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Why ‘Fight Club’ Still Matters


If I were the kind of person who recklessly intellectualized pop culture, I’d contend that Chuck Palahniuk’s novel “Fight Club” was the coda to GenXers’ disaffection with the 1970s and ’80s, a distillation of angst and confusion created by assaults on masculinity. “We’re a generation of men raised by women,” the nameless narrator famously explains. That echoes a familiar complaint these days.

When I first read the book in my mid-20s, it wasn’t a profound literary experience, but rather something visceral — maybe culturally akin to watching “Pulp Fiction” for the first time, if “Pulp Fiction” had a moral (amoral?) center. While “Fight Club” is violent and funny, it’s also a book about despair, isolation, pessimism, and slackerism. Palahniuk’s lean sentences toy with unpleasant notions; his characters speak about men in a ways they understand but rarely express. I’m not sure there is any other book quite like it.

Rereading “Fight Club” might have made me feel older, but its satire and prose still stand out in a culture teeming with phony edginess. Perhaps it’s just sentimentality about the ’90s, but so much of today’s output seems an exercise in back patting. “Mr. Robot” or “Girls” — or, well, any other supposedly socially conscientious film, show, or novel that pops into my head while writing this — are preachy exercises that bolster notions already fully embraced by its audience. No one is challenged, because being challenged means being offended.

Not long ago, I ran across an article in which Palahniuk took credit for the use of the term “snowflake,” a moniker some people on Right use to insult the easily outraged on the Left. The line in the book is: “You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.”

“There is a kind of new Victorianism,” Palahniuk told the interviewer. “Every generation gets offended by different things, but my friends who teach in high school tell me that their students are very easily offended.” Palahniuk went on to say that the “modern Left is always reacting to things. Once they get their show on the road culturally they will stop being so offended.”

“That’s just my bullsh-t opinion,” he added.

This seems a bit of wishful thinking, as demands of “inclusivity” from the Left quickly turn into cultural imperialism when they hold the power. It’s silly to pigeonhole entire generations, but millennials are, in fact, far more likely than previous generations to support hate-speech laws and “trigger warnings” and support restraints on speech. Young people have shown a growing aversion to the institutions and ideas that foster true intellectual differences.

Beyond politics, though, we Gen-Xers were brought up to believe not only that every one of us could do something special, but that existing itself was cause for respect. (“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars,” Durden says.) It seems that, as parents, we’ve accelerated this notion in our own super-special kids. Millennials often want to turn the privilege of a coddled childhood into the experience of adulthood.

At least that’s my bullsh-t opinion.

David Fincher’s stylized adaptation of the book, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, smoothed over some the book’s edges (especially the ending), yet it preserved enough of the anarchic story and black humor to make it controversial. So much so, that Rex Reed wrote at the time that “Fight Club” was “a film without a single redeeming quality, which may have to find its audience in hell” —  which, let’s face it, for 20-something like me would have been the most tantalizing review ever.

They should have plastered Reed’s words all over the posters, because the movie wasn’t really a hit. Fincher hadn’t come off directing “Se7en,” as a lot of people seem to assume, but “The Game,” starting Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, which like “Se7en” and “Fight Club” hinges on a big reveal at the end. The film performed modestly at the box office. I guess it’s a cult movie now.

Jim Emerson noted in a tenth anniversary review of the film that a lot of people still won’t see the movie because they assume “it’s about a cult of men who get together to punch each other, which is like saying ‘Citizen Kane’ is about a sled.” It’s a cute line, but “Fight Club” is a movie about a cult of men who get together to punch each other. Sure, they find solace in support groups for cancer victims and scaring airplane passengers. But there is plenty of cringe-inducing violence because the cringe-inducing violence is an indispensable character in the film.

The closest portrayal to this kind of nihilism is probably Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose pointless terrorism owes much to Tyler Durden’s “Project Mayhem.” Although it has to be said that while “Fight Club” chickens out and diverges from the book in its final moments, offering love — or something approximating it — to save The Narrator, it’s still a great ending:

(Spoilers ahead.)

I don’t remember if I figured out Tyler’s identity in my initial reading, although, “I know this because Tyler knows this” pretty much gives the game away in the first chapter. But I do know that a book about a disaffected young man engaged in nihilistic acts of violence holds different lessons for a grown man with a family and a mortgage to pay and history behind him. “Fight Club” is a lot darker when you read it in your 40s.

“Fight Club,” for example, identifies problems, but offers no solace in answers, short of shooting yourself. It is anti-materialistic and anti-modernity without alternatives. The lack of a big idea is the big idea of “Fight Club.” In my life, and surely I’m not alone, I can remember opining on some societal problem and having readers demand to know, “Well, what’s your solution?” Well, I have none. There may be none. This is one of the most depressing realizations of adulthood.

It’s about loneliness, an emotional state that psychologists warn is far more powerful than people realize. In fact, “[t]he biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness” contends Billy Baker in his recent fascinating piece in the Boston Globe. The young men of “Fight Club” are the middle-aged men of today.

It’s about boredom, another unappreciated and destructive human condition. The English punks of the mid-seventies, who, like Durden’s mischief-makers, embraced nihilism as a way to push back against modern life, were also spurred by “boredom.” The word litters their lyrics and art and interviews (read “England’s Dreaming” by Jon Savage). “Fight Club’s” narrative is not about the bleakness of living on the Dole but rather of living in a cubicle. The conservative theorist Robert Nisbet once argued that boredom was a weapon wielded by second-generation Communist regimes. Monotony was like authority, he notes, because the “worst of tyrannies exist within the intimacies of life, and the same holds for life’s boredoms.”

Lines like “self-improvement is masturbation” are less humorous when you’ve worked to try and be better. “Losing all hope was freedom” is weirdly invigorating to a 20-year-old, but also powerful in an entirely different and morose way when you’re older. As is “Fight Club.”