László B. Sári is an assistant professor at the Department of English Literatures and Cultures at the University of Pécs. He teaches cultural and literary studies, contemporary American fiction and post-war British film history. His recent research is focused on contemporary American minimalist fiction, its embeddedness in creative writing, its intermediality, transgressive potential and identity politics pre- and post-9/11. Email:
Chuck Palahniuk is one of the most influential American fiction writers who emerged in the 1990s. His debut novel, Fight Club (hereafter: FC) reached cult status after the film adaptation by David Fincher was released in 1999, and widespread and divided critical reception was soon to follow. Much of the current debate about Fight Club focuses on the political implications of the text, but most often recourse to it by way of referencing the film. These arguments usually question or celebrate the transgressive potentials of the book (Giroux; Mendieta), or address issues of masculinity brought into the fore by their literary and cinematic representations emergent in the same decade (Tuss; Friday). However, few, if any, have addressed the literary aspirations of the text and its author. Although none of the approaches to the thematic concerns of Fight Club are unjustified, in the argument that follows I will suggest that conclusions drawn and critical judgments passed have been hasty, and not only failed to take into account the formal aspects of story-telling, but that the narrative features of Palahniuk’s text have largely went unexplored, and constitute a blind spot of the reception. Critics condemning or acclaiming the novel, and, indeed, many a cultic reader of Palahniuk ignored Fight Club as a literary narrative, and have inadvertently been repeating the catchphrases of the text, either reinforcing or trying to undermine what they have understood as their meaning.
I see the significance of Palahniuk’s fiction and the literary event of Fight Club’s publication in somewhat different terms. Palahniuk’s emphasis and continued insistence on minimalism suggest that his fiction is properly understood as belonging to a literary tradition whose evaluation remains troubled and, for a large part, unsettled. Nevertheless, Palahniuk remains a minimalist writer through and through. In his non-fiction as well as in his online creative writing workshops, he repeatedly voices his fascination with form as a way of immersing and emotionally affecting his readers. Also, in the line of minimalist pursuit, skillfully toned down minimalist narratives by Palahniuk stage and expand on contemporary anxieties in an existentialist fashion. Combing these two initiatives, he successfully competes for public attention in rivalry with messages available in the market of visual and written media, and exploits the critical potentials of literary discourse. Thus, fiction for Palahniuk has three functions: firstly, it provides a chance to articulate inexplicit or not immediately recognized, but already existing, potentially subversive and shared cultural experience, secondly, it provides an occasion to create new criteria of plausibility in fiction, and, thirdly, to change these existing criteria of plausibility in fiction. In what follows, I will trace these three tendencies in Fight Club, and propose that Palahniuk’s literary achievement is not directly transgressive but, first and foremost, critical, in that he succeeds in expanding the cultural experience rendered in contemporary fiction by ultimately finding new forms for their literary expression, and creating a narrative design that also requires new ways of understanding, to suspend political dogma and to avoid the commercial circuit of cultural consumption. In doing so, I will join those recent attempts to engage with Palahniuk’s texts as first and foremost literary (Sartain 2009; Kuhn–Rubin), despite his notorious fame as the writer of Fight Club, the film.
“Mischief” – A Lesson in Creative Writing
The difficulty of placing Palahniuk’s fiction and Fight Club in a minimalist tradition arises from the fact that authors, textual and ideological features referred to collectively as minimalist are often incompatible. There seems to be no final critical consensus after the long critical debate about evaluating new “realist” tendencies emerging in the 1960s and early 1970s. The term minimalism is certainly descriptive of a loosely defined body of works, but it often implies value judgments lacking firmly grounded arguments supporting them. What is more, “minimalism” is not native to literary discourse alone: music, design and the visual arts all gave rise to their own distinctive minimalist movements, very often having little to do with literary minimalism. (Abádi Nagy 1994, 16-69) To complicate matters further, literary texts characterized as minimalist often border on what is otherwise regarded postmodern, especially as we enter the 1990s (Abádi Nagy 2001). The most recent definition of minimalism in the seventies and eighties characterizes it as a mode of writing in terms of its relation to the postwar resurgence of creative writing, defining it as “lower-middle-class Modernism”, strictly in accordance with the aesthetic maxim of “show, don’t tell” (McGurl 63-69). Still, in order to introduce a feasible working definition that addresses questions of form and, thus, provides a starting point for my argument, I will rely on Cynthia W. Hallett summary, who describes early minimalist short stories as follows:
