? Or have I been reading it all wrong? Perhaps it’s a satire, a form in which it’s possible for the reader to be much more forgiving of gaps and implausibilities. As for things I’d been complaining about for being childish or absurd… well, maybe we’re supposed to mock. Maybe. It might be that I’m giving Palahniuk too much benefit of the doubt—but perhaps that’s only fair, because I started reading his novel with too much prior knowledge to make a fair judgment. I’ve no idea whether the big reveal, that Tyler Durdon only exists while our man is asleep, would be devastating and/or thrilling had I not come to it forewarned. As it is, it seems clunky. For ten pages—the whole of Chapter 21 and into 22—the penny drops so slowly it’s like a scene from Inception. People salute our man in bars, call him ‘sir’ on buses, tell him whatever he’s buying is on the house. Fine, but why has this only just started happening? Sure, Tyler is nationally famous now, and wherever his alter-ego goes he meets bruised and battered men… but Tyler has been well-known locally for a long time now. And our man’s only just noticed people deferring to him?
Whatever. The penny gets to wherever it’s going in the end, although Palahniuk has Tyler spell it out so fully it feels like split personality disorder for dummies. ‘As soon as you fall asleep, I take over and go to work or fight club or whatever.’ Thanks, Chuck. Got it now—ten pages after our man notices that ‘in every bar I go into, every fucking bar, I see beat-up guys [who] throw their arm around me and want to buy me a drink.’ After Tyler’s explanation, our man’s still not quite there. ‘Marla loves you,’ Tyler says. ‘She loves you,’ replies our man, quick as a flash. And Tyler—he’s rolling his eyes by now, surely?—has to spell it out again. ‘Marla doesn’t know the difference….’
At last. But there are still 40 pages left, during which while our man goes on a fool’s errand. Palahniuk tries to hold our interest through eight short, punchy chapters packed with one-sentence—or one-word—paragraphs. Every line tells our man that the task facing him is impossible: to stop Tyler Durdon. He appeared because our man needed him in his life—and let’s not question the plausibility at this point—but he’s turned into a nihilistic psychopath, and our man doesn’t like it. Tough. By this time—and Palahniuk’s sleight of hand nearly succeeds in getting us to believe that this has all been happening under its own momentum—Project Mayhem is an unstoppable force across America. The police never, ever intervene, because apparently there is nobody on the force who isn’t a member of fight club—I told you the sleight of hand doesn’t really succeed—so Tyler’s anarchist agenda is being rolled out seamlessly…. What can our man do against an army of brainwashed space monkeys?
Answer: he has no chance. Visit fight clubs as Tyler and tell them all to go home? Nope. Enlist Marla to help him stay awake? Nope—because it isn’t possible, as she lets him know when she tells him he shot an anti-fight club campaigner. You should have seen the blood, as our man does as Tyler’s memories slowly, slowly seep into his consciousness. Kill himself? Nope—when he stands on a high ledge, something just won’t let him jump. And when he goes to a fight club to get beaten to death, that doesn’t work either. Things reach a crisis when the space monkeys prepare to do their favourite ‘homework assignment’: get a tight rubber band around the scrotum and threaten to remove the contents. ‘Gonads. / Jewels. / Testes. / Huevos.’ That’s four of those one-word paragraphs. Somehow he survives ‘intact’—his word—because, presumably, Tyler never wanted it to go beyond the threat. He’s got what he wants now—our man knows he can do nothing.
But by now, nothing else is clear. Tyler gets him to the top of the skyscraper we remember from Chapter 1, and we’re entering the endgame. Except we aren’t. Marla arrives with—and you aren’t going to believe this—members of the support groups where they first met, and where she let them all know what a shit he’d been. But, instead, she—and they—realised he needed help, so here they are. There isn’t a dry eye in the house. But Tyler—i.e. our man himself—is holding a gun to his cheek, and when the huge explosions don’t happen after all, he shoots himself.
And misses. Or, at worst, shoots a hole—OK, a gaping hole—in the side of his face to match the one he’s got in the other cheek. We have to piece together the twisted logic of all this—I can remember not quite caring enough the first time around—to understand what on earth is supposed to be going on. Basically, Tyler wants to stay alive—hence, as our man deduces/remembers, he obviously used paraffin for the explosives mix, which never works. And when he shot himself, he didn’t want to do any life-threatening damage. It means that the final chapter, set in Heaven—in fact, a secure, light-filled psychiatric unit—can end with various hospital employees with black eyes and broken noses telling him, ‘We look forward to getting you back.’ Bet you didn’t see that coming.
So, any final thoughts? Like, why does our man make quite such an enormous fuss about not putting sleep-avoiding drugs up his ass? He’s so determined not to, he tells Marla twice. As we know, Palahniuk doesn’t do sex, so he has to have this playground-level perviness—like the lovingly-described details of the threatened testicle-sacrifices, which never get any further than the scrotum turning blue and the victim whimpering how he’ll do anything, anything. And, of course, there’s the violence. The scene in which our man tries to get himself beaten to death hits a particularly low point. As do his assailants. And as does his face, grinding cheek against teeth that stay there, embedded. And the plausibility element? Another low point—we’re to believe that little enough time has elapsed for our man’s blown-out apartment to be still exactly as the explosion left it, and yet Project Mayhem has reached national proportions.
How about the satire? I genuinely wonder whether, at first, Palahniuk might have been bemused by the popularity of his little joke. As he’s proud to tell us in a self-serving little Afterword, that little routine about ‘The first rule of… The second rule of…’ has passed into the language. And people genuinely seem to believe that the characters are acting out a necessary interrogation of the crisis of masculinity at a time when there had been no wars for over 20 years—and none that anybody believed in for 50. Our man’s job, his life, his shitty relationship with his father, his pre-Tyler obsession with designer brands… all meaningless. What’s the most important part of a man? It’s a question our man answers to his own satisfaction without even asking it. As the rubber band tightens, he muses on life without balls. The best part of him, he calls them.
Reading this in 2018 must be very different from reading it when it first came out 20 years ago. Amongst thinking people—i.e. not most people—the millennia-long power of the Patriarchy is a given, and the Me-too hashtag an idea that has been a long time coming. And meanwhile, finding themselves in bed with the alt-right, are ordinary Joes who just want to make a living—disenfranchised blue-collar workers, supporters of a myth of fulfilled manliness when old hierarchies didn’t grind the little people down. It would be interesting to read a Fight Club written during the Trump administration.