Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review: Fight Club

Fight Club Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fifteen years or so ago, it seemed my students were all reading Palahniuk’s work – or at least those students who had the ambition to read on their own. I came to understand him, as someone who didn’t get around to reading him for a very long time (this being only my second) as a kind of Vonnegut for the millennial generation. Whatever he was doing, he’d found a way to talk to the thinking edge of rising young adults.

Now, all these years later, I’ve managed to get to Palahniuk’s equivalent to Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse Five. This is the one, by reputation at least, that “blew up” Palahniuk, that made him into a legitimate star, someone who made his name the hard way, by inventing a style that tossed aside most of what passed for accepted aesthetic standards.

The best of this is as deeply impressive as I have heard. The lyric heart of the beginning, when we get the “rules” is eerily brilliant. “The first of fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club.” Palahniuk knows that’s a good one, knows it too well. He makes it the epigraph at the start, he repeats it in each iteration of the list, and he repeats the list. Still, its starkness comes through.

Add to that other stunning lines like “I want to have your abortion,” “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero,” and a good dozen others, and there’s no question that this is a novel that legitimately packs a punch. Palahniuk isn’t merely throwing words around. He’s exploring a nihilism that connects (or connected, since it’s a generation old now) with a real and otherwise unsatisfied hunger.

Vonnegut’s great lament was that our world, growing ever more banal, had lost sight of what it meant for a community to value individuals. The scientists of his Cat’s Cradle valued cold facts over their children, and they saw no difference between their toys and their weapons of apocalyptic power. The generals of his Slaughterhouse Five wanted to win wars even if it meant destroying their own people. He was cynical because, as he let slip every so often, he remembered a world where we understood the collective as nurturing the individual, whether the artist or the scientist, and not where it looked at him or her as just another demographic fact.

Palahniuk is even darker here. He’s lamenting not so much the loss of community as the loss of purpose. His characters see so little value in their lives that they come to valorize “the miracle of death,” the idea that a living person can, with the intervention of a speeding car or a bullet, turn into nothing more than an object. They want life to matter, so they turn to death, its opposite, for something that might give them meaning.

It’s an often powerful claim, and there are a lot of compelling moments in the novel, but it leads, by necessity and mediocre pun, to a “dead end.” What more is there to say once you say the heart of this novel: rule number one, don’t talk about what fight club is really about. It’s about a hunger for being fully alive, but it’s caught in the contradiction that fleeing life doesn’t tell you that much about what you’re fleeing.

I’ll call it a [SPOILER] even though it’s now a cultural meme, but the eventual revelation that our narrator and Tyler are one and the same strikes me as a retreat from the daring bleakness of the novel’s core. When Tyler becomes a gimmick, a creation within the creation of the novel, we see the cracks that were always in the foundation expand. This novel is an articulate and sometimes brilliant cry of despair, but it lacks a deeper humanism that might hear and respond to that cry. When Tyler becomes a hallucination, when our narrator sets out to extricate himself from the nihilism he’s set in motion, we get what seems a false path toward escape. It’s as if the novel, having given us such a harrowing glimpse at how meaningless life can be, says instead, “Whoa. That was one bad dream I just had.” Even the end, additional SPOILER, with our narrator dead and narrating beyond the grave, seems a betrayal of the novel’s ultimate promise: death is not entirely the opposite of life. It’s not as starkly empty as promised so, by extension, it seems the nihilism of so much of the novel isn’t quite so dire either.

As far as I’m concerned, this feels less like a classic novel than like an artifact of its moment. It may be that the anger, disappointment and nihilism of its moment was a foreshadowing of the Trump mood, but I think it’s more clearly a reflection of that early millennial moment. This is not Gatsby, nor is it Invisible Man. Those are books that take the frustrations of their age and turned them into art that doesn’t blink.

This is more analogous to what Vonnegut accomplished, though. Much as I liked his vision and enjoyed his humor, most of his novels seemed to blink at the end as well. Only the best Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle and maybe God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, seems really to endure. The rest, like this example of Palahniuk’s, makes you say “wow,” but doesn’t quite linger decades later.

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