Thursday, August 6, 2009
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Well, now I reckon y'all have seen the movie, so there's probably not a whole lot that you need to know about this book.
You know Tyler Durden.
He's the Id, the unchained spirit that wants what he wants and he wants it now. He's the voice in your head that tells you that everything is worthless, that chaos, death and the end of civilization would be better than anything our so-called "society" could ever create. He's the one standing over your left shoulder, whispering "Burn it all down. It'll be fun." He acts in secret, he has an army of minions, and he has a plan.
Oh yes, you know Tyler Durden.
The narrator of this dark and strange cautionary tale knows Tyler all too well, and tells us of how he and Tyler tried to change the world. It all started very simply - with basement fight clubs where men could let out their rage and frustration on each other. There were very few rules to fight club, but that was okay. Rules were, in fact, the problem. The regimented society in which we live imposes constant rules on us - social rules, cultural rules, corporate rules - that tell us who to be and what to think. The rules of our society have sapped us of our strength and purpose, making us soft. Pliable. Weak.
But Tyler's plan doesn't end there - the fight clubs morph into Project Mayhem, a well-oiled anarchist movement, determined to bring down the very fundamentals of our society. With an army at his beck and call, Tyler is sure that his plan will succeed.
It's a book with a couple of very powerful messages, one overt and incorrect, the other subtle and accurate. The overt message is Tyler's message - we are a generation with no cause, no purpose. Our lives are governed by what we buy and what we wear, and none of us will die having done anything with our lives. In order to be Real Men, we need to strip away the veneer of civilization - our Ikea furniture, our make-work jobs and our cornflower blue neckties - and rediscover the inner core of ourselves. The brutal, unafraid, unapologetic beast that is Man.
This, to no one's surprise, appealed to a lot of people when the film came out because it's a very believable world view. Those of Gen X and beyond are reminded over and over again that the generations before us were the ones who actually did things. The Baby Boomers got herded into the slaughterhouse that was Vietnam, toppled a President, faced down the chaos of the Sixties and fought to change the world. Their parents, of course, were the Greatest Generation - a label that I have come to despise - who fought Hitler and freed Europe. Their parents struggled through the Depression, and their parents fought in the trenches of World War One.
What have we done? Until the beginning of the 21st Century, how had we suffered? What had we sacrificed? Not a whole lot, and I think a lot of us secretly believe that we're not only not pulling our weight in the world, but that since we have not suffered, we're not really adult. Our miseries have not been those born of chaos, war and destruction. Ours have been tiny, personal tragedies that are, in their way, insignificant.
I can see where Tyler Durden is coming from on this point - I do sometimes look around me and ask, "Where are our great challenges, our Normandy or our moon landing?" And I fear that without these milestones, my generation will never really be taken seriously.
Unfortunately, this is about where most folks stopped thinking and decided, "Shit, man, he's right! I wanna start a fight club!" And short-lived fight clubs sprang up all over the country, lasting about as long as it took for people to realize that while Brad Pitt on the movie screen can get beaten within an inch of his life and still look cool, a normal human cannot. They missed the subtle message because it wasn't one that they really wanted to hear.
The book is not about the triumph of nihilism over a consumer-driven culture. It's not about being a Real Man. It's not about being a unique snowflake or a space monkey.
It's about overcoming both the desire to destroy society and the desire to be completely subsumed by it. It's about the need for purpose, and the need for connection with other people, and what can happen when one is deprived of those things. Tyler doesn't show up because the narrator is rootless or bored - Tyler shows up because the narrator has forsaken people for things. He has replaced personal achievement with material gain, and that's not a very fulfilling way to live.
It is a cautionary tale for our generation - you are not your tragedies. You are not the club you belong to. You are not your scars. You are neither worthless nor undeserving.
You are what you make yourself to be, no matter what Tyler Durden wants.
"If you could either be God's worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose?"
- The Narrator, Fight Club
Fight Club on Wikipedia
Chuck Palahniuk on Wikipedia
Fight Club on Amazon.com
Official Chuck Palahniuk Fan Site