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Saluting The Power Animal: Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club 20 Years On
Matt Packer , August 18th, 2016 12:37

Matt Packer breaks the first two rules to toast the impact and lasting legacy of an epochal tale of consumerism under siege, published two decades ago this week

The book's spine is a hatchet that leaps off the shelf and splits my face.

Hold on - let's back up a little.

I was a student in Canterbury. Mid-to-late 90s. Radio, Film and Television with American Studies. Not as useless as it sounds. The college library regularly stocked the latest media periodicals, including mags like Variety, which was great if you wanted doses of news about nascent film projects that the geek web - still very much in its infancy - hadn't heard of yet. One of my favourite Variety columns, Lit Picks, focused on juicy deals for hot properties in the publishing world, many of which were still only at manuscript stage, and would have to wait a while yet to see the inside of a bookstore, let alone a cinema.

So, you scan down the latest column's clutch of 30-word stories - this must have been in the spring of 96 - and right at the bottom there's this title that instantly stamps itself into your brain: Fight Club. The words look right together. They make a great couple. It's a killer title.

You struggle for a moment to figure out how to pronounce the author's surname. You give up, and skip straight to the slender morsel of news about the deal, hoping it’s at least the equal of the title. It doesn't disappoint. You learn that 20th Century Fox, of all people, have snapped up the rights to this "apocalyptic tale of a cult of young men who blow up buildings and make soap out of human fat". Your jaw flies off its hinges. You close the magazine and open it again to make sure the precis is still there. You blink. You weren't making it up. Your mind gushes with imagery and possibilities.

Variety's sketchy outline lies dormant in your mind. So dormant that you think you forget about it, but really you don't. Months and months blow by. It's October 97, and you’re back for the third year. You're in Waterstones, browsing the fiction shelves for something to get the wheels turning again after a summer of drudge work. After an hour or so, you get a sort of browsing fatigue, and all the novels before you melt into a greyish haze. Except one.

The book’s spine is a hatchet that leaps off the shelf and splits my face.

The title that stamped itself into my brain. Those two words that looked so great together. The author's unpronounceable surname. My hands are shaking when I hand over my money. The duration of my walk home cuts itself in half. In my room, the first few pages of the book vanish beneath my fingers. I force myself to wait till the weekend, when the commitments of the first week back will be out of the way. Saturday comes. I wake with a hangover and reach straight for the book. I devour - no, live through the thing in a single, glorious, 12-hour hit, accompanied by a constant stream of cigarettes. I can't pretend that all of them were straight. The 11th-hour twist renders me practically certifiable. When I turn the last page, I feel like I've been away on some kind of remote, psychological boot camp for about a month. I will not be able to stop thinking about Fight Club for at least the next three years. It will be an ever-present track in my mind, turning over and over and acting as a filter for my experiences. I had been stunned by many books before, but I had never found one that would serve as a lens for viewing life. Until then.

I'm not the only one with a story like this. For those of us who knew Chuck Palahniuk's literary debut before its adaptation emerged, it was electroconvulsive therapy in print - a blend of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Charles Webb's The Graduate for the post-American Psycho era that offered Generation X a far more savage critique of late-capitalist existence than Douglas Coupland's Generation X had. Published on 17 August 1996, Fight Club wasn't a book of its time, so much as the first novel of the 21st Century: rather than curling itself up in a ball of so-called 'pre-millennial tension' - back then, the catch-all diagnosis for pretty much any loosely defined social weirdness - it reached forward for catharsis… or, in its own words, 'a near-life experience'. It was smart. It was sharp. It was sly. It was a litany of epochal observations phrased with immaculate, stinging, frankness, wrapped up in the delivery mechanism of the ultimate one-sitting read. It was manna for obsessives, and I was certainly that.

