Book Review: Fight Club (1996), “I am Joe’s Borrowed Cliche”

When I started out my annual Points List breakdown of what I wanted to accomplish, I included with it a list of books I hoped to get through in the coming year. I posed the question of what I should read to friends on Facebook, and the first one that popped up was an old college friend who offered one of her favorites: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.

The book that inspired a movie that inspired a series of kitschy one-liners and unnecessary hospital visits, wrapped in an ideology nobody wants to admit appeals to them. And don’t worry, I intend to be just as corny with some of the sentences (like that title up there), as I am one of those people who enjoys their own past a little more than they probably should. And this is going to be indulging in some of that past with newly-glassed eyes (in that I have newer glasses than when I would’ve read this before) and a completely different outlook on my world than my early college years.

Be warned: I don’t intend for them, but there is the possibility of spoilers. But if you haven’t read it yet, it’s been almost 20 years since it came out, so that’s your fault.

Teena, this one’s for you!

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Don’t mind Tyler Durden hiding over my shoulder.

I have a confession to make: I was supposed to read this is college, and I only halfway did. I was a lazy bastard when I first started taking classes, and one of the books we were supposed to read had a movie, so I took the easy way out. I had no way of actually knowing the movie and the book would turn out drastically different at key points, but that very thought didn’t deter me from mumbling through the essay. For this post, I assure you, I read the whole thing… and rather enjoyed the experience.

For the entirely uninitiated, picture this: a guy in a dead-end job finds two new people in his life that warp his very sense of reality. Marla, the suicidal girl at a testicular cancer support group, and Tyler, a charismatic enigma with the knowledge and drive of an evangelical evil scientist, mix with the ultra-violence of underground boxing rings called “fight clubs” with both a drive for social equality (i.e. anarchy in this case) and the horrifying origins of soap-making. Sound convoluted and odd? You’re not far off.

In a sequence similar to the season-by-season growth of Heisenberg on Breaking Bad, we can watch this normal, everyday business man suffer the consequences of insomnia and the attempt to emancipate the proletariat, all the while punching people in the face to reclaim their individual humanity. Or at least, that’s how it might appear.

I love the writing style Palahniuk has created for himself, a beautiful series of metaphors to help his readers really visualize both the ordinary and the disturbing. The story is told through a disjointed series of memories, which can be painful to muddle through with an inexperienced writer, but Palahniuk brilliantly keeps it all within the head of his protagonist without ever feeling systematic or plodding. Like a trained boxer he hits point after point without any wasted motion. Everything here feels like it needs to be here. That’s impressive all on its own, regardless of the story being told.

For the story itself, I liked it, but similar to how I enjoyed Catcher in the Rye I don’t actually “like” any of the characters; the protagonist is so passive, even when you see just how he works through certain events. Regarding the real twist of the story, even disregarding that I saw the movie (and thus knew what was coming) there really wasn’t any surprise… I could see every spot indicating it was coming which disappointed me. It was practically screamed on a few pages. It’s difficult to say how, but it could have been handled better, shifting the focus more in certain situations.

And then there’s the ideology that comes along with it, the “equality through anarchy” mindset of destroying the past and dissolving the present to build a new future. Again, like the example of Holden Caulfield in Catcher, it’s just not appealing to my own sensibilities. That’s the beauty of stories like these: they can show us an alternate set of ideals and help us understand the world. Just because I don’t see the appeal of punching my fellow man in the face doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the concept of letting out tensions and frustrations in a non-personal physical contest. It’s the same as any other physical sport… boxing, MMA, amateur wrestling, hockey (oh I do like some hockey, now and again).

It’s hard to take the critic hat off in times like this, and I didn’t for this “review”. Truth be told, I really like the book, and recommend it for anybody that enjoys – at the very least – descriptive language. Palahniuk knows how to break down a believable scene. If the violence itself doesn’t insult your sensibilities – might I recommend lightening the hell up if that sort of thing does – the actual language is wonderfully clear and sets the mood. People who might not pay close attention to word choice can find pointers here, and that alone makes it a great read for college students and aspiring writers.

Thanks again to my buddy Teena for suggesting it in my “read as much as possible” goals for this year, and I hope anybody reading will give this book the attention it deserves. It’s a fast read, but of course the length of a story doesn’t REALLY matter, just the quality of the prose and the flow of the story. If you’ve not been reading much lately, this is the kind of book to bring you back into the fold.

Stand tall, and take the punch – erhm, PLUNGE, my friends.

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