Collectively, the most identifiable of the varied features of minimalist short fiction include: (1) a blunt, lean, apparently uncomplicated prose; (2) a compact prose that by individual artistic design effects a complex pattern of trope which expands from what first appear to be trivial matters into universal concerns; (3) more dialogue than exposition with no evident authorial intrusion, and little, if any, narratorial intrusion; (4) non-heroic characters who resemble everyday people doing everyday things; (5) a sense that all “action” either appears to have occurred a while ago, or occurred just moments before the story began, or occurs later “offstage”, that is, not within the moments of the story; (6) implications of an existential, often absurd, universe in which “real” communication is impossible and action is useless – to protest is to waste one’s breath; to fight is to waste one’s energies, “better to say nothing and do even less”; (7) a recognition that words are useless, for most things are unsayable; (8) a perception that time passes without resistance and that the characters exist as audience rather than as participants in their own world and lives, especially since it would seem that nothing they do or say can make a difference; (9) a universe in which no one thing appears innately important, so all worth is artificially conferred, decided by individual values. (Hallett 25)
I suggest that Palahniuk’s fiction grows out of the frustration early minimalist fiction in general depicts (points 5-8), and that the most obvious connection between his “transgressive” novels (Sartain 2005, 40) and authors like Hempel, one of his key references, is the use and development of special narrative techniques and style (elaborations on points 1-3). Palahniuk’s contribution to the minimalist tradition, then, is that, within a broader narrative frame, he successfully adopts the techniques having been developed in the short story by others. That his point of departure is the short story can be supported by the fact that in many cases, including Fight Club, he develops the narrative thread based on experimental short stories of his own. Two chapters from Fight Club (chapter 6 and 16), one from Invisible Monsters (chapter 3), one from Survivor (chapter 31), two from Choke (chapter 20 and 40), and most of Haunted (a novel of short stories itself) were written and published on their own, and the revised versions found their way into the respective novels.
Palahniuk himself is an advocate of minimalist modes of narration, and in a tributary piece on Amy Hempel’s prose he lists what he had learnt from his predecessors in creative writing classes taught by Tom Spanbauer. Although the terminology he borrows from Spanbauer and Gordon Lish are metaphoric for the most part, they possess heuristic value when describing and analyzing his own text, as the identifiable units in the narrative of Fight Club seem to be based on patterns Palahniuk identifies in Hempel’s prose in “Not Chasing Amy” (Palahniuk 141-146), a non-fictional piece exhibiting the signs of anxiety of influence. The first of these metaphors is “horses”, recurring themes providing the backbone of story. They are formulated and reiterated in various disguises in the course of the narrative: the immanence of death, the pressure of, and resistance to, post-industrialist consumer society, the torturing presence of the other as a manifestation of the will to resist all find their expression in the lines of the “chorus”. Most of these phrases and sentences appear to be one-liners or commercial taglines, but in the narrative they fulfill multiple functions, “effecting a complex pattern of trope”. To demonstrate but a few of these functions in Fight Club: the sentence stating the inevitability of death promises, announces, acknowledges and mourns Big Bob’s death: “On a long enough time line, the survivor rate for everyone drops to zero” (FC 17; 176). The double-entendre of “that old saying, how you always kill the one you love” (FC 13, 184) refers not only to how Tyler wants to destroy the narrator (or the other way around), but how Tyler kills his boss and ultimately rids the narrator of the last scratch of his normal social existence. The contradicting ideologies of individualism and consumerism are revealed in the juxtaposition of the assertions that “you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake” (FC 134), and “you are not your sad little wallet” (FC 152). These last two phrases also juxtapose members of Project Mayhem having given up their individuality and will voluntarily, and Raymond K. Hessel, who is forced to make his dream come true at gunpoint. Because as Robert Bennett in a counterargument to Henry A. Giroux suggests in relation to the episode involving the latter:
Jack seems to employ violence here both to re-humanize his victim and to liberate him from the ideology of the market. Jack does not seek to instill ’individual initiative’ and ’will’ in Raymond so that he will achieve greater success in the capitalist economy, but rather he hopes to shock Raymond into some kind of existential crisis that will awaken him to a deeper sense of freedom. (Bennett 70)
The clash of two ideologies provide the major dilemma for the unnamed narrator, and they will have been reconciled in his monologue about God in an existentialist fashion at the end of the novel (FC 207). Palahniuk himself summarizes the proper use of chorus lines in his online creative workshop as “a transitional device, bridging two different aspects of a story” (the example of “that old saying”), “a reminder, recalling an earlier moment of insight, emotion or motivation” (Big Bob’s death, the narrator’s final monologue), or “a beat of bland time, a pause needed for suspense before the axe falls” (lamentation on masculinity in chapter 6) (Vanderpool). Most of these functions are essentially non-narrative: they occupy the place of description or other traditional devices used for suspending the progress of the story-line. But as the recurring phrase “Tyler’s words coming out of my mouth” (FC 98, 114, 155) indicates, these repetitive sequences also secure the destination of the narrative.