The scales before my eyes were already pretty loose before Fight Club came along, but Palahniuk's book swept them aside at a stroke. In its portrayal of an office drone so crushed by the vacuity of both his McJob - as Coupland would put it - and his materialist trappings that he tours disease support groups on false pretences to ease his nagging insomnia, Fight Club openly mocked the pat and facile notion of 'closure' upon which so much American discourse - drenched as it is in cod psychology - depends. The narrator's trembling slumps into crocodile tears in the arms of his duped group buddies hoisted a vivid, neon warning sign above the toxic lake of cheap sentiment in which Western culture is expected, daily, to drown. And the book's invitation to contemplate the thought that having nothing at all may be better than having what advertising has misled us to acquire ('"It's only after you've lost everything," Tyler says, "that you're free to do anything"') anticipated the rejection of big-brand consumerism encouraged by Naomi Klein's landmark journalistic treatise, No Logo.

Subtle Fight Club ain't. It achieves its effect against the monolithic façade of received wisdom by acting as counterpropaganda, drip-feeding the reader's mind with clipped, one-sentence - and sometimes, one-word - paragraphs, and key lines that recur like lulling mantras:

I know this because Tyler knows this.

This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time.

Prepare to evacuate soul in five, in four, three, two, one.

A major reason why this approach succeeds is because Palahniuk knew all about being the underdog, and the power of counterintuitive thought. In the run up to writing Fight Club, he had already penned a manuscript that was rejected for its confrontational tone and themes (later reworked as his third novel, Invisible Monsters). But far from retreating into the realms of the politely palatable, Palahniuk decided to write something even more extreme, and chunks of Fight Club were born in the most inauspicious circumstances imaginable – inching out into the world from underneath a host of vehicle chassis while the author worked as a research mechanic at US haulage firm Freightliner.

It was never a foregone conclusion that the book would make a splash. WW Norton, the publisher that took it on, wasn't renowned for issuing dark, biting satires of the modern world's banalities (its cornerstone title was the pipe-and-slippers Norton Anthology of English Literature). Palahniuk's fee was $6,000; Fight Club's first-edition hardcover sold about 5,000 copies (do the math). But, to paraphrase the opening of the book's 15th chapter, under and behind and inside everything the world took for granted, something monstrous had been growing. In between the book's acceptance at Norton and its publication date, the film-rights deal that Variety flagged up in its Lit Picks column took place. And the consequences of that deal made Fight Club legend.

To this day, it's difficult to overstate what a whopping, serrated beast of a black swan the 1999 Fight Club film was. It didn't get made because the book was a runaway success. It got made because the source text had seized the imaginations of the right people in the right places at the right time. Initially snapped up by, yes, Pretty Woman producer Laura Ziskin - then at Fox Filmed Entertainment - Fight Club was quickly put on the blocks as a project for David Fincher, fresh off Se7en (1995) and The Game (1997). Fincher pondered a scuzzy, low-budget guerrilla version for, oh, about five seconds before deciding what the film really needed was a $63 million budget and Brad Pitt in the role of anarcho-syndicalist saboteur, Tyler Durden.

Palahniuk had shoved an IED under Hollywood's wheels. Fox owner Rupert Murdoch despised the film, which must be the surest sign that everything went to plan: whoever thought that someone like him would ever be exposed to such a concentrated attack on his own ethos, from his own studio? Just as amusingly, Fincher's lurid adaptation mindfucked the critical community to within an inch of its life. Evening Standard doyen Alexander Walker denounced the film as fascist, despite its copious similarities to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, which he'd repeatedly praised to the skies. And Daily Mail hack Christopher Tookey gave it a glowing, 10/10 review, despite its copious similarities to Cronenberg's Crash, which he'd actively tried to ban. Any broader grumbles about the film's themes echoed those that the novel had already endured, and stemmed from small minds who couldn't tell the difference between a piece of art that's about fascism and misogyny and one that has set out to endorse them.

For all its vaulting ambition and narrative agility, though, Fincher's Fight Club is no match for the book - and I'm glad to say that the vision of the tale that formed in my mind when I first read it has never been overwritten. Key aspects of Palahniuk's imagery that would have been too hard to sell on film work on an almost Francis Bacon-like plane of abstraction. As we surge through the novel, its urban environments are steadily overtaken by men whose faces have been reduced to the state of rotten fruit from too much fight clubbing. Early on, the narrator develops a "butthole" puncture in his cheek, which gets larger and more ragged as the story goes on. Like his Edward Norton counterpart, he shoots himself in the face near the end – but when he does so, the puncture at last rips open to become part of his mouth, flowing into the gunshot wound on the other side as one, ghastly "jagged smile … like an angry Halloween pumpkin". What Palahniuk had presented as nightmarish, Fincher had dialled down into black comedy. But the film's greatest coup was to telegraph the novel's ideas into other media.

