By Anthony Hess
Analyzing any piece of literature can reveal much about the cultural time period from which the piece was conceived. What is even more telling is the culture’s reaction, which reflects societal views and norms of that time. When society is appalled and a novel creates controversy, or if the novel is widely accepted and viewed as a masterpiece, it is always interesting to ask the simple question: Why? When asking why, the reasons for a culture’s approval/disapproval and simultaneously, the reasons of why an author would be so adamant about producing a piece of literature becomes more clear.
The novel I will be discussing is Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk (1996), and the way it confronts culturally normative ideas of body image, advertisements, the American dream and capitalism. This essay will try to understand why Fight Club would be written at the time it was written and for whom Chuck Palahniuk was writing for. Because the novel discusses many different aspects of American culture, this essay will mainly focus on its pursuit in discussing current questions about male masculinity — a concept which I believe people identified the most with. Past generations have presented different guidelines or blueprints for what roles men and women should pursue. Current academia and media now seem to say those lines are being blurred — that there is now a crisis in terms of male masculinity. The fact that Fight Club tried to fictionally reflect a generation of men engaged in a crisis of masculinity may reflect a real generation of men confused with this very question: What does it mean to be a man?
Before I tackle the cultural context surrounding the novel’s publication, I’d like to briefly mention Fight Club’s reception from both the public and professional critics. Although Fight Club didn’t make it onto any bestseller lists it was given some recognition winning the Oregon Book Club award for best novel in 1997.[i] Palahniuk has been labeled many things, from postmodern, literary minimalist genius, to a writer who’s just looking for shock value.[ii] In fact, Laura Miller for Salon.com actually goes as far as regarding his work as “half-baked nihilism of a stoned high school student who has just discovered Nietzsche and Nine-Inch Nails.”[iii]
On Amazon.com, Fight Club has gained a whopping 660 reviews, a high percentage of thereviews being quite positive. Of those 660 reviews, 461 gave it 5/5 stars, 121 gave it 4/5 stars, decreasing down to 15 people giving it a 1/5 stars.[iv] One reviewer on Amazon.com in 2000 said:
“Chuck Palahniuk’s debut novel, “Fight Club,” is one of the greatest, provocative, and enlightening books written for our generation. It’s a must-read, with a brilliant story, a writing style wonderfully crafted to depict the real world for as disgusting as it is.” [v]
Another reviewer in 1999 had this to say:
“I wonder about those reviewers who said the book was “revolutionary”, “thought provoking”, and “new”. I direct their attention to any Nihilist scribblings of the last century. Fight Club offers no new insite into human nature, mob mentality, or philosophy/psychology; those that have some self-proclaimed epiphany after reading this book need to get a life and expand their reading horizons. At it’s worst, it’s highly over rated by chest-beating testosterone-driven man-children.” [vi][sic]
While there will always be positive and negative reviews for all authors, it is significant that Palahniuk has created some what of a noteworthy dent in our culture today, and equally significant that he hasn’t achieved critical acclaim as prolific American author such as Vonnegut or Salinger.
It also valuable to mention that Fight Club generated enough of a fan base for it to be made into a Hollywood movie starring big names such as Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Although it didn’t receive a ton of attention while in theaters, it now often referred to as a cult classic after its release on DVD. Die-hard fans of Palahniuk have even created a website devoted to him; in fact, they call themselves “The Cult.”[viii] The site is updated daily with some of Palahniuk’s newest short stories or essays, his where-abouts, or any new pop-culture references to Palahniuk or one of his novels. The fact that this fan base refers to itself as a cult is quite telling. A cult implies more than fandom; a cult implies a retreat into a different way of life and ideas that someone or something is preaching. These people have found a new obsession; through Palahniuk’s words it seems these people are being directly spoken to, something that will be further pursued later in my essay.
Palahniuk has often referred to himself simply as a romantic writing love stories, so why has he written a novel about psychopathic characters leading disheveled lives, who appear to be sadists and nihilists? [ix] Palahniuk may indeed be telling love stories in a new, modern kind of way, but it would be a great mistake to assume Palahniuk isn’t also making insightful critiques(whether original or unoriginal) about American culture through a novel such as Fight Club. Specifically, I’d now like to answer why this author would write a satire about American culture and male masculinity in 1996, and why current academic discourse nearly mirrors these exact topics.
