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After Fight Club, Part I

Fight Club by Chuck PalahniukImagine the last time you were really excited to see a new film. Maybe it was the genre, maybe the cast, maybe the general plot that caught your interest – whatever it was, there was just something about it. And when the movie trailer started playing in theatres and on TV, you watched it that first time and thought, “Yeah, this is for me.”

But then you realised the release date was weeks away. And all the networks kept showing that trailer – once, twice, ten times an hour. One of two things tended to happen from that point onward. Either your anticipation grew each time the commercial came on – the whole thing looked more and more awesome – or, in seeing the same parts repeatedly, you started to suspect that that was pretty much it, the whole shebang. All the good bits had been crammed into that thirty-second snippet, it seemed, and so your interest in the movie waned.

The latter is, unfortunately, how I feel now about most of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels. I read Fight Club over a decade ago, and was utterly wowed by it; but having just devoured it again along with several of Palahniuk’s subsequent books in quick succession – Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary and Haunted – I can’t help but feel like I’ve just watched a trailer for Fight Club: Redux, over and over and over again.

Addressing the reader

These novels  with the exception, perhaps, of Haunted  are consistently written in the second person, some more overtly than others. The narrator of Fight Club invites readers into Tyler Durden’s nihilistic world by addressing them directly, though usually unobtrusively. “Would you just look at his sculpted hair,” he says, describing Big Bob. “You wake up at SeaTac… You wake up at LAX,” he says in Chapter 3. “You see a guy come to fight club for the first time, and his ass is a loaf of white bread,” he says, when things are just getting started. And much later, “The rule in Project Mayhem is you have to trust Tyler.” Readers are drawn in by this unreliable narrative voice; we’re included in fight club, in the support groups, in Project Mayhem, but we nevertheless remain at a distance.

Diary by Chuck PalahniukIn later books, Palahniuk refuses us the comfort of being bystanders: the opening passages seem to directly address the reader, even when it’s clear that the “you” refers to another character in the novel. “By the time you read this,” the second page of Diary begins, “you’ll be older than you remember.” We know the diarist is writing to Peter Wilmot, who is hospitalised and in a coma, but we cannot help but see ourselves in this statement. As if to reinforce this feeling, the narrator goes on to say, “Let’s look in the mirror. Really look at your face. Look at your eyes, your mouth. This is what you think you know best.” This is a trick Palahniuk uses consistently in his books, increasingly so after Fight Club. He turns the lens onto the viewers, so to speak. Implicates readers in the horrible realities about which they’re reading. He tells them what they should think. “If you’re going to read this, don’t bother,” says the narrator of Choke. “After a couple of pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still in one piece. Save yourself. … What happens here is first going to piss you off. After that it just gets worse and worse.”

In its very first line, Invisible Monsters also tells us we’re in the wrong place: “Where you’re supposed to be is some big West Hills wedding reception in a big manor house…” whereas Survivor calls out in the beginning, asking us to stick around: “Maybe this thing is working. I don’t know. If you can even hear me, I don’t know. But if you can hear me, listen.” Meanwhile, Lullaby tries to push us away again by explaining how the tale we’re about to read is told from at least one remove: “The problem with every story is you tell it after the fact.”

Alas, another problem, after the fact, is seeing how every one of these stories is so very similar. So repetitive.

The Chorus

The most repeated lines from Palahniuk’s debut novel are undoubtedly, “The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule about fight club … is you don’t talk about fight club.” But in terms of memorable, now-classic Fight Club lines, a close second would have to be those spoken by ‘Joe’s’ body parts. After reading an old magazine article in which pieces of the human body speak “I am Jane’s Uterus. I am Joe’s Prostate.”  the narrator frequently uses ‘Joe’s’ guts as voice-boxes for his emotions:

Hearing this, I am totally Joe’s Gallbladder… I am Joe’s Raging Bile Duct… I am Joe’s Grinding Teeth… I am Joe’s Inflamed Flaring Nostrils… I am Joe’s White Knuckles… I am Joe’s Enraged, Inflamed Sense of Rejection.

This was such a cool technique in Fight Club  so new, so inventive, so fresh. But just as jokes become less and less funny the more frequently they’re told, this sort of repetition  what Palahniuk refers to as a ‘chorus’  becomes less impressive in subsequent novels. In Diary, Misty Marie Kleinman’s mental state is reflected in recurring weather reports, which begin as of the first page.

“The weather today is increasing concern followed by full-blown dread.”

“The weather today is an increasing trend toward denial.”

“The weather today is partly angry, leading to resignation and ultimatums.”

“Just for the record, the weather today is partly suspicious with chances of betrayal.”

“Just for the record, the weather today is increasing turmoil with a possible physical and emotional breakdown.”

Just for the record, “just for the record” is another of Palahniuk’s overused choruses, which also appears in Survivor. In Invisible Monsters, the narrator was once a model; her chorus comes in the form of a photographer insider her head, giving instructions, telling her how to feel:

Give me lust, baby.

Flash.

Give me malice.

Flash.

Give me detached existential ennui.

Flash…

Give me homesickness.

Flash.

Give me nostalgic childhood yearnings.

And so on. There are too many to discuss in this column  some books, like Diary, have several choruses; others, like Choke, have whole chapters that act like refrains. When these phrases are added to texts that are already so alike  in characterisation, in their tendency to use specific medical jargon when describing characters, in their encyclopaedic descriptions of pharmaceuticals and STDs  the effect is increasingly contrived, increasingly dull.

Of course, that’s probably the point.

Reducing stories to single, repetitive lines might serve the same purpose as using the second person perspective, for instance, or breaking people down to their anatomical parts: it makes everyone a generic “you”. It dehumanises. Universalises. It lulls readers into a false sense of familiarity before the narrative can shock them back out of it.

The second and final part of ‘After Fight Club’ will be published on Wednesday 10 July, 2013. 

LISA L HANNETT

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