Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk

fight-club-by-chuck-palahniuk coverGenre: Dark Fantasy
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Published: 1996
Reviewer Rating: five stars
Book Review by Louis Maistros

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This book review has no business being here. It’s not current (came out in 1996) and is not horror in the traditional sense (though some of the content is beyond horrific). The movie version stars Brad “Pretty Boy” Pitt. I’m writing it anyway. What a total waste of time.

So why bother?

Because you NEED to read this book.

It struck me as important to bring this book to your attention because I know damn well you haven’t read it. When it was initially released it “enjoyed” modest success as a cult phenomenon. It has probably sold a few copies since the release of the movie version, but the truth is that most people who saw the movie don’t even realize there IS a book.

Unlike the film, the book version of “Fight Club” isn’t filled with lively, well-developed, pseudo-hip, angst-ridden characters. This is a narration where only the narrator really matters. This is a study in narcissism of the self-destructive variety. This is a counterculture rant.

But unlike most counterculture rants there is no sense of self-pity, no barely concealed tone of self-importance. There are no answers offered other than simple self-annihilation; “the first step to eternal life is you have to die”. “Fight Club” is full of twitchy little pearls of wisdom like that. And full of recipes for bombs. The heavy-duty satire element in “Fight Club” is not directed at the narrator’s perceived enemies. It is directed at the author himself. And at any poor schmuck who plops down the thirteen bucks for this book.

The basic story is this. Our nameless narrator has a good paying office job working for a heartless automobile manufacturer. His job is to “do the math” and figure out how many deaths are acceptable before a particular defective vehicle is recalled. If the costs of projected lawsuits is less than the projected cost of a recall, then the recall doesn’t happen and people continue to die. Outwardly he is ok with this. He lives in a nice apartment and surrounds himself with Ikea furniture. Only one problem.

Can’t sleep.

Palahniuk’s take on insomnia is unnerving for anyone who’s been there. “When you have insomnia you’re never really asleep and you’re never really awake.” This is the gospel for true insomniacs. And this condition will make you crazy.

In the case of our narrator, this craziness comes in the form of a certain internal deadness, an acute inability to feel emotion. He begins to pursue an odd hobby, which turns quickly into an addiction. He attends support groups for the dying. When people believe that you are dying, he finds, they actually listen to you. Through the real pain of the dying, our narrator finds emotional release and even a cure for his insomnia. Palahniuk’s portrayal of this epiphany gained by sucking up the doom of others comes off as pathetic, humorous, parasitic, and strangely appealing. It is impossible to read this and not fleetingly consider visiting your local blood parasite support group. It sounds like fun in a morbid way, or at least interesting. You probably won’t actually do it, but the fact that the thought crosses your mind signals that Palahniuk has succeeded in opening a very dark door to your soul. Palahniuk opens a lot of scary doors like this in “Fight Club”.

Our narrator’s new comfort zone is rocked mightily when his support group world is invaded by another faker, or “tourist”, named Marla Singer. Her presence spoils it for him. His sleep patterns devolve back to nil and he needs a new outlet. Enter Tyler Durden.

Tyler is a prankster who gets even with society one inch at a time. He is a projectionist who inserts single frames of porn into Disney features. He gets a job as a waiter so he can pee in soup. He is a small time anarchist. One day he tells our narrator, ” I want you to hit me as hard as you can”. A new kind of epiphany blossoms and Fight Club is born. In Fight Club, groups of men get together on scheduled nights of the week and beat the living crap out of each other for no good reason. There are no hard feelings. There is nothing personal about it. No debates or political baggage. This is an assault on society through co-operative self-destruction. The group grows. It multiplies. It franchises. Eventually, the aggression becomes less inward and more outward.

The evolution of a waiter who pees in soup and a sleepless corporate executive into two leaders of a bizarre terrorist cult is both disturbingly comical and terrifying. The terrifying thing is that as far-fetched as it is, it really isn’t too far-fetched at all. Palahniuk sells the reader on the dubious good sense of Tyler Durden by pushing the right buttons. There is a certain undeniable truth to all this blathering angst:

“‘We 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. And we’re just learning this fact,’ Tyler said. ‘So don’t fuck with us.'”

Simple eye opening stuff like that. Palahniuk tells you you’re a sucker, then he tells you why and you believe him. You believe him because he’s right. He lets you play victimizer then clues you in that you’re the actual victim. One particular scene in which a man is on his knees begging for his life is particularly disturbing because the narrator is holding the gun while the victim is referred to simply as “you”, giving the reader a very uncomfortable sense of participation.

“Fight Club” is a sermon with no message of redemption. It is a harsh light that exposes a blinding void. It tells us up front what the problem is; that we have become a race of blank-faced sheep — and then it winks and informs us that we are too spineless to do anything about it. Tyler Durden beats his chest, smirks and preaches self-destruction, but for our narrator the sermon never totally gels. His weak-kneed sense of conscience is our safety net. He knows that Tyler’s logic is as full of shit as society’s ills. There is something missing in the logic of Fight Club and he knows it. Just can’t put his finger on it. Or can he?

“Fight Club” is a helluva first novel. Its satire bites down harder than Bukowski and it’s terrors cut deep into the reader’s psyche. No, this book is not horror in the classic sense. But it will scare the living shit out of you. There is a lot of mean truth here. The kind that pushes you down and takes your lunch money.

A fun fact about the way the film version is being promoted. They are “touting” negative reviews right along side positive ones. The blurbs in the “Fight Club” press pack read like a high school debate:

“… a witless mishmash of whiny, infantile philosophizing and bone-crunching violence that actually thinks it’s saying something of significance” – Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times.

“Rarely has a film been so keyed into its time” – David Rooney, Variety

“It is an inadmissible assault on personal decency. And on society itself. It echoes propaganda that gave license to the brutal activities of the SA and the SS. It resurrects the Fuhrer principle.” – Alexander Walker, London Evening Standard.

“If you leave this movie afraid that this could happen here, GOOD. YOU SHOULD BE AFRAID. That is the whole point. To scare you. To make you not want to be a space monkey. Another mindless, thoughtless follower. Another brick in the wall. A goose-stepper. A fool.” – Harry Knowles, Ain’t-It-Cool-News

Very smart promotion. This is one of those rare stories where its criticism is as illuminating as its praise. This is not your father’s Oldsmobile. At all.

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