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Fight Club is a 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk that gained notoriety due to its 1999 film adaptation by director David Fincher and writer Jim Uhls. A satire of the men's movement that emerged in the 1990s, it ironically enjoyed its greatest popularity among the very people it was mocking.
Like its author, it is gay as hell. But try telling its macho straight guy fans that.
Plot (and spoiler warning)
Let's get this out of the way now: there is a big twist at the end of the story, and it is going to be spoiled here, as it is key to understanding the story's themes and message. You have been warned.
The plot revolves around an unnamed man, known only as the Narrator or "Jack" (played by Edward Norton in the film), who works as a product recall specialist for a car company. On the surface, he's living the upper-middle class dream that had been promised to successful white men like him, but in reality, his stressful office job and consumerist lifestyle leave him feeling empty inside. The jet lag caused by his frequent business trips has given him a problem with insomnia, leading him to start frequenting support groups for various things under false pretenses in order to alleviate it. At one of these support groups, the Narrator meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a strung-out, possibly disturbed woman who's attending the support groups for the same reasons he is; he sees in her everything he hates about himself, and as a result, the support groups no longer work to alleviate his insomnia. One day (on a nude beach in the book, on a flight home in the film), the Narrator encounters Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a self-styled revolutionary who recognizes the Narrator's disgruntlement with consumer society (he nicknames him "Ikea Boy"), and invites him to shack up at his dilapidated house after an explosion destroys the Narrator's apartment — but not before demanding that the Narrator punch him in the face as hard as he can, an experience that the two of them heavily enjoy. As a result, they start a fight club where men like them can let out their frustration in bare-knuckle, mano-a-mano fights, finally feeling some sensation in a world that has left them numb. Tyler and Marla also start dating, much to the Narrator's confusion; he wonders whether or not Tyler and Marla are the same person.
As the fight club attracts more men and attention and turns into a nationwide trend (Tyler's famous "first rule of Fight Club" notwithstanding), Tyler sets out to transform it into a cult-like revolutionary movement opposed to materialism, consumerism, individualism, corporations, and industrial civilization in general, scrubbing members of their names and identity and demanding the utmost conformity, all in the name of reclaiming masculinity from the modern world and returning to a state of nature where "men could be men". This drives a wedge between him and the Narrator, especially as "Project Mayhem", as Tyler's movement is called, starts to move beyond harmless pranks into far more serious territory, which eventually gets one of its members killed during a botched sabotage operation.
The spoiler-y part
It is here that the twist is revealed: "Tyler Durden" isn't real, and is part of the Narrator's split personality born of him finally snapping in frustration with his lifestyle. His insomnia was the first symptom of Tyler emerging, and it was Tyler who blew up his apartment, seeing it as a symbol of the consumerist lifestyle he was rebelling against.
After blacking out, the Narrator wakes up to find that Tyler and Project Mayhem are plotting to carry out a massive bombing. Here, the book and the film diverge.
- In the book, the bombing is aimed at a skyscraper and a museum, with Tyler planning to die a martyr. As this would kill the Narrator as well, he races to stop Tyler, finally encountering him on the roof of the skyscraper. He is rescued, his vision of Tyler vanishing, when Marla arrives with one of her support groups, while the bombs fail to detonate due to Tyler's incompetence at bomb-making. The book ends with the Narrator making the first decision that is truly his own: he puts the gun he's holding in his mouth and shoots himself. However, he survives and wakes up in a mental hospital, though he imagines himself to be in heaven and having a debate with God over human nature. It is revealed that several hospital employees are Project Mayhem members, who tell the Narrator that their plans will go on.
- In the film, the bombing is aimed at several downtown skyscrapers containing the records of credit card companies, in an effort to erase the debt of millions of people. The Narrator races to disarm the bombs but is stopped by Tyler, who drags him to the top floor and holds a gun to his head. The Narrator, realizing that the two of them are the same person and that, therefore, he's the one holding the gun, shoots himself through the cheek, which effectively destroys the Tyler personality. Members of Project Mayhem kidnap Marla and bring her to him, still believing him to be Tyler. The two of them hold hands silently and watch as the bombs destroy most of downtown.
