Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Survival of the Fittest (Space Monkey): A Review of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club


Like most people who read this book, I saw the film first. 

The Fight Club movie had a notoriously bad publicity campaign - what few TV spots I saw showed a topless Brad Pitt whaling on some poor sod surrounded by other guys cheering them on. Everything about it screamed “dumb guy action movie”. Which is why I was last in my circle of friends in high school back in ‘99/2000 (I forget which year exactly - probably the latter) to get the laserdisc of Fight Club (to those too young to remember, the tech that was soon to be enveloped by DVDs). 

Then I watched it, on my PC because I didn’t have a player for my TV - just a VHS. It crashed around the 50 minute mark and I wasn’t sure how to fast forward but I didn’t care as I was mesmerised with what I was seeing, I just rewatched it from the start. It crashed at least one more time in between discs and probably in total it took me four hours that first time to watch the movie completely. 

Fight Club the movie hit me like a sonic boom. 

Everything about it felt life-changing and new - like the narrator feels after his first fight with Tyler Durden (the 90s version of Sal Paradise), you felt like you could do anything after watching it. 

So, once I found out it was a book first, I immediately set out to buy Fight Club the novel, but my local bookshop was sold out so I purchased a copy of Survivor instead and loved it. Chuck Palahniuk was now my favourite writer. I would read Fight Club after I’d also read Invisible Monsters but because the movie was so faithful in its adaptation, so many lines and scenes as I read them just felt like I was reading the movie - I still loved it though.

I’d read a couple more of Palahniuk’s books - Choke and Lullaby - before giving up on him, dipping into his books every now and then over the years when nostalgia visited me but never completing them (they just weren’t very good!). 

So now that 14/15 years have passed since I read it, and at least 10 years since I last saw the movie, I thought it was due a re-read.

Did it hit me as hard, second time round? No - but it’s still a powerful book that I discovered I now liked for different reasons. 

Our nameless narrator is an insurance claims adjustor who hates his rigid, comfortable little life - and then he meets Tyler Durden, a man living on the fringes of society who introduces him to a more destructive and different lifestyle. They create Fight Club, an underground boxing group where anyone can fight one another. As fight club grows, so do Tyler’s ambitions until Fight Club becomes Project Mayhem, a terrorist group bent on total societal collapse. But who is Tyler Durden really - and will he succeed in bringing down the world?

So what is Fight Club, really? It’s a romantic comedy. 

Huh?! 

Yeah, a pitch black one - and it’s also a brilliant reworking of The Great Gatsby (two guys, one girl, destructive love triangle, one guy gets shot in the end, our narrator is an apostle of one of the guys). 

Marla Singer is our nameless narrator’s love interest, though he doesn’t realise it until the end, and even then he can’t bring himself to say he loves her - in what should be the moment in the movie when boy and girl declare their love for one another, he says that he does “like” her! Along with Tyler, they have a tempestuous love affair that sees three unbelievably damaged people working their way through layers of insanity to something better than they hoped for - peace. 

And it’s a super funny book. Who doesn’t laugh at Big Bob, the big moosie, with his giant bitch tits smothering our narrator as they Remain Men Together at the support group for testicular cancer survivors? Or the silly moments Tyler and Joe (I’m giving our nameless narrator the name Joe because he repeatedly calls himself “Joe’s (insert body part/emotion here)” - you’ll understand the metaphor in the novel) have when they’re peeing in soup or splicing frames of porn into Disney movies! 

When I was reading this as a teenager, I focused on the nihilism and pessimistic side to Fight Club. Tyler’s goals are the total annihilation of culture as a reaction to the frustration he feels is brought about by modern life - men figuratively having their balls cut off as opposed to actually because they were cancerous. His speeches were negative, droning on about how you are not your belongings, and you are not a beautiful unique snowflake, and that you were raised to believe you’d be a celebrity and a rock star - and you won’t, and you’re pissed off at that. What kid doesn’t identify with this stuff, affirming your emo worldview?

Reading this years later, I noticed other things about it. Superficially it’s negative, but underlying it is actually a very positive message. Tyler may say you’re not a beautiful unique snowflake but he’s dedicated to making total strangers feel like they matter - that one man has all the power in the world. One of his homework assignments for Project Mayhem is to go out and start a fight with someone, and lose to them, thus making them feel strong and realising the strength buried within them. 

He wants to cut through the crap in our lives and make us all truly happy by going after what we know we should, but don’t for whatever reasons. He takes the bullets out of a gun then threatens a store clerk that he’ll blow his brains out unless he goes after his dream of becoming a veterinarian. He’s using the tools of violence for positive means, demanding that people realise their full potential and not accept their lot in life - to strive for something more which they can and will achieve with just the right push in the direction of their choosing. 

All throughout the book are moments like this - when they’re in a speeding car, driving down the wrong lanes, the space monkeys (Tyler’s disciples) in the back seats yelling out their dreams as they challenge death to deny them the chance to live them, and it’s thrilling to read but also ingenious when you realise that this is the way you get men to be men and talk about being, and discovering how to be, men. It’s kind of like the male version of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, as men slowly get their metaphorical balls back, no longer remaining men but becoming men together. 

As extraordinary as the book is, the movie is overwhelmingly associated with it, at least to me. Brad Pitt, Ed Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter ARE Tyler, Joe and Marla. I hear Norton’s droning voice when I read Palahniuk’s words, I see Pitt’s grinning mug whenever Tyler appears, and HBC’s doom-laden appearance is the only way Marla could look. 

The book and the movie are inseparable in many ways but I will say the movie provides a more satisfying finale to the book. Granted the book does lay the groundwork for a sequel - which is in the works, as a comic book no less! - and leaves things deliciously, ambiguously open-ended. But the film’s ending - it’s too perfectly iconic and eerily prescient given what would happen two years after it was released. 

And while it might seem that I’m doing a disservice to the novel by comparing it to the film, I’m really not - it’s like comparing one gem to another: both are undeniable gems, true masterworks of their respective art forms. 

Fight Club is a beautifully written, original novel that remains as fresh today as it did back in the ‘90s. It’s a book that will subvert the reader’s expectations in all the best ways, even if you’ve read it before. In Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk created something... unique. Like a snowflake. 

Slide!

Fight Club

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