Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

A review of the transgressive literary novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.

Chuck Palahniuk’s breakthrough 1996 novel Fight Club is a dark, twisted and barbed cactus of a story, a thorn stabbed through the fingertip of the American dream. Bubbling well underneath the surface of the novel is the unsettling sense that all is not well in the middle class heartlands — a slow-burning forest fire ultimately leading disillusioned young men to oblivion.

Laced with Palahniuk’s trademark black humour, Fight Club begins with an unnamed narrator stricken with insomnia who seeks solace by attending cancer support groups…despite not even having cancer. Strangely, the narrator is not alone, finding kindred spirits in a fellow fraudulent cancer group attendee – the chain-smoking (but cancer-free) Marla Singer – and also meets Tyler Durden, who ends up encouraging the narrator to swing a punch at him which kicks the whole story into gear.

The eponymous Fight Club is what spins off from Durden and the narrator’s initial punch-up: an underground bare knuckle fighting group attracting white-collar workers and middle-management types. With fully grown men looking for a way to vent their frustrations with the modern world through acts of primitive violence, Fight Club is Palahniuk’s social satire of empty vessels in an uncharted ocean of hyper-consumerism, all lost and seeking meaning in an age where business is war.

Fed up with advertising billboards selling them dreams they are doomed never to see realised, the Fight Club gives men who feel emasculated a higher sense of purpose they feel they lack in their stultifying career paths and materialistic lives, freeing them to release their suppressed violent urges. Soon enough, the latent aggression unleashed by the fight clubs leads to ever more dangerous expressions of extremism and anarchy.

With Tyler Durden becoming a ringleader for Project Mayhem, which very much resembles a terrorist group as the novel progresses, Fight Club is Palahniuk’s very clever and searing thesis of cultural antipathy and hones in on dismantling the crisis of faith in the postmodern American male. Some may find it an unnerving read, but if you’re of a certain mindset, it’s also funny and uses a caustic, deadpan wit to really hammer home its points.

The way Palahniuk’s writing almost gleefully rolls in his own nihilistic filth is an acquired taste, for sure, but contemporary literature rarely gets more brilliantly confrontational or engaging than this. Fight Club is a book you seriously cannot put down, in spite of the depths to which it plumbs, largely because Palahniuk’s distinctive voice draws you in and remains accessible throughout.

If you’ve not seen the film adaptation, I recommend you read the book first. Both are great, but you’ll find watching the film first means you picture the actors as the characters, so it tarnishes the experience a little in my opinion. Personally I feel it’s a real shame the novel had only been released three years before it was adapted for the big screen, as it barely even had enough time to gestate as a cult favourite among book lovers. The film seems to have usurped its status somewhat since then.

But I can presume Fight Club being fast-tracked into cinemas is a testament to how the book truly captured the zeitgeist of that decade, so if you’re intrigued by darkly humorous novels which place ennui under the microscope, Chuck Palahniuk often has it down pat. He’s replicated this style many times since, but Fight Club remains one of his totemic and most seminal moments as a novelist, so if you’re interested in reading it, it’ll be worth every second of your time.

Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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