Fight Club

I’m afraid, despite the first and second rules, I’m going to talk about Fight Club.

In Chuck Palahniuk’s screaming debut novel (from, um, 1996, okay, I might be a little late on this particular bandwagon), the unnamed narrator can’t sleep unless he’s digging himself deeper and deeper into an understanding of pain and death. His neat, IKEA-style existence doesn’t satisfy any longer, and he’s looking for an out — mostly other people’s outs, at first, in the form of terminal illness support groups, where he can see real suffering for a change. Then one night, in a bar, he meets Tyler Durden, who says, “Hit me as hard as you can,” and everything starts to wheel out of control, toward life, and then, of course, inevitably, toward death again.

How many serious problems did I have with this book? Oh Lord. I hardly know where to begin. Let’s start with the most obvious thing: Palahniuk spends most of this book going for the grossout. It’s not that I necessarily mind disgusting imagery in stories — I am a big fan of Stephen King, and disgust can play a canny role — but this was nonstop, brutal, and not particularly well thought out. In one particularly egregious instance, human fat is made into soap. This is cast as simple class rebellion, the liposuctioned fat of the rich being resold as expensive soap. There was no sign, however, that Palahniuk was aware of the Nazi historical implications of this, not even a wink. Too gross an omission, and I use the word gross advisedly. Palahniuk is too obviously sidestepping deeper issues by saying, “Hey! Look! Bone, blood, hair, snot!” Wonderful. Meet my three-year-old.

On another step up the scale, this is the first book I’ve read in years that made me consider the notion that I was being deliberately excluded as an audience, because I’m a woman. In the end, I mostly discarded the idea, but it will give you some sense of how stereotypically, gut-wrenchingly, destructively masculine-only this narrative is. The one female character is a cipher, used only as a catalyst and sexual object. Even this is not problematic, or at least not unusual, though, if it weren’t for the litany of “modern” problems that are all, all about men.

Which brings me to my third point: the facile, shallow ethics undergirding this book. Men lack father figures, and so they don’t know what to do with their manly lives? This is your huge revelation? Toward the beginning of the book, I sensed some kind of topsy-turvy redemption theory, in which only pain, and maybe only death, could save a person from themselves. I thought maybe it was going to be an ironic commentary on the way our alienated society will do extreme acts to “feel alive,” whatever that means. This darkly funny nihilistic formula, however, gradually disappeared into a glib and repetitive set of mantras about how people buy what they don’t need or want because they didn’t know their fathers, so they have to create all kinds of mayhem. Yeah. Not new, and it also leaves out half the human race, in case you didn’t notice.

One final complaint, and this is really just for those of you who have also read this book or have seen the film. Was the revelation at the end actually supposed to be a twist? I saw it coming literally from the second page. Palahniuk sets up the “shocking surprise” in what was, to me, a completely obvious way. The surprise was that it was supposed to be surprising, if indeed it was.

Grudgingly, though, let me say what’s good about this book. Palahniuk’s prose is kicking, screaming, living. I was (somewhat reluctantly) dragged to the very last page, wanting to know more. Look:

Last week, I tapped a guy and he and I got on the list for a fight. This guy must’ve had a bad week, got both my arms behind my head in a full nelson and rammed my face into the concrete floor until my teeth bit open the inside of my cheek and my eye was swollen shut and was bleeding, and after I said, stop, I could look down and there was a print of half my face in blood on the floor.

Tyler stood next to me, both of us looking down at the big O of my mouth with blood all around it and the little slit of my eye staring up at us from the floor, and Tyler says, “Cool.”

It’s an assault, but at least it’s an effective assault. His portrait of a man dead to himself and alive only to pain may not have lasted the whole 200 pages, but it was vivid for as long as it lasted. I can’t recommend the experience, but having been through it, at least I know the rules of Fight Club.

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25 Responses to Fight Club

  1. Alex says:

    Admit it Jenny: you’ve read the book just so you could write that opening line!

    I’m a big Palahniuk fan, but despite all the hype, this is my least favorite of his books. It’s actually on my list of movies that were better than the book. He’s trying to hard, but I felt that his efforts to gross you out in a cool way are much better in his other books :)

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I read a review of Choke, which sounded perfectly horrible, so I’m not sure it would get a lot better for me. But maybe he pulled it off better?

  2. Emily says:

    This post was actually a big relief to me, because people have been badgering me to read this book for years and now I can in good conscience reply that I never intend to.

    It’s kind of hilarious that Palahniuk is such a grosser-outer & wrote this uber-masculine book. He lives near Portland and comes in quite frequently to the antiques & tchotchkes shop where David used to work, to buy various Japanese screens, fainting couches and retro cocktail shakers. Pretty butch there, Chuck.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Emily, this made me laugh right out loud. Fainting couches! I just saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s travel/food show that featured Portland, and Palahniuk took him to Voodoo Donut. He didn’t kick him in the head or anything, so I was a little disappointed.

  3. Amy says:

    Excellent first line! My husband read this, loved it, and tried to get me to read it. He failed at the last one. I’ve suffered through the movie several times which is enough to know that I don’t even want to look at this one let alone read it. Great review though.

    • Jenny says:

      I have my doubts about the film (except that it has a wonderful cast!) I read this because a student all but put it in my hands. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

  4. Karen K. says:

    I’ve only read Diary, which I thought was really contrived, and like you, the big twist at the end was really transparent. From what I’ve heard, the rest of his books strike me as sort of violent and gruesome just for the shock value, sort of like Bret Easton Ellis.