Themes, or “horses”, are also permutated through the method of what Palahniuk calls “the burnt tongue” in “Not Chasing Amy”: “[a] way of saying something, but saying it wrong, twisting it to slow down to reader” (Palahniuk 2004, 144). The idea of “the burnt tongue” itself becomes definitive early in the narrative frame of Fight Club: “With a gun stuck in your mouth and the barrel of the gun between your teeth, you can only talk in vowels” (FC 13). Expressions of this kind, “creating interest with poetic or unusual language” (Vanderpool) articulate stifled but strong emotions, as when the unnamed narrator intensifies tension as if it came emanating from a single organ of his. The examples are numerous from “I am Joe’s Gallbladder” (FC 58), through “I am Joe’s Raging Bile Duct”, “I am Joe’s Grinding Teeth”, “I am Joe’s Inflamed Flaring Nose”, (FC 59) “I am Joe’s White Knuckles” to “I am Joe’s Clenching Bowels” (FC 62). Having established the metaphor speaking about emotion in an impersonal way, the narrator condenses the figure even more. Later, emotion is featured as a single organ, reducing the narrator into a vehicle of his own passion: “I am Joe’s Enraged, Inflamed Sense of Rejection” (FC 60); “I am Joe’s Boiling Point” (FC 71); “I am Joe’s Blood-Boiling Rage” (FC 96); “I am Joe’s Smirking Revenge” (FC 114).
The device of the “burnt tongue” alternating with casual, matter of fact remarks authorizes the utterances of what Palahniuk calls “the recording angel” in “Not Chasing Amy” (Palahniuk 2004, 144-145), or what he distinguishes as “the little voice” in his online creative workshop (Vanderpool). The technique of the “recording angel” entails “writing without passing judgment”, and in the case of Fight Club it means that “you get a slow drip of single-sentence paragraphs, each one evoking its own emotional reaction” (Palahniuk 2004, 144-145). Each and every single detail the “little voice” shares with the reader provides and “ah-hah” moment of recognition and discovery (Palahniuk 2004, 142). Strong emotional contexts are created for what seem to be hard-boiled facts of life, and the two reinforce each other in their turn. These are called the “heart method” and the “head method” respectively (Vanderpool), and when combined, they establish narrative authority. The point of view inherent in the juxtaposition of what seems to be the actual state of affairs and the emotional investment and interest in them are usually subdued. According to Palahniuk’s rule of “submerging the “I”, it is of utmost importance to “keep the first person immediacy, but eliminate most occurrences of the word ‘I’” (Vanderpool). Although the narrative address remains indirect for the most part in Fight Club, its efficiency is maintained by “going on the body”, a method attributed to Gordon Lish and Tom Spanbauer. Involving the reader “on a gut level” involves avoiding clichés, and requires “to unpack physical sensations into discreet units of experience and then [to] describe these experiences in direct and novel ways” (Vanderpool).
One does not have to thumb through Fight Club to find him or herself in a thick of these devices, but quoting them at length risks what critics usually condemn as the “mirror[ing of] the pathology of individual and institutional violence that informs the American landscape, extending from all manner of hate crimes to the far right’s celebration of paramilitary and protofascist subcultures” (Giroux 11). The reason I still choose to cite a paragraph from the original short story on which Fight Club is based, is to demonstrate how efficiently Palahniuk uses them on a micro level. In chapter 6 the narrator is illustrating the rules of fight club while simultaneously breaking the first two of them:
The second rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.
Maybe at lunch, the waiter comes to your table and the waiter has the two black eyes of a giant panda from fight club last weekend when you saw him get his head pinched between the concrete floor and the knee of a two-hundred-pound stock boy who kept slamming a fist into the bridge of the waiter’s nose again and again in flat hard packing sounds you could hear over all the yelling until the waiter caught enough breath and sprayed blood to say, stop. (FC 48)
The indirect narratorial address in the passage is more than obvious: the initial “maybe” is followed by the narrator’s own observation related in the second person singular, much in the same way as it is used, most famously, in Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (McInerney 1984). The “I” is successfully subdued, and the immediacy of the “you” is toned down by “maybe” only to introduce the graphic, detailed, but seemingly uninterested description of violence. The “small voice”, the “recording angel” is in action, using a combination of the “head” and “heart” methods, and “going on the body” at the same time. The “heart methods” makes the reader accomplice to the illicit rules of fight club by sharing the story of the waiter initially related in anecdotal fashion (“giant panda eyes”). The “head method” shows off first-hand knowledge of what it means to be in a fight. The description of events is not only meticulous, but involves the reader “on a gut level” in more sophisticated ways. Accumulating subordinate and non-subordinate clauses in one sentence only to finish them off with the last word “stop” heightens the bodily sensation of being caught in a fight breathless. Indeed, Palahniuk insists that in the course of revision, reading out loud is an essential phase, as “it gives you the chance to perfect your timing and to find the devices you might need to make your work read at the right pace and delivery” (Vanderpool). This condensation of trope and the careful pacing of prosaic rhythm are the hallmark of minimalist fiction, often used to achieve different affects. Comparable cases can be found in Bret Easton Ellis’s prose, but their function there is rather to alienate than to involve the reader by highlighting the abundance of material wealth and the lack of any individual substance and psychology, as in the chapter “The end of the 1980s” in his American psycho (Ellis 376-7). So Hempel, again, proves to be closer both in form and in method to Palahniuk’s conception of minimalism. Her last passage in “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried”, in which the chimp, using sign language, is mourning her dead baby, offers a comparable case to the example analyzed above: “And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief” (Hempel 40). Here, the rhythm of the chimp’s utterances in sign language provide an authentic expression of grief in contrast to the usual talking cure of mourning that allows for proper working through, and, in turn, it justifies the fractured, anecdotal narrative remembering the friend’s death.