Message, themes, and interpretations
"I'm a man, and I'm proud!"
Palahniuk wrote Fight Club as an exploration of and response to a popular meme that emerged in the 1990s: the idea that "traditional" masculinity was in crisis, being rendered obsolete due to the ever-advancing march of technology, consumer capitalism, and the modern world that they supported, leaving a generation of men utterly emasculated and "feminized" as a result. The story satirizes both the middle-class consumerism that reached full flower in the 1990s, and the men's movement that emerged as a backlash against it by those middle-class men who found themselves unfulfilled. The Narrator starts the story being slowly ground down by a culture that values him strictly for what he buys and owns, its promises of a better life seeming to only make his problems worse by giving him an unattainable ideal to aspire to, and he responds by creating a Nietzschean Übermensch named Tyler Durden who represents everything that he wishes he could be: a macho badass who lives how he wants, doesn't take any crap, doesn't want or need any part of the system, and seeks to tear it all down.
While aesthetically appealing on the surface, the Narrator/Tyler's rebellion is ultimately revealed to be just as hollow as what he's rebelling against, an exercise in nihilism that merely buys into a more extreme version of the very same culture and mindset that he ostensibly seeks to destroy. At the end of the day, Tyler and Project Mayhem are fighting for an ideal of the "real man" that they got from pop culture, mass media, and the institutions of industrial civilization. Instead of finding any real escape from "the system", they enslaved themselves to it that much more, and wound up even further down the rabbit hole. It is "toxic masculinity" taken to an endgame of celebrating mindless violence for its own sake, by the end degenerating into a terrorist group with strong fascist overtones.
Beyond just the Narrator's own struggles (outlined above), the film's themes about consumer-driven patriarchy harming and dehumanizing men are further realized in the character of Bob Paulson (played by the rock musician Michael Lee "Meat Loaf" Aday in the film). A former bodybuilder, Bob suffered from testicular cancer as a result of steroid abuse, his quest to achieve the masculine ideal promoted by the media leaving him bankrupt, divorced, and literally emasculated as the hormonal changes caused by the loss of his balls led him to develop breasts and a more high-pitched voice. Bob gets sucked into the fight club and later Project Mayhem out of gullibility and peer pressure, and ultimately gets chewed up and spit out by it. When he dies in action, he is seen as a martyr by his fellow revolutionaries and given back his name, but his humanity remains scrubbed away as he is transformed into an idealized figure whose name remains exploited by Project Mayhem.
In hindsight, Fight Club can be seen as having anticipated, by about fifteen years or so, the emergence of the manosphere, another group of men who grew disillusioned with modern society when their dreams of being macho badasses got smashed hard against the jagged rocks of reality, right down to the utterly shallow mindlessness of it all masquerading as a deep countercultural statement. Raised on a diet of media that portrayed righteous violence and chest-thumping machismo as acceptable, even preferable, solutions to one's problems, only to enter the real world and discover that such behavior is liable to get one shunned at best and get one's ass kicked at worst, they coped with their inability to be society's definition of "real men" by turning to fringe social groups. In their case, it was pick-up artistry, incel forums, and *chan culture that they gravitated to instead of underground fight clubs, because sometimes, reality is more farcical than fiction. Much like Project Mayhem, they grew radicalized as they stewed in their own frustration, reinforced by an echo chamber of like-minded people who did nothing to help them solve their problems, and eventually, that disillusionment hardened into misanthropy towards everybody who didn't look, think, and act like them. Harmless trolling eventually gave way to serious far right activism. Tyler even rants about people who think of themselves as "beautiful or unique snowflake[s]" in a speech that could've been taken from any number of alt-right websites (the film arguably having coined and popularized the "special snowflake" meme, even) — yet he's doing so to condemn individualism as a whole in favor of the unthinking conformity of the cult he created.
