The following piece (a paper presented several years ago at the Northeast Modern Language Association's annual conference) traces back to my former existence as an academic. I was part of a session panel that focused on the ideologies of Gothic fiction--the question of whether such writing is subversive or (ultimately) conservative. My analysis of the novel Fight Club willfully complicated matters by taking a both-and rather than an either-or approach.
Gothic Trappings: Paradox and Postmodern Terror in Palahniuk's Fight Club
If as Tyler Durden asserts, the first rule about fight club is that you do not talk about fight club, and if the second rule about fight club is that you DO NOT talk about fight club, then surely I'm going to be hard-pressed to present this paper. I begin on this note not in a strained attempt at flippancy but to raise the notion of paradox. These two fight club rules, the second of which reiterates the first, articulate a need for silence. Technically speaking, Tyler violates his own proscription in the very act of utterance, and he himself becomes the most brazen rulebreaker when he later proceeds to establish new chapters of fight club in cities nationwide. Tyler thus forms a perfect example of what critic Mark Edmundson, in his book Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic, cites as the paradox "at the center of the Gothic vision. [...] The terror-Gothic figure who announces in stentorian tones that Thou shall not, himself does, and does, and does" (16-17). Indeed, by drawing on the work of Edmundson--and his forerunner Leslie Fiedler--in my analysis of Fight Club, I aim to cut against the strictly-postmodernizing critical grain and instead view Chuck Palahniuk's book as a late-20th Century update of the Gothic novel. Such an approach, though, points to a further paradox: the Gothic originated in the late 18th Century as a literature of revolution, but attending to the Gothic trappings of Fight Club can actually temper the book's revolutionary impulses. Nonetheless, I hope here to give another turn to the proverbial screw, demonstrating that in Palahniuk's complex novel, subversion capitulates to, and yet simultaneously resists, containment.
Let's turn first to the novel's main character, the anonymous speaker who, with his his verbal dexterity and ultimate unreliability, echoes the typical narrator of Poe's Gothic tales. Apparently suffering from chronic insomnia, Palahniuk's narrator leads an existence that is at once surreal and hyperreal. He says that "three weeks without sleep, and everything becomes an out-of-body experience" (19); "Everything is so far away, a copy of a copy of a copy" (21). The constant traveling dictated by his job also goes a long way to leaving the narrator enervated and deracinated. Jet-lagged and disoriented by the changes in time zone, he meanders through a so-called "tiny life" (28) marked by single-use hotel products and the miniature kits posing as in-flight meals. No doubt his consciousness is further plagued by the gruesome business he must attend to. As an employee in the Compliance & Liability department of a major automobile manufacturer, the narrator investigates grisly crash sites and formulates whether it is cheaper for the company to recall the line of car and fix the faulty part or to simply pay the out-of-court settlements for the ensuing accidents. The narrator admits: "Everywhere I go, there is a burned-up wadded-up shell of a car waiting for me. I know where all the skeletons are. Consider this my job security" (31). The blood money, so to speak, that he reaps from his corporate job is not very rewarding, as he grows to despise his own yuppie lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. Recognizing that he's become a "slave to [his] nesting instinct," the narrator marvels at how the IKEA furniture catalogue has replaced pornography as prime bathroom reading. Before you know it, he adds, "you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you" (44). Driving home the point about the superficiality of such a lifestyle, the narrator comments on his embarrassingly extensive collection of salad dressings and fancy mustards: "I know, I know, a house full of condiments and no real food" (45).
