Book Review from the July 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
Martial arts gyms haven't seen such high memberships since the Bruce Lee-inspired Kung Fu craze of the 1970s. Boxercise and Tae-bo are increasingly catering for people who want to get fit but are bored of treadmills. Real Fight Clubs and White Collar Boxing are becoming hugely popular. Thai kickboxing and Ultimate Fighting (a no-holds-barred fighting tournament combining kickboxing and submission wrestling) now have their own slots on Sky TV. David Bowie, we hear, boxes three times a week.
A popular movie starring Brad Pitt has been a part of this trend. Here we review the book that inspired the film: Chuck Palahniuk's first novel, Fight Club (Vintage, £6.99).
I don't think Fight Club is that good a novel. I enjoyed it, but I don't think it really stood up to a re-reading, nor did it strike me as the work of art that, say, Crime and Punishment is. The historian Eric Hobsbawm says that it was only in the 1830s that literature and the arts began to be overtly haunted by the rise of the capitalist society, which he described, echoing Marx, as “that world in which all social bonds crumbled except the implacable gold and paper ones of the cash nexus”. You could argue that Fight Club is just the most recent, and one of the least impressive, additions to the trend in literature that began then. Another commodity in the cultural supermarket. That said, the reason I liked Fight Club so much in spite of its failings was because it succeeds precisely where other political novels fail. To quote the situationist Raoul Vaneigem: “Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984 and Touraine's Cinqieme Coup de Trompette push back into the future a shudder of horror which one straight look at the present would produce … Compared with my present imprisonment, the future holds no interest for me.”
And that's what Fight Club is. A straight look at the present and the possibilities inherent in it. At the heart of the book is the notion that life under capitalism is so unbearable, so alienating, that we need to put cigarettes out on our arms and get into fights just to make sure that we are, in fact, still alive. Compared with the mind-numbing horrors of the office and factory, where we stare at the clock and wish our lives away a minute at a time, almost any “really lived” experience is better than nothing. Outside of the pages of Fight Club, we can readily see this in everything from bunjee jumping to football hooliganism to Jackass TV.
The nameless protagonist of the book is an ordinary white-collar worker who goes along to his doctor because he can't sleep. His doctor says that that's nothing. If he wants to see pain, he should see the cancer patients getting by. And so he does. He goes along to all the different support groups he can find, and pretends to be suffering from the same condition as everyone else. Brain parasites, testicular cancer, etc. And he finds that he can't get by without the experiences he has there. Sharing thoughts and feelings, then crying into the cleavage of some fat bloke who's dying of testicular cancer, is a “really lived” experience, and it makes our hero feel alive for a change. He says:
“This is why I loved the support groups so much, if people thought you were dying, they gave you their full attention. If this might be the last time they saw you, they really saw you. Everything else about their chequebook balance and radio songs and messy hair went out the window. You had their full attention. People listened instead of just waiting for their turn to speak. And when they spoke they weren't telling you a story. When the two of you talked, you were building something and afterward you were both different than before.”
He surrounds himself with death and pain in order to feel alive. Going along to support groups becomes, as he says, “the only real thing in his life”.
Before the fight clubs, the protagonist is the perfect worker and consumer. He goes to work in an office, he keeps his head down, he has a five-year career plan, and he is obsessed with getting all the right things for his perfect little flat, the perfect sofa, the perfect shelving unit, a set of nesting tables. “One day you own all these things,” he says. “The next they own you.” Then, when his whole flat gets blown up one day by a gas explosion, and all those things are destroyed, he turns to his newly found friend and alter ego, Tyler. After a night's drinking, Tyler takes him out into a car park and says: “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”
Shortly afterwards, Tyler starts Fight Club. The protagonist finds that he has never felt so alive, not even during his support groups. From then on, consumerism is no consolation compared to the experience, the “real life” thrill, of fighting another man in a pub basement. Eventually, what the Fight Clubs achieved for the individual, Tyler aims to achieve for society as a whole through his 'Project Mayhem'. Project Mayhem, as it says on the blurb on the back of the book, is a sort of “revenge on a world where support groups have the corner on human warmth”. It is also about “hitting rock bottom”—individually in the Fight Club, and collectively as part of Project Mayhem—where there is no longer anything to lose. Only once you've hit rock bottom, says Tyler, can you be reborn. Like Jesus's crucifixion.