As Hempel’s example suggest, minimalist short stories culminate in epiphanic moments of different modalities (see: Leypoldt). In many cases, these recognitions and insights react to action characters have no control over (point 5 in Hallett’s argument). In other words, minimalist fiction exercises narrative authority, but in most cases narrative agency is denied of the characters (points 6 and 8). Fight Club, being a novel, follows a different pattern. Palahniuk is capable of extending the use of minimalist devices on a larger scale because he separates narrative agency and narrative authority and distributes them along the two poles of the double. The “little voice” and other structural components of Fight Club described above can be attributed to the unnamed narrator, while Tyler Durden remains in charge of both the action itself and ideological commentary. The latter narrates in the “big voice”, allowing him “to develop and express a philosophy or a worldview”, to “function as a transitional or framing device”, “to create mood or establish the tone”, or “to express a passage of time” (Vanderpool). In this narrative economy, plotting follows two divergent paths, metaphorically referred to as “the talking shapes” of the “quilt” and the “big O” (Vanderpool). Both of them are clearly visible in Fight Club: the “quilt” provides the critical mass of non-linear narrative, discursive sequences and commentary, while the “big O” provides a frame, the opening and the last but one scene to which patches in the “quilt” emotionally gravitate. The narrative within the “big O” is driven to its logical conclusion announced by the major themes: “self-destruction is the answer” (FC 49).
The last chapter offers an epilogue and an ironic commentary on the narrative structure and the text’s modality. Again, the thematic concerns are fairly obvious. The narrator survives and his monologue in front of the doctor’s desk provides an existentialist answer to the existential anxieties at stake in the narrative. The institution staff’s whispers announce the possibility of Tyler’s return. But more importantly, in-between the two contradicting passages of symbolic closure, the narrator updates the description of his own appearance introduced in chapter 6 (FC 47): “The bullet out of Tyler’s gun, it tore out my other cheek to give me a jagged smile from ear to ear. Yeah, just like an angry Halloween pumpkin. Japanese demon. Dragon of Avarice” (FC 207). The final scar inscribed on the narrator’s face mirrors the emblematic mementos of Project Mayhem (FC 118). Palahniuk here uses one of the methods of “talking shapes” (Vanderpool), namely the “thumbnail”. This gesture is similar to what Leypoldt identifies as “ironic epiphany” in Carver’s prose. He argues that when comic epiphanies are “ironized”, they “metamorphose characters into caricatures”, who would “merely confess that they would rather be silent or cannot possibly think of anything to say” when faced with moral dilemmas (Leypoldt 541). These moments also change the modality in which the narrative is understood. In reference to “rare instances” of Carver’s usage of the trope, Leypoldt argues that
if one perceives Carver’s comic epiphany without traditionally realist expectations, it can be said to mark an intriguing renegotiation of the moment of insight. It enables Carver to let the text culminate in the climactic gesture that focuses the reader’s attention on the central ethical or epistemological problem with which the text is concerned, even if it is discussed over the head of its center of consciousness. At the same time, the comic epiphany subverts too obvious meanings with silences – as the narrator’s inability to discuss and explore the issue prevents the full closure of more pedagogical realisms. (Leypoldt 541)
This suggests that the closure of Fight Club performs the same wicked joke. The uncanny grin on the narrator’s face blends the smiley, the emblem of the “happy consciousness” associated with consumerism, with scars inflicted by fight club and Project Mayhem. His “trigger-happy” smile simultaneously marks him as a product, an adversary and a critic of the culture Fight Club has been depicting.
