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.