Unhappy both at work and at home, the narrator is understandably restless. He tries to heal himself by surrounding himself with true pain and misery. Though physically healthy, he passes himself off as a victim and becomes a regular attendee of various weekly support groups for disease sufferers. Leeching onto these groups allows the narrator to indulge his own nihilism:
Crying is right at hand in the smothering dark, closed [in a hug] inside someone else, when you see that everything you can ever accomplish will end up as trash. [...] You're life comes down to nothing, and not even nothing, oblivion. [...] It's easy to cry when you realize that everyone you love will reject you or die. On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone will drop to zero. (17)Strangely enough, such desperate bottoming-out proves refreshing for the narrator; finding himself able to sleep well after a night spent at a support-group meeting, the narrator proclaims that "losing all hope was freedom." The morbid, twisted nature of the narrator's chosen means of therapy is also evident in his reaction to the news of the death of Chloe, a member of the Brain Parasite support group: "For two years, Chloe's been crying in my arms during hug time, and now she's dead, dead in the ground, dead in an urn, mausoleum, columbarium. Oh, the proof that one day you're thinking and hauling yourself around, and the next, you're cold fertilizer, worm buffet. This is the amazing miracle of death" (35). Chloe is a minor yet significant character; yearning for one last bout of sex before succumbing to her terminal disease, she tries to seduce the narrator with a curious anecdote: "During the French Revolution...the women in prison, the duchesses, baronesses, marquises, whatever, they would screw any man who'd climb on top" (19-20). The context invoked here is intriguing, since the French Revolution proved a seminal influence on the Gothic imaginations of writers such as Radcliffe, Lewis, and De Sade. As Mark Edmundson notes, Marie Antoinette might be the first true Gothic heroine, a "woman on the run through the halls of Versailles, revolutionary vengeance following close on her heels" (18). Palahniuk's narrator presents a strikingly similar scene when he pictures a miniaturized version of Chloe fleeing through the labyrinth of her own revolting body politic, "running through the vaults and galleries of her innards at two in the morning. Her pulse is a siren overhead, announcing: Prepare for death in ten, in nine, in eight seconds. [...] At night, Chloe ran around the maze of her own collapsing veins and burst tubes spraying hot lymph. Nerves surface as trip wires in the tissues" (35-36).
This proves typical Fight Club prose, as the novel repeatedly employs a Gothic rhetoric. Foreshadowing the ultimately vampiric effect of their relationship, the narrator first meets Tyler at a beach where the latter is using driftwood logs to create a "shadow of a giant hand [whose] fingers were Nosferatu-long" (33). Later, while pummeling himself in an attempt to extort further paychecks from his boss at the night job he no longer wants, the bloodied narrator melodramatically references himself in the third person: "the monster crawls across the carpet" (116). Such self-denigration also calls to mind the character of Marla Singer, who is less the innocent maiden than a fit counterpart to the disturbed male characters (the narrator first encounters her as a fellow faker at the support group meetings). Marla calls herself "monster bitch monster," and when dappling her arm with cigarette burns, says "I embrace my own festering diseased corruption. [...] Burn ,witch, burn" (65). She later serenades Tyler and the narrator with cries of "ghoul" and "cannibal" (88) when she discovers they have made soap by cooking the fat liposuctioned from her mother, the "collagen trust fund" (91) that Marla had been storing in sandwich bags in their refrigerator while planning to have her lips plumped by injection. Given such grotesque goings-on, it is not surprising that the Gothic rhetoric extends to descriptions of setting. The abandoned, condemned mansion in which Tyler and the narrator take up residence in "the toxic waste part of town" (64) is an unmistakable Gothic ruin: "The shingles on the roof blister, curl, and the rain comes through and collects on top of the ceiling plaster and drips down through the light fixtures. When it's raining, we have to pull the fuses. You don't dare turn on the lights. [The house] has three stories and a basement. We carry around candles" (57).
When discussing Gothic locales, one mustn't forget the titular fight club itself. Here is a secret society, a literally underground movement, sadomasochistic bloodsport played out in a grungy, barely lit dungeon setting. For Palahniuk's narrator, fight club serves as a darker and more violent version of the support groups. While the members of the testicular cancer support group meet in a church basement and call their group Remaining Men Together, the members of fight club meet weekly in a saloon basement and are bent on Becoming Men Together. The narrator somewhat blasphemously fashions fight club as a new religion: "there's hysterical shouting in tongues, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved" (51). The revitalizing benefits of hand-to-hand combat provide a stronger dose of the therapy the narrator had been receiving from the support groups. He senses a reconnection to real experience: "After you've been to fight club, watching football on television is watching pornography when you could be having great sex" (50). At the same time, though, we cannot ignore the fact that fight club originates as an act of sexual disavowal. The homosocial organization is a byproduct of Marla's ruination of the support group experience for the narrator (he can't let go and bottom out when he senses her there watching him). Such flight from obtrusive feminine presence recalls one of the fundamental theses of Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel. According to Fiedler, one of the main reasons American Literature works so deeply in the Gothic vein is that its male protagonists are typically in flight from civilization in general and dreaded domesticity in particular; they "turn from society to nature or nightmare out of a desperate need to avoid the fate of wooing, marriage, and child-bearing" (25). Bearing out this theme, Palahniuk's narrator rebels against his father's advice to find a direction in life by getting married. The narrator confesses: "I'm a thirty-year-old boy and I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer I need" (51). He co-creates (with Tyler) fight club not just because of Marla's invasion of the support groups but because of his own "Evasion of Love" (to borrow Fielder's terminology ). The kicker is that for all his professed hostility toward Marla, the narrator subconsciously desires her. It's not until the end of the novel that he is able to admit his love: "From the first night I met her [...] some part of me had needed a way to be with Marla" (198). But because he gets mixed up with Tyler, his life takes a dire turn. Crudely put, the narrator wouldn't have so many problems if he'd simply had the balls to ask Marla out himself when she first showed up at Remaining Men Together.