“Mayhem” – Ideologies in the Literary Marketplace
So far I have been arguing that Fight Club is to be understood in a minimalist tradition with respect to its possible meaning and politics of form. Palahniuk’s insistence on minimalist techniques of narration provided a reading that challenged the oversimplified conclusion of many a content-based analysis, which generally argue that “the rebellion in Fight Club against consumer culture ultimately fails because its challenge reproduces the system’s models and values”, and that the novel’s attempt to deconstruct ideologies “via a parodical reconstruction fails to shatter the conditions that produce operational contingency” (Pettus 111). Readings of this kind often presuppose an unproblematic and indirect relationship between fact and fiction, both of which are assumed to be understood in the framework of the same dominant and homogenous ideologies. Pettus’ argument, for example, is based on the Marcusean hypothesis that “dominant systems maintain hegemony through assimilative inclusion of opposing forces, thus instituting a totality of experience in that it allows only itself as a reference” (Pettus 111). I will argue that this concept of an all-inclusive system is a dangerous starting point for an analysis of Fight Club, as it forecloses the possibility of seeing the novel, or indeed any text, as a possible extension of already existing frames of reference for rendering culturally specific experiences. As in the previous part of my essay, I will again turn to literary contexts of Fight Club, this time provided by the thematic considerations of the text.
While minimalist short fiction brought into play in my reading of Palahniuk’s formal preoccupations has been instructive in understanding the narrative design and economy of his text, other works characterized as “Palahniukian” on the author’s official fan site may offer insightful comparisons that reveal how Fight Club may fare in the literary marketplace of ideologies. Within the confinements of this paper I cannot possibly discuss each and every author from Steve Aylett to Irvin Welsh. In the lack of space, I will restrict my argument to three works by three established authors from the much too tentative and ad-hoc list, as they seem to set up a loosely delineated context for an evaluation of how the major themes of Fight Club had been recycled in the recent past of contemporary American literature before the publication of Palahniuk’s novel in 1997. Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis exhibit themes and ideas revisited by Fight Club, and when examined together they may constitute a provisionary genealogy of transgression in contemporary white male American fiction.
The rather traditional modernist narrative of White Noise (DeLillo 1985) addressing postmodern issues stages many of the anxieties Fight Club works over in the middle of the 1990s. The unnamed narrator of Palahniuk’s novel seems to be a grown up version of Heinrich, Jack Gladney’s son, influenced by his best friend Orest and his best friend Mercator, who is “training to break the world record for sitting in a cage full of poisonous snakes” (DeLillo 182). Major themes in White Noise anticipate most of the motives which resonate with a vengeance in Fight Club. Mark Osten in his “Introduction” to the critical edition summarizes the concerns of DeLillo’s text as the crisis and apparent transformation of the nuclear family (Osten viii), the fascination with, and the fear of, death (Osten ix), the abundance of information and simulated realities (Osten x), the appeal of fascist ideologies (Osten xi), and “the deleterious effects of capitalism, the power of electronic images, the tyrannical authority and dangerous byproducts of science, the unholy alliance of consumerism and violence, and the quest for sacredness in a secularized world” (Osten xii). The dominant narrative modality of White Noise is parody: DeLillo utilizes the language of “a hyperintelligent sitcom” and bases his plot in the patterns of “a disaster thriller” (Osten ix). But unlike Fight Club, White Noise provides an answer to the ills of modern day America in the form of the aesthetic sublime. The expression “white noise” itself becomes a synonym for the unintelligible German a nun in the hospital speaks, and Jack Gladney, founder and professor of the Hitler Studies Department cannot master, but ultimately finds “beautiful” (DeLillo 320). Consequently, the last chapter of the book restores order in these terms, praising how shelves in the supermarket have been rearranged. Consumers wait in the queue, and “in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see”, as the tabloids placed next to the terminals contain “[e]verything we need that is not food or love”, from “tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial” to “cults of the famous and the dead” (DeLillo 326). Although Osten remarks in the “Introduction” that critics like LeClair and Lentricchia emphasized DeLillo’s “authority as a cultural critic” (Osten xii; Leclair, Lentricchia), the twelve years between the publications of White Noise and Fight Club has proved that his “critique in celebration” (Osten xiv) is as vulnerable to hegemonic appropriations as any aesthetic validation of dominant discourses.
In terms of its politics Fight Club is arguably more radical than White Noise. It presents the impossibility of individual subversion of forces constitutive of the subject, and questions the efficiency of a collective form of resistance which mimics the system it opposes. None of the problems explored by the text are overcome by the end of the novel, but if they are left unresolved, the warning against the return of the repressed, the possibility of Tyler’s revival (FC 208) signaling the dream of an untainted, pre-cultural masculinity culminating in resurgence of fascistic ideologies and corresponding social formations, remain more than ominous. In that respect Peter Mathews is right in pointing out that “[t]hroughout Fight Club, Palahniuk warns his readers not to lose sight of the inevitable disjunction that exists between an ideology and its material effect” (Mathews 100).