“And I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct. The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue.” (Fight Club, pg 43)
Waller R Newell wrote an article for the Weekly Standard in 1998, two years before Fight Club was published. This article titled “The Crisis Of Manliness,” talked about masculinity and changing times:
“Fatherhood and manliness have always been closely connected, not only because fathering a child is a palpable proof of manhood, but also because fathers are supposed to provide their sons with a model of what to become. And yet, as a culture, we have never been more conflicted about what we mean by manhood.”[x]
Rather than the seemingly simple and easily followed instructions of previous generations, the lines between how a man should and should not act were being blurred. More, the ongoing push for feminism resulting from past sexual revolutions in the 1960s and the rising rates of women entering the workforce slowly changed a social structure, but not necessarily a culture.[xi] This is a generation after the boomers, who were told to search for happiness, escape old notions of preaching masculinity and break off unsuccessful marriages. [xii] Men were, and are now left with both contradicting and unclear models for how to live their lives, a concept consistently tackled throughout Fight Club:
“After college I called him long distance and said, now what? My dad didn’t know. When I got a job and turned twenty-five, long distance, I said, now what? My dad didn’t know, so he said, get married. I’m a thirty-year-old boy, and I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer I need.” (pg 50)
As Tyler Durden contemplates a “generation of men raised by women,” (pg 50) Newell also notes that the selfishness of today could be a result of unfathered young men, “Prone to identify their maleness with aggression because they have no better model to go by.” [xiii] It seems like this idea could have been the basis for Palahniuk’s novel, as he created a system to help men “find themselves” in basements or street corners, beating each other to a pulp in order to feel alive. This could also reflect a culture where not only boxing, but an obsession with ultimate fighting exists: buff young men proving their physical dominance over other men in a very organized manner. It’s concentrated aggression and we eat it up.
After the release of the novel and film, real-life fight clubs of teenagers and men started sprouting up in the news. Although Palahniuk claimed there were indeed some fight clubs established prior to his novel , the fact that fight clubs became more prevalent after the book and film were released reflects a culture where young men would indeed participate in fight clubs.[xiv] The fight club seemed to be a “cool” enough idea for boys and men to take the streets in hidden corners of cities, school yards, and homes to imitate fights they had seen in the film or read in the novel. An article by USAtoday.com in 2006, reported on the diversity of men participating in fight clubs, such as Gints Klimanis, a 37-year-old software engineer and martial arts instructor who started his own fight club in 2000, bringing in members mostly from the high tech industry.[xv]
‘”You get to be a superhero for a night,” Klimanis said. “We have to go to work every day. We’re constantly told to buy things we don’t need, and just for a couple hours we have the freedom to do what we want to do.”’[xvi]
Words spoken straight from Tyler Durden’s mouth.
Another story about teens surfaced on USAtoday.com in 2006, this time focusing on teens involved in action. The article depicts a growing chain of teen-fight clubs that had been popping up in in different states. Some of these fights were videotaped, sold, and circulated over the net.[xvii] For reassurance, the article reminds readers: “This is not a scene from the Brad Pitt movie Fight Club.” A sideline on the left hand side provided a caption for “PARENTS IN THE DARK,” providing information on the novel Fight Club and the connection between the ideas in the book and their children’s behavior. Although boys have fought for centuries, media always wants to their big finger; find the problem and eliminate it in order to fix it. Instead of warning the parents about a novel making their kids fight, perhaps we should be warning parents about a culture infatuated with violence and destructive gender roles. Either way, this brings me to my next point: the emergence of teens and boys into the mix; the “fight” isn’t solely going after the men of this generation.
