By Peter Hummers on November 17, 2022
When Chuck Palahniuk returned to work from a camping trip after he had lost a fistfight, his coworkers ignored his black eyes and bruises. “I would say, ‘Look at my face. C’mon people.’ If you look terrible enough, no one will want to know the truth about you.” That gave him an idea for a story, which he reworked into a book, which was filmed in 1999 as Fight Club.
Perfect catalogue-furnished apartments, sculptured bodies, designer clothes and fast cars are the dreams on sale today, and everyone is told to believe in them. The unnamed first-person narrator of Fight Club (Edward Norton) is no different; a member of Generation X, his bible is the IKEA catalogue, and yet he feels profoundly unfulfilled. Insomnia isolated him; when he did nod off, he’d wake up in strange places.
Begging his doctor for some kind of medication, he says, “I’m in pain!”
“Do you want to see pain? Swing by First Methodist Tuesday nights. See the guys with testicular cancer. That’s pain.”
And that’s how our hero became addicted to support groups. Any and all support groups. In the arms of a bawling cancer victim, “something happened. I really let go. Lost in oblivion, dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom. Babies don’t sleep this well.”
No matter that he didn’t have testicular cancer/ tuberculosis/ wasn’t an alcoholic/ an incest survivor. “If I didn’t say anything, people always assumed the worst. They cried harder. Then I cried harder.”
When Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter, The Crown, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) comes to the narrator’s testicular cancer group (of all places), he recalls, “This chick ruined everything. She was a liar. She didn’t have testicular cancer. She had no diseases at all.” Moreover, he had seen her at several other groups. “Marla, the big tourist. Her lie reflected my lie, and suddenly, I felt nothing. I couldn’t cry. So once again, I couldn’t sleep.”
On a plane, he meets the ridiculously charismatic iconoclast Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt, The Assassination of Jesse James et alia). “Do you know why they put oxygen masks on planes,” Tyler asks him. “Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency you’re taking giant panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile. You accept your fate. Calm as Hindu cows.” Later on, when the narrator’s apartment mysteriously blows up (there are signs and portents, unexplained phenomena), he moves in to Tyler’s squat, but not before Tyler asks the narrator to do him a favor and hit him. “As hard as you can.” They have a spontaneous, cathartic fistfight.
They start a secret “fight club” that becomes very popular (in spite of its first and second rules: 1. You do not talk about fight club, and 2. You do not talk about fight club) where men get together and beat one another senseless. “After fighting, everything else in your life got the volume turned down. You could deal with anything.”
“We’re the middle children of history, man, no purpose or place, we have no Great War, no Great Depression; our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives; we’ve been all raised by 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.” (Tyler Durden)
“I know this because Tyler knows this.” (the Narrator)
Palahniuk reissued his novel in 1999 and 2004; the latter edition includes the author’s introduction about the conception and popularity of the novel and movie. He wrote, “…bookstores were full of books like The Joy Luck Club and The 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. But there was no novel that presented a new social model for men to share their lives.
But, “Really, what I was writing was just The Great Gatsby updated a little. It was ‘apostolic’ fiction—where a surviving apostle tells the story of his hero. There are two men and a woman.”
Director David Fincher said, “women maybe get the humor faster,” adding that young female audiences seemed to appreciate the film’s satirical spin on macho posturing. In an e-mail reply to The New York Times, Mr. Palahniuk went further and called the film “the best date flick ever.”
Star Edward Norton said, “Joseph Campbell has that great idea about mythologies, that a myth functions best when it’s transparent, when people see through the story to themselves,” he said. “When something gets to the point where it becomes the vehicle for people sorting out their own themes, I think you’ve achieved a kind of holy grail. Maybe the best you can say is that you’ve managed to do something true to your own sensations. But at the same time you realize that this has nothing to do with you.”
Fight Club was difficult to market and its first release netted only $37,030,102 against a budget of around $63,000,000. It later found commercial success with its home video release, establishing Fight Club as a cult classic. In 2009, on the tenth anniversary of the film’s release, The New York Times dubbed it the “defining cult movie of our time.”
Next week I’ll take a look at The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book in which the two male leads, as in Fight Club, have more in common than first supposed, in film adaptations from 1974 and 2013.
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)
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