Generation X (Coupland 1991) by the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland is apparently more experimental in terms of form than White Noise. Many of the themes celebrated in White Noise are treated with disappointment and contempt in Coupland’s episodic, generational argument punctuated by cartoons, slogans and neologisms featured as dictionary entries. Early editions of the book were printed in a two-column format, the first containing the stories, the second commentaries on them. Subsequent editions, however, implemented the commentaries as footnotes. The text is separated from its commentaries, which, in turn, function as paratextual fragments, explaining and controlling the reading of the stories and anecdotes narrated by the characters. The modalities of the narrative inserts in the Decameron-like frame and the paratextual elements are most often in sharp contrast to one another: the appendix Numbers, and indeed the majority of the neologisms, are to provide a sociological explanation for the emotionally charged, autobiographical, fictional and, in many cases, allegorical stories related by Andy, Claire and Dag. These accounts proclaim their narrators’ emotional involvement in the resistance against consumer culture and the resulting social changes, but the ultimate explanation provided by the appendix suggests that their oppositional stance is motivated by their inability to repeat the material success stories of earlier generations and their disbelief in the ideals their predecessors had held and were unable to live up to. The only moments of relief Generation X allows for are the sharing of sensual experience (“best memories of Earth” in the chapters “Purchased experiences don’t count” and “Remember Earth clearly” (Coupland 99-110)) and pop cultural sensibility (the Texlahoma story in “”It can’t last” and “Shopping is not creating” (Coupland 36-50)) through storytelling. However, Coupland is more successful than DeLillo in historically anchoring, and, thus, politically charging his narrative. While in White Noise members of the Communication Department are discussing what they were doing at the time of celebrities’ deaths (DeLillo 68-69), Coupland incorporates the memory of the Vietnam War in his apocalyptic style. When Andy visits a War Memorial with his brother Tyler, he comments on the war as follows:
I’m hardly an expert on the subject, Tyler, but I do remember a bit of it. Faint stuff; black-and-white TV stuff. Growing up, Vietnam was a background color of life, like red or blue or gold – it tinted everything. And then suddenly one day it just disappeared. Imagine that one morning you woke up and suddenly the color green had vanished. I come here to see a color that I can’t see anywhere else any more. (Coupland 174)
Nevertheless, the novel offers a rather conservative solution for the episodically presented problems in the plot. In a manner similar to displacing home anxieties to the colonies, Claire and Dag travel to Mexico to buy a hotel and enjoy the benefits of their relative wealth (Coupland 198), and Andy is soon to follow having seen a “thermonuclear cloud”, “a vision that could only have come from one of Dag’s bedtime stories” (Coupland 204).
Many of the minor motives of Generation X are recycled in Fight Club. Dogs “rummaging through the dumpster out behind the cosmetic surgery center” (Coupland 4), “semidisposable furniture from Sweden” (Coupland 32), “stacks of pornography” lying on Mathew’s floor (Coupland 34), the slogan that “You are not your ego” (Coupland 133), Arlo’s blue eyes dug out by hummingbirds (Coupland 117) recall distinct themes in Fight Club: Tyler’s “acquisition” of Marla’s “collagen trust fund”, the result of her mother’s liposuction stolen from the freezer (FC 91); the narrator’s “nesting instinct” associated with IKEA (FC 43), and catalogs of the furniture company substituting pornography; Tyler’s negative definitions of selfhood scattered throughout the text; the choice of color by the narrator’s boss for an icon at the Microsoft presentation (FC 49) and the color of his own eyes (FC 98). But in Fight Club these cultural markers do not only serve the purpose of attribution of character, but, as I have demonstrated in the previous part of my argument, provide the immediate context and the justification, and thus, the plausibility of action in Fight Club. What is more, the evolvement of fight club into Project Mayhem, the least explained development in the plot, together with Tyler’s revolutionary aim suggest that the solution Generation X offers is unacceptable for “God’s middle children of history” (FC 141) without “a great war” or “a great depression” (FC 149). Anxieties cannot be displaced any more; issues are to be negotiated in the matrix of the social, the cultural and individual realms – on home soil. The dialectic of this process is manifested in how Tyler wants to blow up the Parker-Morris building only to destroy the National Museum, his “real target” (FC 14), and how the narrator prevents him from achieving his goal by tainting the explosive mixture by adding paraffin instead of cotton and Epsom salt, insisting that it “has never, ever worked for” him (FC 12, 204).
Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho appeared in the same year as Generation X. Even before its release the novel produced a literary scandal resulting in Simon & Schuster withdrawing from its publication, and provoked protests because of its graphic portrayal of violence committed against women, colleagues, homeless people, animals and even a child. The text was seen as a serious backlash against what liberatory movements had achieved by the late 1980s, and whose long term and substantial effects conservative politics and consumerist appropriations of popular culture were quick to dismantle in the same decade. Ellis provided an acute, if exaggerated 1990s view on late 1980s sensibility in a curious literary frame. As the mottos of American Psycho taken from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Miss Manners and The Talking Heads suggest, the story of Ellis’s socialite and self-proclaimed serial killer was intended to be critical of cultural contradictions by presenting an individual case written as a parody of a novel of manners. Although I agree with critics of the novel that once facing the narrative these quotation marks can easily be forgotten because of the sheer proportion and unmotivated details of violence depicted in American Psycho, the line of my argument warrants closer inspection of features that establish connections between Ellis’s novel and Fight Club.