Instead, Tyler is the one who gets to bed the kinky Marla. Tyler, the archetypal Gothic hero-villain, at once charming and chilling, admirable yet antagonistic. He's a suave soap salesman to major department stores, but his product is rendered from the liposuctioned fat stolen from medical wastebins. His soap also sanctions dirty deeds, as he makes explosives out of the glycerin produced during the rendering. Tyler's sadomasochistic bent is signaled not just by his leading role in fight club, but by his "kiss" that leaves a scar: to test the narrator's commitment to self-destruction, Tyler wets the narrator's palm with his lips and then pours lye on that spot, searing the skin in a mouth-shaped pattern. Despite such painful lessons, the narrator is positively drawn to Tyler: "I love everything about Tyler Durden," he professes, "his courage and his smarts. His nerve. Tyler is funny and charming and forceful and independent and men look up to him and expect him to change their world. Tyler is capable and free, and I am not" (174). Tyler's magnetism, though, loses its polarity when the narrator finally realizes that Tyler is not a separate person but his own sinister alter ego, a split personality unwittingly projected as hallucination. In the ultimate plot twist, our unreliable narrator is always already a victim of a schizophrenia that isn't some generic symptom of postmodern subjectivity (as theorist Fredric Jameson would have us believe) but a bona fide mental illness particular to this character. Tyler's duality is rooted not just in the notion of the hero-villain but in that hoary Gothic motif of the double or doppelganger. As Mark Edmundson points out, the "idea of a second self--of a horrible other living unrecognized within us, or loosed somehow into the world beyond, is central to the vision of terror gothic" (8). In Fight Club, Tyler plays Mr. Hyde to the narrator's Dr. Jekyll, as the protagonist's presumed insomnia proves to be the lingering effect of a somnambulistic double life. Each night the narrator lies down to sleep, Tyler rises up to act out his darkest desires, from blowing up his condo, to murdering his boss, to attempting to destroy the postmodern civilization with which he is so discontent. Such a plot dynamic strongly echoes another classic Gothic novel featuring the double, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Discussing that novel, critic Diane Johnson suggests that the monster "kills those whom Frankenstein [subconsciously] wants him to kill," which helps account for all those "deep sleeps and trances which prevent Frankenstein from impeding his monster at the moment he is killing" (xvii).
In Palahniuk's novel, Tyler is an unhallowed creation who runs amok and rebels against his creator. Seeking to breakthrough into the real, the narrator has instead unleashed a veritable monster from the id. Trying to remake himself, he has compromised his sense of self: "Every night that I go to bed earlier and earlier, Tyler will be in charge longer and longer. [...] Eventually I'd be gone altogether" (174). And so Fight Club is not just a novel with Gothic trappings but one that dramatizes Gothic entrapment. The narrator admits that he originally felt "trapped" within the vacuity of postmodern culture: "I was too complete. I was too perfect. I wanted a way out of my tiny life" (173). But in his creation of the subversive Tyler persona, the narrator has ensnared himself in a labyrinthine conspiracy of his own unconscious device. He belatedly comes to understand how Tyler has escalated fight club into Project Mayhem, a movement that carries out acts of guerrilla terrorism and vandalism against the dominant social order. When the narrator blanches at such violent activities and tries to intervene during daytime, Tyler simply re-directs his cult-like followers against him. The messianic hero has transmuted into Old Testament deity--"Tyler Durden the Great and Powerful. God and father" (199). In an undeniably Freudian scene of paternal retribution, Tyler arranges for his acolytes to seize the narrator and threaten him with castration. The narrator manages to survive intact, but that still doesn't erase the fact that Project Mayhem has blown up in his own face. In one of its grandest feats of mischief, the Project uses graffiti and arson to make the Hein tower a little more heinous, giving the office building a grinning mask like "an angry pumpkin, Japanese demon, dragon of avarice hanging in the sky, and the smoke is a witch's eyebrows or devil's horns" (118). Significantly, in the novel's climax when the narrator tries to obliterate Tyler by shooting himself in the face, his bullet-torn cheeks give him "a jagged smile from ear to ear. Yeah, just like an angry Halloween pumpkin. Japanese demon. Dragon of avarice" (207).
