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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Chuck Palahniuk

At a glance
Fight Club
by Chuck Palahniuk

Henry Holt
208 pages, $$13

The first rule about “Fight Club” is you have to talk about “Fight Club.”

The second rule about “Fight Club” is. . . well, see rule No. 1.

We’re talking here, of course, about the novel by Portland author Chuck Palahniuk — the one that propelled its author almost overnight from unknown scribbler into the kind of writer whose work can attract not only big-time, New York publishing houses but also those master image-makers behind the Hollywood dream machine.

So while the real first rule of “Fight Club” is “you don’t talk about Fight Club,” well, that wouldn’t too practical for a book club. And, yes, Palahniuk’s novel is The Spokesman-Review Book Club’s reading selection for July.

We move into a whole different realm in month nine of the club. After such serious literary efforts as Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping,” topical efforts such as Tim Egan’s “Breaking Blue” and in-your-face stylistic efforts such as Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” we tackle a book that does in one package what each of the just-mentioned books does separately.

Certainly, “Fight Club” is serious literature. “ ‘Fight Club’ offers diabolically sharp and funny writing,” said the Washington Post. Not to be left out, the journal of literary criticism Kirkus Reviews said, “Brutal and relentless debut fiction takes anarcho-S&M chic to a whole new level — in a creepy, dystopic, confrontational novel that's also cynically smart and sharply written.”

(And, yes, I also had to look up dystopic — from dystopia, “a place of utter wretchedness.”)

“Fight Club” certainly is topical. Novelist Bret Easton Ellis, author of “American Psycho,” said the novel’s “audacious, strenuously trendy exterior is part of its point because at heart this is really a horror movie about consumerist discontent. It's about what happens when a world defines you by a nothing job, when advertising turns you into a slave bowing at a mountain of things that make you uneasy about your lack of physical perfection and how much money you don't have and how famous you aren't. It's about what happens when you're hit by the fact that your life lacks uniqueness; a uniqueness that we're constantly told we have (by parents, by school, by the media). ‘Fight Club’ rages against the hypocrisy of a society that continually promises us the impossible: fame, beauty, wealth, immortality, life without pain.”

As for style, check out the following passages of pure Palahniuk:

“I just don't want to die without a few scars, I say. It's nothing any more to have a beautiful stock body. You see those cars that are completely stock cherry, right out of a dealer's showroom in 1955, I always think, what a waste.”

“Nothing is static. Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart. Since fight club, I can wiggle half the teeth in my jaw. Maybe self-improvement isn't the answer. Maybe self-destruction is the answer. ”

“For thousands of years, human beings had screwed up and trashed and crapped on this planet, and now history expected me to clean up after everyone. I have to wash out and flatten my soup cans. And account for every drop of used motor oil. And I have to foot the bill for nuclear waste and buried gasoline tanks and landfilled toxic sludge dumped a generation before I was born.”

“You have a class of young strong men and women, and they want to give their lives to something. 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 have to show these men and women freedom by enslaving them, and show their courage by frightening them.”

“This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.”

Of all the above lines, that last one may be most key in understanding Palahniuk in general and “Fight Club” in particular. It captures the frustration, the desperation, of a life lived with the sense that nothing much matters, that everything worth doing has been done, that what’s left is an empty existence of consuming what remains, that time is running out.

Considering everything else, the fact that time is short recalls an old joke (I heard it from Woody Allen). Two old women are sitting in the nursing home eating lunch. “The food here is terrible,” one woman says. “Yeah,” her friend replies, “and there’s not very much of it.”

Sure, it’s a contradiction: Life stinks and it goes by way too quickly. But that kind of contradiction is exactly the kind of conundrum that leads to a kind of cultural rage that is alive and well in America, one that “Fight Club” so graphically, and skillfully, portrays.

The novel is narrated by a character — real name never given — who is living the empty life, marked by blatant consumerism. He is so removed from his emotions that he attends different support groups, even though he has none of the symptoms, to get the kind of sympathy from others that he doesn’t have for himself.

And then he meets Tyler Durden, the modern revolutionary whose says many things but none more profound than, “It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.” It is Tyler who convinces the narrator (in David Fincher’s movie, he’s identified as Jack) that they should start the Fight Club.

At first reluctant, the narrator soon embraces the notion of a group of men, meeting in a secret spot, beating the wit out of each other. Because, he tells us, “After a night at Fight Club, everything in the real world gets the volume turned down.” Nothing, he says, can make you angry.

Pretty soon, though, what begins as a kind of bonding becomes a movement. Durden, whose occupation involves making soap from . . . well, I don’t want to give that away . . . soon begins preaching the kind of anarchism that leads to everything from cooks spitting in the soup to black-clad rebels blowing up city buildings. And the narrator, eventually, is forced to face the reality not only of what Durden is saying but the actuality of who he really is.

In September, 2001, just before Palahniuk read from his novel “Choke” at Auntie’s Bookstore, I asked then-39-year-old author about his image as an angry guy who seeks out fights and is an anarchist at heart. He laughed and said that much of that image was mere marketing.

“It’s funny,” he said, “because I think it’s so much how people want to package something. Every time I have a picture taken for something, they say, ‘Don’t smile, don’t smile. Scowl, scowl into the camera. Look angry.’ And if I even sneak a smile in, I know they won’t use that picture.”

You can hardly blame them. In each of his novels, he works hard at earning the description that one marketer put on him: “America’s favorite, most inventive nihilist.” “Survivor” is the story of a self-made messiah looking back at his life as the jet plane in which he is riding, alone, speeds along toward its eventual destination: smashing into the Australian Outback. “Choke” features a sex-obsessed protagonist who purposely chokes on food in restaurants to attract attention. In “Lullaby: A Novel,” he gives us a reporter doing a series on SIDS who ends up memorizing a poem that, when focused on someone, will kill.

Yet Palahniuk, who has written six novels (one, “Diary,” is forthcoming) and one work of non-fiction, insists that his work isn’t just explorations of darkness.

“If that’s all you want to hear, that’s all you’re going to hear,” he said. “But writing, to me, has got to be a really fun, pleasant things to do. And if I was writing something that was dark, and got darker at the end, I’m not going to enjoy doing that. I’m not going to enjoy reading that.”

In fact, he says, all his books “end on hope. They end in a big, romantic sort of explosion and a step forward into hope. It’s just a long, dark tunnel with a bright light at the end.”

Maybe that’s a rule or something.

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