Tuesday, February 06, 2007

On Fight Club

On Roy's suggestion, I read Fight Club this weekend. Now, the first thing you have to know is that I don't usually even watch violent movies, and these people are intentionally destroying themselves and each other as a… spiritual exercise? It was very, very hard to read.

That said, I certainly don't think Palahniuk is saying this is a good way to be, this is the way to redemption or freedom, which I know is the way many people took it (perhaps the movie had something to do with that? I've certainly never seen it and don't plan to). But my problem is that the condition he's describing stems from class struggle and economic oppression, but he's making it about gender, and making gender invisible at the same time.

Palahniuk clearly doesn't see his own whiteness and maleness, so he doesn't consider why women who are in the same class position as his hero(s) react differently. Think of Marla's violence – it's all against herself. But she is never given any agency, and her own rage at being an anonymous bolt in the capitalist machine is never considered. Ditto people of color, queers, etc. Which is exactly how the people who are really in power want it. In the meantime, women are Tyler's scapegoat and Palahniuk's deus ex machina (it's Marla's "like" which redeems our hero at the last moment), but never are they agents of change in their own right or on their own behalf. And the book comes to be about "maleness," when really it's about a white male reaction to a struggle and and oppression shared by the majority of people in industrialized nations.

It also – and this may even be the greater flaw – posits the "fight club" response to oppression as the only response. In the world of the book, people either accept the conditions of their oppression, or they join fight club. The world he's created is agnostic of all other movements for social change. Maybe Tyler thinks the ways oppressed peoples have been fighting back for centuries don't work as well as his method – but if that's the case, I'd like to hear his argument. Instead, it's as though he (and, by proxy, Palahniuk) invented the very concept of revolution, erasing the work of billions of people across time.

What's even worse, the edition I bought has this afterword in the back in which Palahniuk totally disavows any political agenda in writing the book, claiming it was just a little short story exercise for which he needed to make up some rules he could use as transition points to make jump cuts more clear in the narrative, and that it could just as easily wound up being called Barn Raising Club or Golf Club (these are his examples, not mine). To which I say: fuck you, you fucking disingenuous millionaire hypocrite. Easy for you to say now that you've got all our goddamned dough. Perhaps some nitroglycerine is in order?


tps12 said...

Doesn't Fight Club make the most sense as a critique of that white male centric reaction to consumerism? It's basically the story of a middle class white dude alienated by the emptiness of his capitalist existence. But his (legitimate) complaints end up warped by hypermasculinity into what by the end of the story is essentially a fascist movement.

That reading always seemed natural to me, anyway, as a dismissal of those (I'm thinking Promise Keepers here) who would look to outdated ideals of manhood as antidotes to very real problems in our society. I will grant that an awful lot of white men did not take it the same way.

ladyred said...

Well, ok, but if it's a critique, why isn't there an alternative presented? There are no actual solutions offered, nor is it even hinted at that other people have tried and are currently trying to solve these problems other ways.

It also hardly acknowledges that it's a specific white male response -- in fact, Palahniuk slips in a woman or a person of color space monkey here or there vaguely as background "cover" so that we won't be "able" to say it's just white men.

If he really wanted to make it a critique of white male response, he would've shown non-white non-men taking other approaches. (And no, Marla doesn't count because she doesn't try to change anything at all in the larger world.)

Shameless said...

I think part of what Palahniuk was trying to convey was that there are no real solutions. I also think that he was critiquing the way people live in American society, and what possble solutions could he have suggested? The sarcasm and insanity that is a crucial part of the book would be lost if Palahniuk chose to suddenly become preachy about what we should do to change the world.

Roy said...

Now I really do need to reread FC.

I wonder if Palahniuk even considers the non-white experience. Is it even on his radar, so to speak?

I think part of what Palahniuk was trying to convey was that there are no real solutions.

I hope not.
I really hope not.
It's been a long time since I read the book, but the movie, at least (and how lame am I for discussing a book through the movie?) ends with some aspect of "solution." As I understand it, the narrator realizes that he's not going to be happy at either extreme- not as Consumer Whore Jack, and not as Violent Revolutionary Tyler. But, if all he's got to say is "Hey, we're all fucked because nothing is going to ever change and you can't fix anything," well... that's just depressing (and, I think, wrong).

I also think that he was critiquing the way people live in American society, and what possble solutions could he have suggested?

I think you're right, in so much as I think that's what he was trying to do. At the very least, I think he was trying to make a statement about what men are going through. I hadn't considered it before, but I suspect that ladyred is right, and it doesn't really acknowledge that it's being told from the rather specific view of a middle-class white male. I'm not sure that Palahniuk even considers how this changes the story- the life that the narrator is living is pretty specific. I do think it's interesting in that it talks about how some men (perhaps specifically some mid-class white men) have begun to feel lost or adrift. I don't agree that there's no solution, though. There are plenty of solutions. There are lots of things that can give our lives meaning outside of an Ikea store. There are plenty of social action movements that one can get involved with. It's possible to recognize that you don't have to keep buying into the consumerist trap without going completely primal or attempting violent over-throw like Tyler suggests.

The sarcasm and insanity that is a crucial part of the book would be lost if Palahniuk chose to suddenly become preachy about what we should do to change the world.

I can't agree with this, either. Palahniuk was already pretty preachy. I don't expect him to get on a major soap-box and say that the wold would be perfect if only X, Y, and Z, but I think it's lazy and/or dishonest to point to a problem and spend an entire novel showing what a crushing problem it is, and how it's destroying a group of people, and then, at the end, throw your hands up and say "Oh well, even though this problem is clearly screwing people up... there's no solution. Sorry!"

As a novel about a particular man's experiences, I remember it being really interesting, and I remember having some really great discussions about what it means to be a man in today's world. I think, on that aspect, it's probably still a pretty interesting read- the circumstances are more extreme than most of us probably live through, but I've definitely known men who were feeling sort of lost- I've known people like the narrator.

Again, though... I read the book when it was still pretty new, and having seen the movie several times since then, it's very possible I've blended the two and am just talking out my ass. =/

roderick said...

First let me say that I love reading your blog, and I admire your commentary on gender issues. That being said, I don't think I agree with your assessment of FC, and here's why:

I don't think that a critique must present a solution to be valid. I also think it's dangerous to claim to know why Chuck includes a female character or a "space monkey". Is it possible you are still thinking that Chuck agrees 100% with the narrator? Because why in the world would Tyler go out of his way to acknowledge he's a white male? That's part of the issue. And as narrator, it's all shown through Tyler's eyes, which is why he doesn't feel the need to present other viewpoints.

That's my take, anyway.

ladyred said...

I don't think Chuck agrees with Tyler much at all. Chuck's created what's called an "unreliable narrator" -- one of the hardest things to pull off in literature. The trick with an unreliable narrator is that you, as the author, have to help the reader see & understand the flaws in your narrator's world view, only using the narrator's voice to do that.

In this case, if Chuck was actually aware of or cared about other forms of resistance, he could show us Tyler thinking about or observing those resistances and dismissing or deriding them in some Tyleriffic way. At the very least. And if he wanted us to be aware of the specificity of Tyler's whiteness and maleness, he could have another character say something about it, only to face Tyler's sneering wrath. Just for example.

Palahniuk's a talented guy. If he'd wanted it in there, it'd be there. And let's not forget that he completely and explicitly disavows any political intent whatsoever in the afterword. Talk about an unreliable narrator.