Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

What I Think about the Book ‘Fight Club’


If you’ve ever watched Back to the Future, one of the key points of the plot is that Marty McFly hates being called ‘chicken’. The easiest way to get him into a fight is to call him this. Well…I have the same issues with my temper. The surest way to drag me into a fight is to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. And that’s what’s happened over on my other post about the movie Fight Club. So sure enough, just like Marty McFly, I rushed out and got the book that the movie is based on because I’d been dared to. And you know what I found? The book – it’s OK. It’s worth reading. But only for about a day. Looking at the remaining 20 or so pages that I have to finish, I’m not sure I can do it. After all, it’s only OK and I have work to do.

The book itself is very short. My copy published by Henry Holt and Company is 208 pages long, but the text of the story doesn’t begin until page 11. Much of the text is quotation, so many of the pages are really filled with only half a page of printing. I read over 100 pages the first day I got it and could probably finish the book in a day if I had more time to read. My guess is that there’s not more than a 120 pages of full text in the whole volume.

When all this started, I imagined a huge grassroots cult of white, middle-class, American kids out there worshiping Tyler Durden and his fight club. Now, more than ever, I just see it as a white, middle-class, American cult. While the film grossed over $100 million (that’s 15 million tickets at $6 a pop), I no longer see the Fight Club cult as huge. In fact, the largest source of writing on the book is, by far and away, the market of pre-written term papers for university undergraduates. It is shocking to see the number of such papers available for a fee. My point is that while there have been many, many reviews of the movie staring Brad Pitt and a host of names Hollywood says you should know, almost everything about the book is aimed at undergraduate students – students willing to pay for those words so they can claim them as their own and hand them in for grades.

This point is significant because it means there has only been a very poor understanding of the story developed. For example, I have been unable to find any exploration of its literary roots or inspirations. There is little in the way of deep analysis available. There is no interpretation in a comparative perspective. There is nothing but a bunch of undergraduates and movie critics spinning off-the-cuff ideas about a very abstract story. And here I am responding to it like a Marty McFly clone.

Much of the writing style does not seem original to me. I am not extremely widely-read, but I do read a lot and taught essay writing for many years. Most of what I read now is non-fiction, essays, technical material, and that sort of thing. I used to read a lot of fiction and theatre, but these days I am more interested in the presentation of the factual world and the description of personal experience. And in this context, the words that appear on the pages of Fight Club seem borrowed from some place else. For example, Fight Club tells us, “Which is worse: Hell or nothing?” andIf you could be God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose?” But this seems remarkably similar to the 1667 classic Paradise Lost where we are told it is, “better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.Fight Club teaches us that, “On a long enough timeline. The survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” But economist John Maynard Keynes once said, In the long run, we’re all dead.Fight Club tells us that, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” James Dickey, the authour of the 1970 novel Deliverance, tells us, “Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.” And then the mother of all ripped off quotes, from Fight Club

I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need, blah, blah, blah…

and from perhaps the greatest poem of modern times,

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix

Aside from having many of the same quotable bits as other famous literature, Fight Club is written in a style I have seen previously in hard-boiled detective novels. It is very punchy and fast moving. In hard-boiled detective novels, there is a reason for this that lies in the kind of story being told. I am not certain of the history that took this style from its original genre for use in a story like Fight Club. Evidently no one else is because there has been almost no scholarly discussion of the book.

The story itself is not hard to follow and, as I have said, could be read in its entirety on a long bus ride. This does not mean it’s a simple or straightforward story. The meaning is not at all obvious, nor is it clear there is an intended meaning. It is punchy and full of quotable lines with moral lessons, but in this way, it reminds me of The Bible. In fact, like The Bible, it appears to be so full of symbols and hidden meanings you could interpret it pretty much any way you want. Certainly authour Chuck Palanhuik himself contributed nothing to answering this debate when he stated the book “…is entertainment first.

None of this has stopped our intrepid undergraduate experts from espousing their authority. Comments posted to my original review of the film scolded me that the story is “more or less an existential look at current trends in post-modernism and feminism,” although I’m not sure what this means. It appears to be ripped off from an essay published in many different Net locations comparing Fight Club with the comic series Calvin & Hobbes. This essay tells us that, “it depicts what happens when you take someone weaned on dreams and limitless possibilities and jam him into a cramped cage confined by rules and regulations.” Perhaps related to these is the interpretation that tells us, “The book is a modern horror story about how populist fascism can flourish here, and about why this is the perfect time for it.” The blog Kulterblog tells us that really, “despite its name and its singular popularity among men, this movie is really just another sentimental chick flick.” Lateral Action thinks the meaning of the story is that, “At its core, Fight Club is about living the life you truly want to live, and the hard path to getting there.” One of the true scholarly interpretations of the book by sociologist Adrienne Redd entitled Masculine Identity in the Service Class: An Analysis of Fight Club tells us that “Fight Club is really about what it is to be a man who serves others (as women have traditionally) and how such men construct identity and meaning in their lives.” Another scholarly analysis appeared in the journal Postmodern Culture (Volume 13, Number 3, May 2003) entitled, A Generation of Men Without History: Fight Club, Masculinity, and the Historical Symptom. I have not been able to read it, but since it was published in 2003, I can only assume it was really inspired by the film rather than the book.

But as I have said, the vast majority of writing about the book appears to be ready-made term papers for undergraduates and I have no interest in paying Top Term Papers for more half-baked analysis.

On a slightly more serious note, the most noticeable point for me regarding the book was how it contrast with the film. While it is true the film pretty much reflected the content of the book, they in some sense vary significantly. The fighting activity of the actual fight club is a small almost insignificant aspect of the book. There couldn’t be more than 5 pages of actual description of fights. This stands in sharp contrast to the film in which some portion approaching one-quarter or one-third depicts fights. In fact, the book is written in such a way that you could keep faithful to it and still tell the story many different ways. It is not written in a way that is straightforward or obvious. It is full of metaphor and parables. It’s entertaining, but it is not clear which parts of the story are ‘important’. As such, the parts of the story that were chosen for the movie’s ‘accurate depiction’ tell us much about the message 20th Century Fox wanted to convey in their script; one of which evidently is that Brad Pitt can be a tough-guy action hero, too.

I would still not recommend that anyone see the movie, especially if you have not read the book. But the book itself is short, inexpensive, and easy to read. It is good for a long bus ride or a day when you’re trapped at home by bad weather.

Other links about Fight Club

What I Think about the Movie Fight Club

What I Think about Chuck Palahnuik

I also highly recommend this piece from the film review blog Bright Lights.

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