The main character says:
“It used to be enough that when I came home angry and knowing that my life wasn't toeing my five-year plan, I could clean my condominium or detail my car. Someday I'd be dead without a scar and there would be a really nice condo and car. Really, really nice, until the dust settled or the next owner. 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.”
Is self-destruction the answer? David Lodge, in his novel Nice Work, has one of his characters say this: “All the Victorian novelist could offer as a solution to the problems of industrial capitalism were: a legacy, a marriage, emigration, or death.” To my mind, no more modern novelist, including Palahniuk, has come up with any other solution. And that's no surprise, because it's very unlikely that there are any other solutions for the individual worker. Under Lodge's category of death, for example, we can put self-destruction, and the many forms this can take, from the extremes of a bohemian or anarchistic lifestyle, say, through to the slow suicide of alcoholism, to the young murderer who Oscar Wilde praised because it was better to be someone rather than do something.
Project Mayhem's aim is the destruction of society. Its aim is to make society hit rock bottom so that it can be reborn. We don't learn much about the society that is expected to blossom from this destruction, but the few visions we do get seem primitivist in nature.
But what is it that the fighters are experiencing that is so painfully missing from their everyday lives? Of course, what a “really lived” experience is can only have meaning in relation to its opposite—which is the role of the worker in capitalist society. The worker becomes a cog in a machine, alienated both from themselves and their human nature, from their own productive activity, and from their fellow humans. This alienation makes them a slave in the factory or office, passive in their role as consumer, apathetic in the face of their exploitation and slave status, and, as Marx pointed out, quite ignorant and idiotic generally.
What is being compared is the poverty of everyday life under capitalism and the tendencies to be found in that same everyday life which we believe can only flower into a full and authentic human existence in a socialist society.
Raoul Vaneigem's book The Revolution of Everyday Life reads like a critique of Fight Club, and examines in detail how and why genuine attempts at communication and liberation can descend into nihilistic destruction, as it does in Fight Club. Indeed, the influence of Situationism and its analysis and tactics is evident throughout the novel, none more so than in the following extract, where the narrator explains to us the appeal of fight club. In fight club, the people are involved and there because they want to be there, not because they have been thrown together by a commuter train. They are participants in something they are creating themselves. There is an honesty about no-holds-barred combat that you could never get huddled in an office, where we smile at people who we'd much rather spit in the eye. Here's how it is explained in the novel:
“Fight club is not football on television. You aren't watching a bunch of men you don't know halfway round the world beating on each other live by satellite with a two-minute delay, commercials pitching beer every ten minutes, and a pause now for station identification. After you've been to fight club, watching football on television is like watching pornography when you could be having great sex.“Fight club gets to be your reason for going to the gym and keeping your hair cut short and cutting your nails. The gyms you go to are crowded with guys trying to look like men, as if being a man means looking the way a sculptor or an art director says….“Your aren't alive anywhere like you're alive at fight club.”
What about Project Mayhem? I won't detail everything that Project Mayhem does, suffice to say that it culminates in a massive explosion that will blow up a huge skyscraper, and takes in smaller acts along the way, such as putting “Drunk drivers against mothers” stickers on cars. (As an aside, Palahniuk is actually a member of a sort of neo-Situationist group, whose pranks have included protesting outside pornography shops, complaining that their material is too expensive to be enjoyed by children.) What must be said however is that, whatever Palahniuk may have had in mind artistically when creating Project Mayhem, it must be stated clearly that the things he describes can in no way form the basis of a genuine revolutionary, working class organisation.
Project Mayhem, although arguably inspired by Situationism and some more primitivist strands of anarchism, is decidedly fascist in organisation and terrorist in tactics. The members of Project Mayhem are expected to obey Tyler's instructions without question, and do not even know what the aims of any specific action are. Tyler argues that Project Mayhem is like a gun: all it does is focus an explosion in one direction. In a way, that's what we want to do too. Revolutionary organisations aim to focus the explosive power of the working class against the capitalist system as a whole. The point, however, is that this cannot be achieved by a self-appointed elite. The explosion must be self-organised, and self-focusing. To quote Vaneigem again, a highly hierarchical army may win a war, but not a revolution. An undisciplined mob can win neither.
So our answer is different. The answer is not Project Mayhem. The collective solution to our collective problem is not terrorism—it is the escalation of the class war, and the end of the class war, and all classes, with the establishment of socialism. The desire to live, as Vaneigem says, is a political decision.