[10 September 2008]
It’s not surprising that while this is a book of essays contemplating Chuck Palahniuk’s runaway hit 1996 novel Fight Club, that the focus seems to be just as much, if not more, on the 1999 movie of the same name—the essays were compiled by a co-founder of Metaphilm, a blog dedicated to critiquing and waxing poetic over cinema. It also brings up the visual nature of American culture as a whole, and how we perceive the reality around us; essentially, how words are pictures too, and how the pictures that are painted will be different for all of us.
This knowledge would not be lost on Palahniuk, who also contributes a short though outstanding foreword to this collection. It is not the headiest piece of the bunch, but it is certainly the most heartfelt. He knows what the movie did for the book—a book that was already visual and visceral to begin with. His minimalist arrangements of words and mental images, coupled with his uncanny ability to pick out few scenes yet give them major significance, lends itself to both the big screen, as well as the fulfilling, if not dangerous duty of philosophy.
For the writers of this collection, subtitled I Am Jack’s Completely Unauthorized Essay Collection, take massive liberties with the text. Some of them work well and illuminate the text. Others read like the writer is merely trying to hear himself think on paper, connecting abstract dots along a graph that inevitably concludes as an image that no one can recognize or understand.
Let’s get those out of the way first. Is the story of the unnamed main character (usually referred to as Jack) and Tyler Durden really the story of Oedipus? Probably not. And if it is, Chris Landis’s essay does not exactly make a strong supporting argument. Is it analogous in nature to the Matrix series, American Beauty, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall? Read Mercer Schuchart’s pondering is a bit more structured, though when he tries to find comparisons—for example, do all four movies feature black four-door Lincolns? bathroom scenes? gunshots to the head?—it feels like a high school attempt at making “deep” connections to brag about to friends. Something similar lurks in an essay comparing the movie to a grown-up version of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes—cute, but of little substance.
And then there are just the banal. Uri Dowbenko treats the work as a conspiracy theory, and you feel like you’re reading a website about crop circles. E.J. Park’s “Rebel Consumer” is a short and snarky piece about the ultra-hip hipster scene that is facetious and pretentious. That last word should also be reserved for Vox Day’s “The Club That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” a piece that looks at the violent nature of the film by a former martial artist who appears to be of the Tiger Shulmann “kick ass at any cost and for fun” mentality. The writing is pumped full of testosterone, which probably is a cover for a lack of intelligence, especially when it concludes by criticizing the supposed “homoerotic” nature of Fight Club: “To paraphrase the great English philosophers, gay men lurking in cellars distributing fluids is no basis for civilization.” Either the editor of this collection did not have enough essays to choose from, or he owed a serious favor.
We can expect essay collections to be a mixed bag, however. They are like record compilations. And while there are quite a few lackluster performances, the longer, more thoughtful pieces are excellent, and actually do shine a light on Palahniuk’s book, as well as the movie that followed.
Sometimes last is best. While the collection ends with a history of Palahniuk’s website, Barry Vacker’s “Slugging Nothing” is the final—and finest—essay of this book. He treats the book/movie as indicative of the “zero condition,” a state of being that represents both the void of destruction, as well as the ability to reform and begin anew; it is, in one example from mythology, the dance of Natraj in Indian folklore, where the deity that destroys is also the creator and preserver. Vacker wittingly ties in Ground Zero and 9/11, the Y2K syndrome, the Millennium Dome, and even Coke Zero, in gazing at the rush towards the end-time propagated by Tyler Durden throughout Fight Club.
While Palahniuk may very well have had several agendas in his book—even a writer never knows all the layers his language will reveal, which is what makes criticism and philosophy so important, to serve as a mirror unto one’s art—consumerism was blatantly at the top of the list. As Vacker writes, “The new struggle is less a war on poverty than it is a war on homogeneity, seeking authenticity in a culture of mass production, seeking identity in a culture mass mediation, seeking roots in a culture of rapid acceleration.” Using Sartre and superstring theory as a foundation, Vacker adds a voice to the continuation of Palahniuk’s theme, which deals, essentially, with the will to live—and more importantly, how to live.
“I Am Jack’s Happy Ending” is another insightful essay, this one offered by David McNutt. His comparison is with J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory of “eucatastrophe,” which is essentially akin to the moment when the mythological hero fulfills his or her destiny through a surprising series of events. “It is a completely unexpected and undeserved rescue in the midst of tragedy,” he writes, “a fortunate ending through unfortunate means. It is that moment when all appears to be lost, but then—incredibly, unbelievably—all is saved and restored.”
McNutt uses figures such as Jesus Christ and Michael Douglas (in the mind-bending thriller, The Game) as parallels to Jack’s/Tyler’s epic quest, near destruction, and liberation—Jack is liberated from Tyler, Tyler from the world. He concludes that the film “reveals the possibility for joy in the midst of sorrow and victory in the midst of defeat.”
In the introduction, Schuchardt quotes from an interview with Palahniuk in which the author states, “People are going to bring their own body of knowledge, their own experience, to whatever.” This is true in all critiques, citations, and footnotes, especially when dealing with the written word, for as much as one would think otherwise, we read with our own voices. We emphasize certain words, understand certain nuances, all the while sacrificing other ideas and words, often unknowingly. The movie gave a definitive form to Tyler Durden in the form of Brad Pitt, to Jack in Edward Norton. This too is a blessing and curse. It blessed Palahniuk by giving him a readership far wider than he may have achieved otherwise; it is a curse because it removes the Tyler Durden from inside of each one of us and transfers it onto Pitt.
But what can we do? We are, as stated, a visual culture. Our best writers are acclaimed because they paint pictures inside of our minds; they make words that you can picture and feel and relate to, that sculpt people and events and time into your thoughts. Their characters have an emotional resonance, they leave psychic imprints, making nearly tangible substances out of words that we can feel—without empathy, writing is mere information, and will not sustain in the reader’s mind. Despite accolades for and criticism of Palahniuk’s work, it is easy to agree that the man is genius of the paintbrush.
So, in the words of that very man, how do we know when we’re dealing with “a copy of a copy of a copy?” In one way or another these essays all tackle this question, being copies of an original work that is a copy of the society around us. Fight Club is a mirror, and these essays are mirrors of that mirror. Some turn the mirror onto the mirror and it reflects endlessly—these are the ones that offer insight, that bring us to yet another level of awareness of American life ... one that, according to Palahniuk (and the general consensus of the essayists), does not have to struggle to survive in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word, but rather bases its survival on ready-made IKEA living rooms. The others—those that attempt to turn the mirror back onto the author himself—are the failures, for they are concerned more with witty aphorisms and catchy-though-not-relevant synopses than contributing to the story of modern America, and what to do with it.