The examination of the "crisis of masculinity" presented in Fight Club is rooted in existentialism. The Narrator's job, in which he calculates the cost of recalling a car to determine if it would be profitable to do so (inspired by a notorious case from the 1970s involving the Ford Pinto), literally puts a monetary value on human lives and reduces them to a mathematical formula, a reflection of how he himself is treated by society as only a consumer. As a consumer, he is seemingly offered many choices in the products he purchases, the movies and television he watches, and the body he seeks to achieve, but all of these choices are, in a way, made for him by the corporations selling him their products, enforcing a conformity masquerading as individualism. When he finally snaps, he goes searching for a more "authentic" experience, starting with support groups and later moving on to the fight club, all the while internalizing a nihilistic mindset that proclaims that nothing matters except primal instincts and what men build for themselves.
The fascist, Luddite ideology of Project Mayhem becomes the logical conclusion of the internal contradictions of the Narrator/Tyler's worldview. While the Narrator wanted to liberate himself from the conformity of consumer capitalism, Tyler, the idealized image he created of himself, seeks to impose an even more overt conformity on his fellow men. While Tyler, upon his introduction to the story, is presented as something of a messiah to the Narrator, by the end he has evolved into a far more negative conception of God: a megalomaniac who thinks he knows what's best for everyone.
As noted above, Palahniuk is openly gay, and as such, a number of people have read gay themes into the story. The emptiness that the Narrator, a man of ambiguous sexuality who is interested in interior design, feels in his life can easily be read as that of a closeted, self-loathing gay man who desperately wishes he was straight, a wish that is represented by the uninhibited, hunky, and unmistakably straight macho man Tyler. (The narrator in the book gets super thirsty in his descriptions of Tyler.) The Narrator's relationship with Marla is presented as platonic, with him lacking any of the sexual interest in her that Tyler displays. Late in the film, the Narrator and Tyler turn against each other, which can be read as the Narrator excising the part of himself that wants to be straight, culminating in him "killing" Tyler and enjoying a platonic hand-hold with Marla as they watch the bombs go off — a man finally at peace with his sexuality.
Of course, some people didn't get the message. Since the release of the film adaptation, Tyler Durden has become the very sort of unironic countercultural hero that Palahniuk created him as a degenerate parody of. The owner of the doom-saying financial blog Zero Hedge uses Tyler's name as his nom de plume, as does at least one pick-up artist. Men's rights activists have taken to quoting Tyler as an inspiration. Fred Durst of the meatheaded nu-metal band Limp Bizkit bragged about how he'd "seen the Fight Club about twenty-eight times" on the song "Livin' It Up". Even its own video game adaptation, released in 2004, stripped out all of the satire of the source material in favor of presenting a bare-knuckle fighting game that took the story's macho posturing at face value (and featured Durst as an unlockable fighter).
On the other side, there were also people who criticized the film for what they felt was its sympathizing with Tyler Durden's message. Roger Ebert, in a two-star review, called it "the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since Death Wish", admiring its craftsmanship and acknowledging what its intended message was but anticipating the aforementioned fans who missed the point entirely. At least part of the issue may well stem from the change to the ending that the film made. The book ended in failure for Tyler, with the bombs failing to detonate and he/the Narrator locked up in a hospital with severe brain damage while his acolytes thoroughly dehumanize him. The film, however, goes out on a more ambiguous, and arguably even happy, note. On one hand, the Narrator successfully "kills" Tyler and rides off into the sunset with Marla, without suffering the brain damage he did in the book, but on the other, Tyler's plan succeeds, the final shot being of the Narrator and Marla watching the fireworks of multiple downtown skyscrapers getting blown up.
On a more visceral level, the film also polarized critics due to its (for the time) extremely graphic violence in a mainstream non-horror picture. Many compared it to A Clockwork Orange as a film that they feared would be imitated by people who ignored its message against violence and nihilism, with talk show host Rosie O'Donnell going so far as to spoil the film's ending on live television in order to dissuade people from seeing it. Indeed, some people did in fact go on to start real-life fight clubs in imitation of the film.