No one seemed to talk about it at the time, but Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad was Fight Club as fuck. Here we were in the company of another emasculated middle-class drone, Walter White, whose materialist neuroses spawn a destructive alter-ego, complete with an underground cult. While Fight Club's narrator tours cancer support groups, Walt actually has cancer - a condition that nourishes his internal saboteur, perverting his professional expertise and ushering him into displays of ever more transgressive behaviour. Like Fight Club, Breaking Bad uses fake business fronts to reflect our acknowledgement of the love-in between capitalism and criminality. Fast-food chain Los Pollos Hermanos and fumigation firm Vamonos Pest cloak Walt's meth operation in the same way that The Paper Street Soap Company masks Tyler's lordship of fight club and its militarised outgrowth, Project Mayhem. Under and behind and inside everything that Walt's family has taken for granted, something horrible is growing.

Now, we have Sam Esmail's Mr Robot, from the megabrand stable of Amazon, in which a mentally fragile drone-by-day, hacker-by-night joins forces with Christian Slater's titular, Durden-like computer anarchist to fight a fictional Apple/Enron hybrid with hooks in every crevice of US commerce. Indeed, Mr Robot is so in thrall to Fight Club that it not only mimics the sound mix, camera angles and piss-drenched patina of Fincher's film, but (spoiler, sorry-not-sorry) carries out a wholesale lift of the story's climactic twist - as well as romping off with a pivotal music cue. As if we wouldn't notice.

But perhaps the most surprising feature of the film's legacy is the improbable trace it left on one of Fincher's later projects. When I first watched The Social Network (2010), I was blown away by some of the striking similarities between that film and the director’s take on Fight Club. In the Fight Club movie, Tyler and the narrator exchange quips about their movement's viral expansion to more and more US cities. In The Social Network, characters marvel at Facebook's gradual colonisation of the US university scene. It even struck me that Fincher's version of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) was deliberately pitched as a Tyler Durden figure for the naïve Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) – while Justin Timberlake's slick tempter, Sean Parker, fulfilled much the same role for Zuckerberg. Quite unexpectedly, elements of Fight Club had become a narrative template for the rise of this century's biggest social brand.

Two decades on from Fight Club's release, and its themes of homoeroticism and scattershot male anger have pegged book and film alike as scholarly cornerstones in the fields of gender and queer studies. Meanwhile, online sexism is rife, corporations have us by the balls as never before, mobile devices stoke our materialist urges, crocodile tears overflow from 'factual' entertainment, and we're still recovering from a debilitating financial disaster. On top of all that, Donald Trump - a man who Tyler Durden would not merely fight, but tie to a rusty bedframe and torture for two months - is within reach of the US Presidency. In many ways, Palahniuk's book underestimated how bad things would get. It's something that the author seems to admit in his recent, graphic-novel sequel Fight Club 2. After opening as a dark suspense thriller, the follow-up becomes steadily more outlandish and eventually segues into metafiction - Palahniuk inserting himself as a character to poke fun at the more bovine elements of the film's fan culture, and to stage the ultimate indignity: a pat and facile moment of closure for the helter-skelter Tyler Durden.

It feels like a resigned shrug from a writer who is baffled that his character was ever taken to heart and held up as a provider of answers to infernally complex questions. But this is reductive. Pick up the original novel now, and I defy you not to be ensnared. It may never have been intended as an alternative Bible, and it may well have been outmanoeuvred by its targets, but 20 years on, Fight Club remains as cathartic and persuasive as it was when it first rumbled off the press.

I know this because Tyler knows this.

Fight Club is available from booksellers

Fight Club 2 is out now from Dark Horse Comics

Find Matt Packer on Twitter at @mjpwriter