Book Review: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk


Rating: B+/ I find this to be a somewhat hard book to review, because as a longtime fan of the David Fincher film I found there to be few surprises upon reading the novel. There were a few major changes made in the transition from book to film, especially the ending, but the fact that I had watched the film many times made it impossible to go into this novel blind. Hell, I already knew the twist ending before I even saw the movie for the first time; my dad spoiled it for me (he insists that he didn’t think that it would even be a movie I’d want to watch, so he saw no harm in spilling the beans about the big reveal.)

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past fifteen years or so or are just not particularly involved in the world of popular culture, you might not know the twist to Fight Club. Some people like this may exist, though I have my doubts. So I won’t spoil the fun of discovering the twist for yourself. I also recommend that if you don’t know about it, not to go looking up the book or movie online. Just read the book; you are one of the lucky ones, you are the person who gets to go in blind and experience the book the way Palahniuk originally meant it to be experienced.

The nameless ‘protagonist’ (or shall I say anti-hero) of Fight Club is a cynical young man bored with the soullessness of empty consumer culture. A chronic insomniac, the man finds relief by going to support groups for illnesses he doesn’t have and crying with the sick participants. Somehow people thinking he is sick purges him of the  emptiness of his life, if only for a little while. For months, he goes to support groups for Testicular cancer, brain parasites, etc. and uses a different fake name with each one.

Then this profoundly jaded, profoundly bored young man meets Tyler Durden, who has some extreme ideas tending toward the nihilistic. This is about the same time he meets Marla Singer, a mentally unstable woman who is also the poster child for Borderline Personality Disorder. These two people change the narrator’s life drastically, in two very different ways.

As for Tyler, he joins up with our protagonist to create a ‘fight club’ which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. A bunch of men get together in someone’s basement and beat the living shit out of each other. Tyler Durden believes that society as it is needs to collapse and throw human beings into a more primordial social structure, and by the time Fight Club escalates into a full-blown anarchist terrorist group, it begins to spread across the country and hundred upon hundreds of pissed-off, frustrated men are initiated into the craziness.

There are a few fairly big differences between the book version of this and the movie; mainly, as I said, the ending. I actually liked the ending of the book a little bit better, though I know many enthusiasts of the film would adamantly disagree. The ending of the book is really quite perfect and makes more sense than the film version. It is definitely more straightforward and is rife with the irony and cynicism that made the book entertaining and thought-provoking to read in the first place.

In Palahniuk’s novel, the main character has a lot less of a conscience and is much more complacent in the violent side of the terrorists acts Tyler commits than in the movie. It felt like the film adaptation tried to humanize the main character a little bit more, to make us want to sympathize with him despite his unhinged and destructive behavior. Other than a few changed scenes, this book is a lot like Fincher’s film. I probably would have found it more involving as a standalone; as is, it was hard not to picture the situations and actors from the movie.

Chuck Palahniuk incorporates a savage, pared-down sense of humor in his novel. There is not a single redeeming character to be found in this story,  which from what I understand is typical for Palahniuk. Despite the high level of violence and deranged behavior on display in this novel, it is ultimately more tongue-in-cheek than disturbing. The narrator provides the reader with a dry, remorseless commentary on society, consumerism, and the extreme side of masculinity and male frustration.

One of the novel’s more ironic qualities lies in Tyler’s propensity to compare his lessons to the teachings of Buddhism. For anybody who knows anything about world religions, Buddhism is highly focused on mindfulness, forgiveness, and peace, which is the exact opposite of the movement Tyler Durden has decided to create. It’s just like Tyler to draw inspiration from a movement that is the exact opposite of everything he stands for.

And that’s what the fight club is; a big joke. Tyler preaches individuality and escape from stifling conformity and then turns his followers into a bunch of mindless zombies, in fact achieving the opposite of what he initially meant to achieve. The whole book is very tongue-in-cheek, and definitely not to be taken too seriously.

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a meaningful message about consumer culture and cult-like mentality, but it also has a lot of fun with itself and the fucked up but disturbingly humorous world it has created. Tyler Durden’s disciples become such shells of their former selves that after a certain point you kind of wish they would just drink the Kool-aid and get it over with already. It makes you wonder how much presence of mind and identity they had in the first place, to blindly follow a leader who’s obviously a few sandwiches short of a full picnic.

I guess in a way that’s the whole point; people like to think that they think for themselves and have a uniqueness and individual human depth all their own, but how many people got sucked in by charismatic cult leaders like David Koresh or Jim Jones? In the process of attempting to rid themselves of the slavery of menial work and big corporations, Tyler Durden’s followers find themselves engulfed in an even more powerful form of slavery; the slavery of being caught within the ideals of a cult.

  Fight Club is dark, profane, funny, wacky, and even a little bit sad at times. It’s a wonderful example of a first novel done right, and the book that quickly launched Palahniuk into cult status. If you haven’t seen the film with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt yet, I’d urge you to read the book first. It’s not a very long novel, and could probably be read in on sitting if you are a fast reader and have a couple of hours to spare.

Although Fight Club is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended, open-minded people, especially the ones with a dark sense of humor, will probably get a kick out of Palahniuk’s subversive, satiric style. I will say that honestly seeing the film adaptation multiple times somewhat depleted my enjoyment of this book, but I still think that even then it was worth reading.

I think Palahniuk’s spectacularly misanthropic and barbed style of writing is not for everybody; my mom read one of his books, Choke, and said it made her want to take a hot shower afterwards. She has not picked up one of his books since.  However, no one can deny the man’s gifts as a satirist and writer. I can say that Fight Club is a debut that made me want to read more by the author, and it’s no surprise his books are cult classics.

Fight Club also has the honor of being one of those great books that was made into an equally great movie. Whether you liked the film, or just want to read something completely unique and different, I would encourage you to pick up this book from your local bookstore or library and take a couple hours away from your day to read it. It isn’t exactly life-changing, but I guarantee you’ve never read anything quite like it.

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