The figure of Patrick Bateman gravely illustrates that changes in social awareness have not traveled far across class and gender boundaries or the dividing line between the public and the private, and postindustrial consumerist ideologies have already developed an institutional framework to explain away any contradiction inherent in the system. The narrator is fully conversant in the economic, social and cultural problems of the 1980s, and acts out their demagogic declamation among friends (Ellis 15-16). As his journalistic ranting about consumer goods, pop music and media culture interspersed with the narrative thread indicates, he is also increasingly aware of the contradiction between what messages broadcast and their forms and structures of production, and registers the frustration and aggression these may generate. For example, when reviewing the album Small World by Huey Lewis and the News, the narrator abruptly changes his tone, and praising musical harmonies and “thematic sense” (Ellis 358) turns into a violent, personal outburst (Ellis 359). Although Ellis and his narrator are conscious of the economic, social and cultural changes characterizing the 1980s, Patrick Bateman’s case study is elaborated in a social and psychological vacuum, and consequently cannot even pose the question of agency. The enumeration of designer clothes and other signs of social status, the narrative sequences describing Bateman’ horrific crimes are accentuated as constatives. Ellis’s carefully controlled narrative mannerism radically denies individual perspective and value: everything, even Bateman’s body, is filtered through a passive-reflexive consciousness. This passive-reflexive consciousness is similar to the narrator’s state of insomnia described in Fight Club, wherein “[e]verything is so far, a copy of a copy of a copy” (FC 21). Thus, the significance of Ellis’s novel in this genealogy of transgression is that Fight Club takes up the contradictions threading through American Psycho to develop agency by appropriating them for the purposes of a counter hegemonic discourse. The private and the public side of Patrick Bateman’s otherwise superficial character, himself originally a blend of Norman Bates and Batman, are recycled in the figure of the double and in a different social and cultural environment to suggest that insights into the mechanisms of institutional and ideological operations have their psychological and material consequences: “things you used to own, now they own you” (FC 44).
Fight Club owes much to the thematic and formal observations made in the symptomatic and partially critical narratives of White Noise, Generation X and American Psycho, but ultimately re-contextualizes them in a critical manner. As Dominick LaCapra argues in his “Introduction” to History, Politics, and the Novel: “particularly significant texts, such as ‘classic’ novels, are not only worked over symptomatically by common contextual forces (such as ideologies) but also rework and at least partially work through these forces in critical and at times potentially transformative fashion” (LaCapra 4). Fight Club reprocesses DeLillo’s, Coupland’s and Ellis’s major themes from a historical perspective, in a manner similar to what LaCapra calls a “self-critical esprit systématique” (LaCapra 3, 13). Palahniuk’s text does away with an aesthetic valorization of postindustrialist consumer ideologies, establishes connections between economic, social, cultural and personal developments taking place from the early 1980s, and locates the possibility of agency in the estranged individual of divided loyalties. Thus, reading Fight Club in the context of literary history utilizes “the critical potential of literature”, that LaCapra, in an argument against systematic theoretical and philosophical appropriations of literary texts, accredits to “its more intricate and subtle relations with historiography and philosophy, on the one hand, and ‘reality’ (or ‘experience’), on the other” (LaCapra 13-14). Fight Club may have been inspired by true stories, as Palahniuk insists in the new “Afterword” to its latest edition (FC 215), but sharing them publicly does change these epistemological claims, together with the plausibility of fiction. Accordingly, the novel itself is not to be understood as a realist piece of fiction, or a terrorist cookbook in any simple way.
“Soap” – Palahniuk’s Media War
Fictionalizing tendencies in Palahniuk’s prose are, indeed, as strong as his reliance on factual pieces of information, or personal stories shared by friends and readers. I have already discussed the way in which this impetus in Fight Club is present as an understanding and expansion of minimalist narrative techniques, and how it relates to some of the developments of contemporary fiction written by white male American authors. However, there are at least two more contexts that deserve critical attention when discussing the breakthrough of Fight Club: the way in which Palahniuk, relatively independent of the literary establishment, reaches potential readers beyond the scope of traditional audiences, and his appropriation and resistance to institutionalized systems of representation in the visual media, most importantly, at least for my discussion of the novel, contemporary Hollywood cinema. In a recent doctoral thesis, Gábor Zoltán Kiss, the comic book artist responsible for adaptations of Invisible Monsters (kissgz 2005) and Lullaby (kissgz 2006), persuasively argued that “Palahniuk’s career indicates a paradigmatic change of wider distributional and readerly practices in the fiction industry of the United States at the new millennium” (Kiss 113). He diagnoses the significance of the rise of “cultic authors” like Chuck Palahniuk, Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, Joey Goebel, Stephen Graham Jones as a “democratic” sweep (Kiss 113), establishing more direct contact with their readership on the web, through reading tours, and often by personally promoting one another’s work. These authors also appear in unusual roles, not necessarily associated with more traditional literary figures: Palahniuk, for example, poses as a “stand-up comedian” in public readings (Kiss 114) and, as my analysis of his writing workshop ideas and some of his essays in Stranger than Fiction (Palahniuk 2004) demonstrate, as a self-taught literary critic working outside academia.