The narrator shoots himself in the face when faced with the reality of his own responsibility for Tyler's deeds. Such drastic self-wounding serves as a stark metaphor for how the novel's revolutionary impulses backfire. The narrator seemingly is engulfed by the contradictions inherent in Tyler's nature. Both self and other, Tyler is born of paradox. He spouts maxims about self-improvement via self-destruction: "The lower you fall, the higher you'll fly" (141). His tellingly named Project Mayhem (i.e. "Organized Chaos") seeks to rescue the world by destroying civilization, aims to show "men and women freedom by enslaving them, and show them courage by frightening them" (149). Such paradoxical dogma ultimately yields a contradictory turn of events: as the anarchistic Project strives "to blast the world free of history"," the regretful narrator finds himself doomed to repeat the history of revolutionary guilt that Leslie Fiedler finds lacing 19th Century Gothic literature. In a passage uncannily applicable to Fight Club, Fiedler writes:
The guilt which underlies the Gothic and motivates its plots is the guilt of the revolutionary haunted by the (paternal) past which he has been striving to destroy; and the fear that possesses the Gothic and motivates its tone is the fear that in destroying the old ego-ideals of Church and State, the West has opened the way for the irruption of darkness: for insanity and the disintegration of self. Through the pages of the Gothic romance, the soul of Europe flees its own darker impulses. (129)Through the latter pages of Fight Club, the guilt-ridden narrator flees the darker impulses manifested in Tyler Durden and tries to "rush around and undo the damage" (175).
As mentioned at the outset, my reading of Palahniuk's novel attempts to counter strictly postmodernist perspectives onto the novel. I lack the space to elaborate here, but I would cite as a representative example Krister [sic] Friday's essay in the Journal of Postmodern Culture, entitled "A Generation of Men Without History: Fight Club, Masculinity, and the Historical Symptom." Friday's erudite but over-theorized essay offers an extended Lacanian analysis, but what I've been trying to demonstrate here is that Fight Club is best explicated by the depth psychology of that great modernist-era Gothicist, Sigmund Freud. As Mark Edmundson identifies, the Freudian psyche is the quintessential haunted house, with a sadistic superego tormenting a hapless ego. And if what really haunts the psyche is "its traumatic past...particularly the past relations with parents" (32), then one must seize on the novel's passing comments and recognize that what Palahniuk's haunted narrator has been fighting all along is the father who abandoned his family when the narrator was only six years old.
Yet all this having been said, I have to admit to a final irony. Through my Gothic approach to Fight Club I am actually advocating a a certain postmodern pragmatism that eschews totalizing theories of the ideology of horror. Such sweeping accounts spring up from both sides of the fence, from Rosemary Jackson's notion of fantasy as the literature of subversion to Stephen King tracing in Danse Macabre of a conservative plot paradigm of monstrous disruption and subsequent banishment--his fashioning of the horror writer as "above all else an agent of the norm" (58). We need to proceed instead on a case-by-case basis, but even then we must be careful to avoid over-simplifying, either-or accounts. Fight Club is a complexly crafted narrative that proves both conservative and subversive. In the novel's final chapter, the narrator ends up in an insane asylum after shooting himself, yet even here he's hounded by interns who lead double leaves as members of Project Mayhem, and who have always taken the narrator to be the Tyler Durden. In the last line of the novel, the acolytes whisper to the narrator that they "look forward to getting [him] back" (208), and we have to wonder if "getting back" here refers to a return to leadership or simply to retribution. Either way, we sense that the insane asylum will offer no peaceful sanctuary for the narrator; in Palahniuk's portrait of the anarchist as a madman, the assault against history is the nightmare from which the narrator cannot awake. At the same time, though, if we move beyond the narrator's personal predicament, we find that the novel is ominously open-ended. For we are reminded that Project Mayhem (whose very initials hint at a slide toward the nocturnal) is still raging on towards a new dark age. Portents of apocalypse abound now that the narrator's disease has escaped like a virus into the world at large. As the novel ends on this double note of utter entrapment and rampant breakaway, I can think of no better way of concluding here than by invoking a line from Poe's classic doppelganger story "William Wilson": "Oh gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution!" (157).
Edmundson, Mark. Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism and the Culture of the Gothic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.
Johnson, Diane. Introduction. Frankenstein. By Mary Shelley. 1818. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. vii-xix.
King, Stephen. Dane Macabre. New York: Everest House, 1981.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "William Wilson." Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966.