In Boys Adrift, by Leonard Sax, the problem is now seen as transitioning into an epidemic for young boys. Sax identifies the masculinity crisis as now being rooted in our children’s schools, video games, medications, and endocrine disruptors.[xviii] He sees a growing disengagement of boys in school through sessions with worried parents, and a new shift in boys’ minds that getting good grades is for “geeks and girls.”[xix] Sax correlates evidence such as the growing rate of young men dropping out of college and unmotivated and underachieving men, to and an ever-growing change in boys’ focus on school. Sax cites in 1940: 70 percent college campuses consisted of men, contrasting from the 42 percent as researched in 2006.[xx] “More young men than ever before are falling by the wayside on the road to the American Dream…certainly, not all boys have been infected by this weird new virus of apathy,” says Sax.[xxi] By referring to this change as a new “virus,” Sax clearly views the current conditions of men as a clinical problem and he has come up with identifying factors contributing to it — factors which can be fixed in order to put men back on their “correct” tracks. His book strictly focuses on tangible things such as video games, medications for ADHD, or the new chemicals used in our plastics that disrupt boys’ hormones, which are all very compelling arguments given the fact that he is a Doctor (It says M.D. right on the front of his book!) In short, it’s a very scientific, calculated, and empty answer to an incredibly convoluted issue.
And answers to these questions still haven’t been resolved today in 2009. This last father’s day my dad handed me an article and said, “This is something we have often talked about and I thought you would find it interesting.” It isn’t rare to have conversations with my dad about the direction men are going in as he lived through a much different time period in a much different place: 1960’s in Kansas. What he handed me was an article titled “Time for dads to get back into shape,” which argued that masculinity is something men once had and need to promptly get back. “To be sure, the state of the American male is in a shambles – though I’m not sure fully how we got here…Modern day dads are unsure of themselves, too. Fathers can be found misting up at baby showers and clapping enthusiastically the first time junior uses the commode.”[xxii] Statements such as these suggest and further perpetuate once solidly established gender roles. Although times are changing, Purcell seems to feel men still shouldn’t be able to cry or express emotions that were once deemed feminine. He suggests we need to cut the bullshit and get back to repressing our feelings, like the good ol’ days. Mostly, this reflects a notion that although the structure is changing, and men are visibly changing, that the culture still hasn’t fully changed. Although we have men that are crying and getting facials, we still have men like Purcell, born in a different time with different views on how a man should be. This is again reflected on in the way Purcell ends his article: “Look, men, we need to whip ourselves back into shape- we need to remember how men and fathers should be.” More, the fact that this father’s day rant was published means it went by the editors and higher-ups of a newspaper who assumed the men reading it would agree with the author’s claims: there is a crisis of masculinity, and we as men have to do something about it.
Palahniuk and Generation X
Analyzing the explanations and reactions to Fight Club given by men, women, book reviewers, journalists, writers and academics beings to paint a cultural context in which a novel like Fight Club would exist. But what is more gripping is the fact that this novel is accepted by many with open arms despite its statements against the very culture from which most its readers live in. This novel is anything but a propagandized, pro-Americanized system novel. This novel is about anti-capitalism. It preaches peeing in peoples foods(or worse). It talks about urban terrorism, including instructions on how to make bombs that can blow up buildings that control our financial system. This book is about confronting corporate structures and questioning home ownership, the 9-5 daily grind and the American Dream. The ideas in the novel are presented in a way which are radical, nearly resembling ideologies out of a anarcho-primitivism book for dummies. This makes me believe Palahniuk was writing directly to a 1990’s Generation X, a group of people often labeled as lazy and lost. A culture where teen angst bands such as Nirvana took the stage with greasy long hair, flannel shirts, and a drive to challenge the status quo. This generation entered a shaky job market with massive corporate downsizing of nearly 43 million jobs between 1979 and 1995; this generation had an increase in the value of material goods, entered a world where the divorce rate had doubled, had increased apathy towards politics due to sensationalized scandals, experienced a shift towards entrepreneurship, and grew up when sex and violence was prominent on television.[xxiii] However, lazy and lost might not be the silver bullet. This newly found “apathy” might not necessarily come from a culture that simply doesn’t care; instead, maybe these ideas are being manufactured from a culture that is becoming more aware as a whole. With an increase in ambiguity as to whether or not you will keep your job and added possibilities of a failed marriage, there will be a stronger focus on individual perseverance, rather than connectivity to the cultural structure. In response, Palahniuk writes a book about fatherless men finding themselves through violence. As a comeback, Palahniuk will write a novel about a character being told not to simply jump into a boring, meaningless life in a cubicle, and rather challenge the system in order to truly live. But not all of the messages in the book were received. While there were fight clubs, where were the serious attempts by anarchist communities attempting to ignite a revolution and set the debt record to zero?
“Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need. Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need…we don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolutions against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.” (Pg 149)
Just as writing a novel is time-consuming, so is the longer process for a piece of literature to come about, to exist. It takes time. It takes change. It takes a critical eye to see the world for what it is and note any thing strange; anything worth writing about. I remember when I first caught just a glimpse of the movie when I was a bit younger. It was violent; it had sex; it felt almost, dirty. Similar to the main character, I had never been in a fight, and reading Fight Club for the first time in high school offered a voice; maybe something the boys of the 50’s felt when they first read The Catcher in the Rye, or when teens from the 80’s read Less Than Zero. I wanted to quote lines from the movie and novel. I wanted to be involved in some sort of “Project Mayhem,” participating in mischievous acts and spray painting a giant circle on a building; I even wanted to be an insomniac schizophrenic with my own split personality as cool as Tyler Durden. For some time, Fight Club got a hold of me. And now, being older and reflecting on those days as simply being young and stupid(and thinking that Palahniuk isn’t really that talented of a writer) I now have to ask myself what drew me towards Palahniuk’s words of chaos and masculinity? Growing up in the 90’s, am I running around asking myself the same question of what it is to be a man?
[ii] Laura Miller, “Review of Diary,” Salon.com, http://dir.salon.com/story/books/review/2003/08/20/palahniuk/index.html (Accessed July 6th, 2009).
[iv] “Customer Reviews – Fight Club: A Novel,” Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com/Fight-Club-Novel-Chuck-Palahniuk/product-reviews/0805062971/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1 (Accessed July 7, 2009).
[v] Amazondude, “Customer Reviews – Fight Club: A Novel,” Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com/Fight-Club-Novel-Chuck-Palahniuk/product-reviews/0805062971/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1 (Accessed July 7, 2009).
[vi] A Customer, “Customer Reviews- Fight Club: A Novel,” Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com/Fight-Club-Novel-Chuck-Palahniuk/product reviews/0805062971/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt_sr_2?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addTwoStar (Accessed July 8, 2009)
[vii] Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (New York: Norton & Norton Company, Inc., 1996).
See “Praise for Fight Club” located on the first page after the cover.
[viii] The Cult, “The Cult – The official Chuck Palahniuk Website,” http://chuckpalahniuk.net/author/faq#How%20did%20this%20website%20come%20to%20be (Accessed July 7, 2009).
[ix] Laura J. Williams, “Interview: Knock Out – The writing of Chuck Palahniuk has more than just hipster cred”, Ann Arbor Paper, http://www.annarborpaper.com/content/issue24/palahniuk_24.html (Accessed July 8, 2009).
[x] Crisis of Manliness 1998 The Weekly Standard.
[xiv] Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (New York: Norton & Norton Company, Inc., 1996)
See “Afterword,” pg 217 in 2005 Norton re-release paperback version.
[xv] The Associated Press, “Fight club draws techies for bloody underground beatdowns,” USATODAY.com, http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2006-05-29-fight-club_x.htm (Accessed July 5, 2009)
[xvii] Michael McCarthy, “Illegal, violent teen fight clubs face police crackdown,” USATODAY.com, http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-07-31-violent-fight-clubs_x.htm, (Accessed July 5, 2009)
[xviii] Leonard Sax, “The Riddle,” in Boys Adrift (New York: Basic Books, 2009). 1-13.
[xix] Ibid., pg 7
[xx] Ibid, pg
[xxi] Ibid. pg 9
[xxii] Tom Purcell, “Time for dads to get back into shape”