These conscious strategies employed to minimize the gap between author and audience also inform the language of prose in Palahniuk’s case. In order to address audiences who, according to surveys like the one by AP/Ipsos, read less because of going to the movies, watching television, or browsing the internet, he often finds literary equivalents of institutionalized modes of representation of other media. Indeed, many of the narrative techniques described by Palahniuk in his online creative writing seminar find their correlatives in the language of classic Hollywood cinema. As Kiss argues, the “Big Voice” is modeled after filmic voiceovers; the “Little Voice” fulfils the function of the establishing shot (Kiss 119); “submerging the ‘I’” and “the recording angel” keep the narrator’s point of view “behind the camera” (Kiss 123-124). One could add that “framing” associated with “the recording angel” may vary from close-up to long shot, but narration in Fight Club usually relies on extreme close-ups for affect, in line with the dominant cinematic convention. But this filmic analogy cannot be stretched to far, because the narrative economy of Palahniuk’s novel radically disrupts the classical codes of narrative cinema: using the technique of “the talking shapes”, Palahniuk unsettles temporal order, continuity of space, time, and even of the main character’s consciousness. As he made it clear in an interview with Richard Kleffel: he set out to write novels “that are impossible to be made into films” (Kleffel 2005). The irony, of course, is that the commercial and critical success of the 1999 film adaptation of Fight Club contributed to Palahniuk’s status as a cult figure, and moved his activities into the spotlight, making his work available to a more general public.
However, Fincher’s film also highlights that adapting Fight Club requires an ingenious approach: Palahniuk’s text does not translate easily back into the language of cinema. Narrative voices uneasily correspond to their iconic representations. The “big voice” taking after filmic voiceover is mainly represented by Tyler’s figure and image (Brad Pitt), while the primary narrator (Edward Norton) is brought into focus, contradicting his literary role of being “the recording angel”. Fincher models the formal features of his visual narrative on Palahniuk’s special editing techniques: he makes use of the virtual camera and inserts bordering on the subliminal, but he cannot surpass the difficulties of adaptation, institutional and cultural in nature, pertaining to his medium. Two episodes are particularly troublesome from this perspective: Tyler’s speech in the basement (Fincher 67:00-68:20) and the apocalyptic revision of closure. The subversive potential of the claim that “[w]e are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t” (FC 166) is quickly undermined by the fact that one of Hollywood’s most well-paid actors, whose life story indicates just the opposite, utters the sentence. The irony pervasive in the book is fully exploited by one of the leading industries of consumer capitalism and its star system, whose institutional complex Fight Club may have been thought to criticise. The novel also reflects on its relationship to the compulsory element of romance prevalent in much of contemporary Hollywood cinema in a memorable passage describing how Tyler splices “a single frame of pornography collected by some other projectionist” into a family film (FC 29-30). The final scenes of Fincher’s film present the narrator and Marla, hand in hand facing the spectacle of destruction (2:10:00-2:10:40) initiated and, as the final cut of “a lunging red penis” (2:10:41) suggests, projected by Tyler. What the book promises about Tyler’s return only as a possibility, the film delivers as a closure. Also, much of the suspense and anticipation apparent in the novel is undermined by the redistribution of material wealth the fall of the credit card company towers indicate. Although the final image Fincher chooses obviously breaches the cinematic taboo of featuring the male genitals in their erect or semi-erect state, and elsewhere successfully reworks certain motives of the text (for example, in an episode in which the narrator is unwilling to stop beating Angelface (Jared Lato) (1:31:40-1:33:19), the homosocial/homoerotic dynamic is made obvious), these instances offer little compensation for the lack of redistributing cultural capital on larger scale in the film version of Fight Club.
Accordingly, the novel and the film differ in terms of appropriating the discourses they are recycling. I suggest that instead of labelling the novel politically in accordance with the tagline of the movie, we should estimate its political significance in literary terms. In a much more peaceful way than levelling a tower to the ground, Fight Club interferes with its immediate cultural context by foregrounding certain ignored or taboo literary subjects: the contemporary anxieties of masculinity are seen as a result of recent US political history, and the all too obvious contradiction between consumerism and the hierarchy and hegemony of cultural order are addressed in depth. Palahniuk’s criticism, as my argument may prove, relies on his literary sensibilities. Perhaps, it would be too much to ask for a responsible literary solution for social ills, but Fight Club clearly succeeds in creating a personal address by finding plausible expressions for each problem it bespeaks, and, reaching new audiences, may help others do the same.
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