In my mind, Fight Club is one of those intellectual books that learned people always assume you have read – along with Orwell’s 1984 and, at least in South Africa, Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. I don’t know if the book was as popular before the widely-successful movie, but I know that now if you were to quote it to a stranger in the street there’s a good chance they’d know what you were talking about.
I think the important thing about such “intellectual” books, is that they really say something that has not been said, or has not been said in such a gripping way, before.
Fight club is more than just the story of some blue collar worker. It attempts to distill what it means to be human and in particular a man in modern society. Take away the stuff, take away a concept of time, take away the social norms and what do you get? Fight Club.
The Narrator, never named, is the epitome of the modern business man. He has a job, an apartment decked out in style and flies overseas all the time for work. His only quirk is that he suffers from insomnia, possibly as a result of all the jet lag that comes with heavy travelling. Since his doctor has no solution, he finds himself at support groups – for everything from testicular cancer to parasites. By pretending to be ill, he finds warmth and acceptance and is able to release his tension by crying – which enables him to sleep.
But when another support group tourist, Marla Singer, starts coming to his groups, everything changes. Rapidly his controlled life spins away from him, starting with the groups, including his apartment blowing up while he’s away on business and leading to him staying with the eccentric Tyler Durton who represents everything he’s ever wanted to be – free, confident and attractive.
Tyler and the Narrator discover that beating each other up is also a way to release tension and very soon they have a huge following of men who want to regain their masculinity and release their frustrations with the blue collar life by pounding on each other – Fight Club.
The rules and regulations make Fight Club particularly attractive… but when does a club become a cult?
This is what Palahniuk had to say in the Afterword that forms a part of the edition I read:
“[At the time I started writing]…The bookstores were full of books like The Joy Luck Club and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and How to Make an American Quilt. These were all novels that presented a social model for women to be together. To sit together and tell their stories. To share their lives. But there was no novel that presented a new social model for men to share their lives.
It would have to give men the structure and rules and rules of a game – or a task – but not too touchy-feely. It would have to model a new way to gather and be together. It could’ve been “Barn-Raising Club” or “Golf Club” and it would’ve probably sold a lot more books. Something non-threatening.”
It ended up being Fight Club, defining a new masculinity in a time when society venerates metrosexuality. The first support group that the narrator attends is called “Remaining men together” (testicular cancer) and that sets the theme. The book is filled with icons of masculinity and threats to that ideal, leaving the reader with the ultimate question of what does it mean to be a man?
Does it mean beating each other up?
Living like cave men?
Tossing away all responsibility and accountability in order to be truly free just to be?
The book is a gripping thought experiment. It gives no answers, merely possibilities. At the same time it weaves an engrossing tale of destruction and redemption, packed with quotable phrases and vivid imagery.