    I’ve never seen the movie either so now I understand what the whole thing about the soap is. Thanks for clearing that up!

    • Jenny says:

      Ah yes. I have no interest whatsoever in reading American Psycho, either. Though you never can tell what will happen. And although I didn’t mean to spoil anything, I’m glad you’re happy!

  5. Jenny says:

    I have no interest in reading this book, but I thought the movie was excellent. Have you seen it? Helena Bonham-Carter only needs to be Helena Bonham-Carter to keep her character from being a cipher, so although it’s definitely a dude movie, that aspect of it bothered me less than I thought it was going to. I was surprised by the twist in the film when I first saw it, but I think in film it’s a slightly different situation, what with it being Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, and also I was watching it very late at night and rather tipsy. So don’t go by me.

    All in all, I’d recommend the film BUT I’d give yourself some time to forget the book a little bit. That is my suggestion. And meantime you will have young Brad Pitt and his abs to look forward to. :D

    • Jenny says:

      I have not seen it, but I admit that the cast kind of tempts me to. (I am more interested in Edward Norton than Brad Pitt, but I am notorious for having… different taste.) I can see that the film would make the twist different from the book. But in the book, trust me, Captain Obvious.

      • Teresa says:

        I liked the movie well enough, but any movie including Edward Norton gets an extra 20 awesome points just for including Edward Norton. I didn’t see the twist coming either, but at the time, I didn’t know there was a twist. Plus, it was before every ding-dang movie seemed obligated to have a “shocking twist.” So I wasn’t looking for it.

        That said, I’ve never been tempted to see the movie again or to read the book.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha ha! I would have liked the BOOK 20 points more if Edward Norton had been in it!

      The thing about the book, Teresa, is that I didn’t know there was a twist because the “twist,” if there was one, was so lamely executed. Literally saw it coming from the second page. And I’m smart, but I’ve been fooled before (*coughSarahWaterscough*). But maybe the film just works better because of the setup.

  6. Love the first line of this review! And bummer it wasn’t really for you, but I can see women not quite being the target audience for a book on fight clubs — is that a sexist thing to say?

    • Jenny says:

      The thing is, I have loved books about war, boys’ boarding schools, hunting, the Mafia, all-male espionage, the 18th century Royal Navy, monasteries… the list goes on. So obviously I am a perfectly fine target audience for masculine books. This was different.

  7. She says:

    I’ve never read this particular Palahniuk, but I have read some of his others and really liked them. I don’t think he’s everyone’s cup of tea, but if you haven’t read them already and want to give him another shot, might I suggest Survivor or Invisible Monsters?

    • Jenny says:

      This one didn’t grab me (as you may have noticed), or perhaps I should say it grabbed me with a bloody, hairy, sweaty hand, so I’m not necessarily putting any more of his on my TBR. But I really appreciate the recommendations, because if I ever get the urge, I definitely want to know where to go next.

  8. softdrink says:

    Chuck Palahniuk scares me. Actually, it’s his characters that scare me. I’ve read two of his books (although one was a non-fiction book about Portland), and I really have no desire to read any more.

    • Jenny says:

      I saw him on TV and he looked like a perfectly nice guy, but I agree that the tone of this book was a bit scary (and not in a good way.) Not sure I want to inflict that on myself again, either.

  9. sakura says:

    I’ve only seen the movie which I liked because of the memorable cast (especially Brad Pitt’s body) and have to say I was actually surprised by the big reveal. I’ve been meaning to read the book but haven’t yet, probably because I can imagine it to be gross. Good to hear he kept you reading until the end though.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha! “Brad Pitt’s body” as part of the cast cracks me up. And yes, he definitely kept me reading, but it’s a 200-page book. If it had been, say, 350, I don’t know if I’d’ve stuck it out.

  10. mumble says:

    I can’t imagine, with a TBR like yours and tastes like yours, why you picked up, or even got into the same room as, this book in the first place. It must be about one zillion on your priority list.

    And it’s an extreme form of lad-lit, specifically designed — like chick-lit — to exclude half the world, so you aren’t remotely in the target audience. Can I recommend Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Charlotte Brontë instead?

    And I can’t see you liking the movie, either. If Brad Pitt’s abs are interesting to you, you can google for them or they are available in _Thelma and Louise_.

    Real-Man Quiz-Question: In what make of car did Thelma and Louise drive into the Grand Canyon?

    • Jenny says:

      You’re the first person to ask why, oh why I even read this book. You’re right that it’s not something I’d typically be interested in. In fact, I read it because a student practically put it into my hands. Fool me twice, can’t get fooled again.

      The question of target audience is vexed — see my comment above, about “masculine” fiction I have enjoyed. (I forgot Westerns in that list.) But in this specific case I tend to agree. I am not, however, the target audience for Thelma and Louise, either, as you know quite well. (Or for Brad Pitt’s abs! What kind of hits am I going to start getting on this site…?)

  11. I read Diary at the beginning of the year, and liked it – it wasn’t amazing, but I figured that’s probably a result of it not being one of his more acclaimed books. I did have this on my to-read pile, and while your review does ensure that I am slightly more reluctant to read it, I also want to read it a little bit more – if that makes sense?

    Love the opening line ;)

    • Jenny says:

      Sure, that makes sense. I guess the premise is intriguing, which is why this stayed on my TBR for so long. Good luck, and I hope you enjoy it!

  12. book reviews says:

    I had been considering reading Fight Club for a while since I was intrigued by the movie (I know the movie and the book are never the same) but after reading this review I have changed my mind. I like the deeper premise to the book but I am not really looking to read constant gore. Definitely going to pass on this book.

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