Chuck Palahniuk - “Fight Club”

Highly recommended. Well written in direct Hemingwayan prose. The unnamed Narrator of the book is intriguing, and his story-telling is ripe with unique quirks and figures of speech, which make him sound real. The story is off-the-wall and captivating. It’s an interesting read even if you know the movie pretty well.

I see that many reviews on Goodreads and on Audible mention the movie and how the book relates to it, often in the context of whether one or the other was better. This is often the case for books that were made into movies later, especially if the films are such box office hits as “Fight Club”. In this particular case, the plot and narration of both are so similar that I think discussing which one is “better” is hair-splitting. After reading the book, I’m surprised at how faithful the movie creators were.

Spoilers ahead discussing the content of the book and the movie.

Sure, at the end they diverge and the movie goes for more of a “happy ending”. It’s satisfying for sure but I like the original book ending as well. Again, hard to decide which is “better”. Since the Narrator is pretty unreliable, I like to think that the movie ending is an alternative version of events. Or the Narrator’s dream at the asylum.

The manifesto

There is one difference in the movie that I appreciate over the book. It’s the Tyler Durden manifesto that’s an edited version of three separate passages from the book. While the content is pretty much there in the original, the movie version is compressed into fewer words and rearranged so that it’s got even more emotional impact.

Book version:

You have a class of young strong men and women, and they want to give their lives to something. Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need. Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need. We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.

Remember this, the people you’re trying to step on, we’re everyone you depend on. We’re the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers and we know everything about you. We process your insurance claims and credit card charges. We control every part of your life. We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re just learning this fact, so don’t fuck with us.

Movie version:

Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. 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.

Since the rock stars quote was moved, the “do not fuck with us” passage is shorter in the movie, too:

Look, the people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We connect your calls. We drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us.

That’s a stronger statement, I see those changes as improvements that still fully keep the spirit of the original content.

The father

Importantly, Tyler’s motive for Project Mayhem is somewhat more fleshed out in the book with the observation that “if you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never know your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?”. In a different passage it says that “what you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women.”

This is doubly interesting because in the book the Narrator does in fact have a father who bailed on his family after six years, so he doesn’t remember much of that time. He does call him a few times in pivotal moments in his life but every time the father couldn’t provide him with any guidance. Tyler is said in the book to have never known his father. Finally, the book goes on to explain that:

How Tyler saw it was that getting God’s attention for being bad was better than getting no attention at all. Maybe because God’s hate is better than His indifference. If you could be either God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose? We are God’s middle children, according to Tyler Durden, with no special place in history and no special attention. Unless we get God’s attention, we have no hope of damnation or redemption. Which is worse, hell or nothing? Only if we’re caught and punished can we be saved.

On a meta-level, Tyler becomes a father figure for the people at fight club, and later at Project Mayhem.

The far right

I recently found out the book and/or the movie were co-opted by American right-wingers to rationalize their radicalization. I find that somewhat ironic as the work is ultimately critical of Project Mayhem for going too far, literally killing a government official who compiled a list of bars where fight clubs met. Glorifying “Fight Club” as a cookbook is therefore like treating “Breaking Bad” as career advice.

To spell it out explicitly, in the book the Narrator wants to stop fight clubs but is unable to, the wheels are already in motion and Project Mayhem is more decentralized than he thought. The movement penetrated society very deeply. But of course, his biggest enemy is Tyler who is still pushing for escalation. Tyler Durden’s motive is to become a martyr and thus to cement his legacy. “We won’t really die”, he tells the Narrator. But the Narrator doesn’t want to die as a martyr. He does want to die to stop Tyler from escalating the situation even further.

I mean, part of the draw of “Fight Club” is that it voices the frustrations of people, men in particular, and points out how the world is set up as a game we can’t win. That nod from the author was something I found important myself, I get it. However, “Fight Club” promises catharsis and self-discovery mainly through self-destruction. The disruption of society through Project Mayhem is subservient to this main goal. This isn’t “Mr. Robot” where erasing debt was seen as a chance to rebalance the scales. In “Fight Club” the protagonist admits that Project Mayhem was invented for destructive purposes. He says:

I wanted to destroy everything beautiful I’d never have. Burn the Amazon rain forests. (…) I wanted to kill all the fish I couldn’t afford to eat, and smother the French beaches I’d never see. (…) I wanted to burn the Louvre. I’d do the Elgin Marbles with a sledgehammer and wipe my ass with the Mona Lisa. (…) This is my world, my world, and those ancient people are dead.

In any case, “Fight Club” demonstrates that self-destruction as a road to self-discovery only works in the short term. In the end, both the book and the movie show the Narrator fighting Tyler because they fundamentally disagree with his philosophy. Tyler brought a rant of a tired yuppie to its logical conclusion, which turned out to be far too radical for what the yuppie ever wanted to really happen. In the book, a political opponent is killed. In the movie, the bombs do go off. Both present a Pyrrhic victory of the Narrator over Tyler. The only people blindly believing Tyler’s words are “space monkeys”, people who the Narrator sums up like this:

You do the little job you’re trained to do. Pull a lever. Push a button. You don’t understand any of it, and then you just die.