As noted in the sidebar, our group focuses on what we generally consider works of literary value. What makes a work “literary” has always been debatable, though, and we don’t take ourselves seriously enough to forgo reading a cult classic from time to time. Or, a local writer–especially if they have written a cult classic. This month, we discussed the cult classic Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (rhymes with colonic!) which won the 1997 Pacific Booksellers Award and the 1997 Oregon Book Award for best novel. Those awards are not what people typically think of when they think of Fight Club. Instead, most people remember the film starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter, as well as the “first rule” of Fight Club: Do not talk about Fight Club. Well, we ignored the first rule, and there is no rule that prohibits writing about Fight Club. (Note: I will follow the convention of italicizing the title when I reference the book, but not when referencing the organization described in the novel.) Palahniuk’s book was, as noted above, well-received critically–even though he did not have the assistance of an agent when Fight Club was published. Then again, if you were a literary agent in the 1990s and a diesel mechanic approached you with his first novel about an insomniac with a split personality (okay, “disassociative personality disorder” if you have a copy of the DSM IV handy) who creates an army of underclass anarchists, you might pass on it. Nor would you have been impressed by Palahniuk’s modest education (Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Oregon). According to one of the members of my group, Palahniuk worked at the Portland Freightliner plant and would periodically emerge from the mechanic’s pit beneath a truck with the most recent draft of what would become Fight Club. However, if an astute agent would have taken the time to read his work, they would have been impressed by how well Palahniuk’s minimalist, postmodern style (pop culture and commercial references) complements the main character’s rejection of consumerism and careerism, which requires references to pop culture.Told in the first person, Palahniuk uses an unreliable narrator to lead us to believe–initially–that he and Tyler Durden are two different people. And stylistically, it is not unheard of to have an unnamed narrator. As the story goes on, we are gradually let in on the secret, i.e., that Durden is the narrator’s alter ego, and that his creation of various fight clubs are outward manifestations of the struggle for control between the two personalities.In addition to pummeling each other in the basements of bars, Palahniuk has his characters commit different crimes, and allows Tyler Durden to live out the fantasy of becoming an underground anti- hero to socio-ecnomically disenfranchised men around the country who feel the need to undergo ritualized violence in order to convince themselves that they have, in fact, become men and have the power to change society. Palahniuk’s examination of masculinity in Fight Club is fascinating in the sense that when he wrote the novel, he was a closeted gay, and includes a character (“Big Bob”) who developed testicular cancer while using steroids as a part of the hyper-masculine pastime of professional wrestling. Now, Big Bob has developed “bitch tits,” hugs Tyler Durden during a support group meetings, and eventually joins a fight club. To complete the commentary on the transitory nature of sexual characteristics, Durden periodically orders his followers to castrate certain individuals.
Tyler’s army of anarchists wear black shirts–a reference to Mussolini and the Blackshirts–while Tyler becomes known around the country. Or does he? Tyler Durden is an insomniac, and an unreliable narrator. How much of his story is “true” is questionable. How many of the escapades are fantasy and how many are reality? Given the number of historic instances of megalomaniacs inspiring followers to commit atrocities, there is enough plausibility in the story to keep us from writing off the plot as incredible.
My Norton paperback edition includes an excellent afterward by the author, who notes the bizarre, meta-fictional experience of being a blue-collar guy who becomes famous after writing a novel about a blue-collar guy who becomes infamous. It’s an excellent addition to the text.
Our next selection is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
- Style Salute: Tyler Durden in Fight Club (jacamoblog.co.uk)