Among those who understood the message, however, Fight Club was acclaimed. The film enjoys a score of 8.8 out of 10 on IMDb, the tenth highest-rated film on the entire site, likely a consequence of people who hated Tyler Durden realizing that he was the butt of the joke. Both the book and the film are now examined in sociology and gender studies as a deconstruction of contemporary ideas of masculinity and the materialistic consumer culture that had shaped them.
In 2015, after nearly twenty years, Palahniuk returned to the well of his most famous story with Fight Club 2, a ten-issue graphic novel set ten years after the events of the original book. In it, the Narrator (his name revealed to be Sebastian) is stuck in the suburbs with a nine-year-old kid and a miserable marriage to Marla, who, similarly bored, replaces Sebastian's psychiatric medication with aspirin so that she can carry on an affair with Tyler. Sure enough, Tyler comes back swinging with a new incarnation of Project Mayhem, now a private military company called "Rize or Die" that seeks to take down the world's governments, leaving it up to Sebastian to try and stop him. Among other things, it turns out that DAESH is connected to Project Mayhem, and the story ends with Palahniuk himself describing what a mess the ending is before Tyler kills him.
Yeah, it's that kind of comic book.
- "God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables. Slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."
- Rothe-Kushel, Jethro. "Fight Club: A Ritual Cure For The Spiritual Ailment Of American Masculinity." The Film Journal, (recovered 12 January 2017).
- Folding Ideas — Fight Club and Toxic Masculinity
- "Bob had been a champion bodybuilder. You know that chest expansion program you see on late-night TV? That was his idea."
- "Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. We are all part of the same compost heap."
- "Fight Club: Existentialism." Ashley's Blog, 4 June 2010 (recovered 28 May 2017).
- Wenley, Stephen. "Existential Thought In American Psycho And Fight Club." Victoria University of Wellington. N.p., 2011. Web. 28 May 2017.
- Peele, Thomas. "Fight Club`s Queer Representations."
- Rantasmo — Needs More Straight 3: Fight Club
- Barnett, David. "Is Fight Club's Tyler Durden film's most misunderstood man?" BBC News, 23 July 2019 (recovered 4 September 2019).
- McGuire, Patrick. "This Canadian Pick-Up Artist Bragged About Forcing Sex On a 'Slut Whore'." Vice, 12 November 2014 (recovered 17 January 2017).
- Limp Bizkit: "Livin' It Up". (We sincerely apologize for any mental damage caused by prolonged exposure to Limp Bizkit.)
- Purdom, Clayton. "Never forget they made a Fight Club video game in which Fred Durst was a playable character." The AV Club, 3 October 2017 (recovered 3 October 2017).
- Ebert, Roger. "Fight Club." RogerEbert.com, 15 October 1999 (recovered 12 January 2017).
- Emerson, Jim. "Fight Club at Ten: A Love Story." RogerEbert.com, 18 November 2009 (recovered 12 October 2017).
- Stone, Zara. "The Weird And Wonderful History Of Silicon Valley Fight Club." Forbes.com, 6 July 2016 (recovered 12 January 2017).
- McCarthy, Michael. "Illegal, violent teen fight clubs face police crackdown." USA Today, 1 August 2006 (recovered 12 January 2017).
- Maslin, Janet. FILM REVIEW; Such a Very Long Way From Duvets to Danger." The New York Times, 15 October 1999 (recovered 12 January 2017).
- Thompson, Barry. "Chuck Palahniuk Destroyed His Legacy With Fight Club 2 (His Best Work In Years)." Paste Magazine, 31 March 2016 (recovered 4 May 2018).
- Kim, Matt. "Chuck Palahniuk Explains Why 'Fight Club 2' Will Get Him Murdered." Inverse, 22 June 2016 (recovered 4 May 2018).