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In literary history, authors often mirrored the social situation of its time through their works. For this reason, many of the greatest works were seen as representations of some social affairs, wars, political movements and other occurrences of the period of time during which the literary work was written. When it comes to more contemporary American literature, one of the biggest outstanding names is Chuck Palahniuk. Making his major literary outbreak in 1996 when he published Fight Club, and with the subsequent film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, Palahniuk has become more of an icon of modern American literature.
In my essay, I will try to put the focus on Palahniuk’s depiction of society throughout his novels. The novel I will mostly focus on is Fight Club, due to its international success and an ongoing discussion among the critics. I will begin by some scholarly ideas on his view on politics, which I will follow by my own understandings of Palahniuk’s depiction of the society. Finally, I will mention some of the criticism, as well as praises aimed at Palahniuk and try to analyze it. I will try to point out Palahniuk’s importance in American literature.
Some of the scholarly criticism directed towards Palahniuk are concerned with his political views of society, as well as his depiction of violence in the novels. Many of the critics argue that his characters represent the current situation of the American society and possibly the rest of the world. It isn’t unknown that his main characters are often rebelling against existing social and political systems. Is Palahniuk trying to say that American society is close-minded and politically ignorant? Is he trying to say that Americans are violent? Can we put Palahniuk’s criticism of politics in the postmodern era only?
Charles Michael Palahniuk was born in 1962 in Washington, United States. His last name is of Ukrainian origin. His parents divorced when he was only fourteen years old. He graduated from Columbia High School, after which he attended the University of Oregon. In 1986, he graduated with a BA in journalism and briefly worked as a journalist for Portland newspaper. According to Chaplinsky, Palahniuk also worked in a hospice and as a mechanic. His major novels are Fight Club (1996), Invisible Monsters (1999), Survivor (1999), Diary (2003), Beautiful You (2014).
One interesting evidence of Palahniuk’s political view of fascism in Fight Club was proposed by a critic Peter Mathews. His claim is that the central character of Fight Club, Tyler Durden, displays a revolutionary figure with his idealistic leadership which can be taken as fascist. Mathews idea is that fascism itself should not be taken as a primarily leftist or rightist political movement, and it is also mixed with communism. He asserts that fascism is “fundamentally nihilist”, which is a perfect definition of Palahniuk’s protagonists.
Many of the scholars who were vocal about Palahniuk’s works would often take Fight Club as a direct commentary to the immediate political situation of its time. However, I believe his existentialist nature of writing criticizes not only its current political situation but also its society as a whole and the nature of human behavior in general, which is a claim made by Mathews as well. “Fight Club’s critique, after all, is not restricted to the “postmodern” world, but repeatedly points back both to the foundations of modernity (to such events as the French Revolution) and even further into past, to ancient religious ceremonies and rituals (such as human sacrifice).” (Mathews, 2005, 84)
A scholarly critic, Henry Giroux wrote that “Fight Club appears to offer a critique of late capitalist society and the misfortunes it generates” (Giroux, 2001). Mathews argues that Giroux calls Palahniuk’s work to be “a symptom of a contemporary culture of cynicism, a recent trend in American culture”. (Mathews, 2005, 81)
In his essay, Mathews argues that Palahniuk’s character, Tyler Durden, represents a fascist figure. However, fascism needs to be understood as neither leftist nor rightist movement, as all authoritarian movements were originally leftist. He concludes that Palahniuk wanted to warn the readers not to blindly follow any seemingly trustworthy movement and this is a perspective that can be applied not only to politics but to everyday life too.
The whole idea of creating a Fight Club includes having its own rules and a leader who imposes those rules. This, indeed, can be interpreted as fascist. However, I personally believe that even such a “club” is a paradoxical element of this novel, because it includes angry men who are unhappy with their average lives in a country ran by consumerism (a system which you cannot change yourself, you have to agree with the rules and live your life accordingly), and yet they create a society in which they, again, agree to new rules and agree with their leader without asking any questions or even thinking about breaking the rules. So I believe this is Palahniuk’s commentary to human nature: we seek life in a community, and being in a community requires having rules which apply to everyone included. Whether or not this represents a specific political idea is an open question.
Another example of this idea of a “community” of some kind can be found in Palahniuk’s Survivor. In this book, the main character is the last remaining survivor of a secret religious suicide cult. The ultimate rule of this cult is the final suicide, which is a sort of “enlightenment” into a new life. All members of this society commit suicide. A scholar Antonio Casado de Rocha claimed in his essay: “Survivor is a parody of religion in America, but all its narrator wants is to be redeemed from his Christ-like role in order to be accepted back into the human community.” (de Rocha, 2005, 106)
Again, there is a group led by rules and its members are blind followers of those. Also, this religious fanaticism is an obvious criticism towards today’s craze influenced by the mass media and lack of rationality, which I also understood as Palahniuk’s commentary on human nature.
The reception of Palahniuk’s works is very diverse; some love him and some criticize his work. Either way, the ways in which his novels are understood seem to be radically different. There are numerous different interpretations behind the meanings of each one of his characters, as well as ideas behind Palahniuk’s novels.
One of the approvals comes from Jesse Kavadlo, who suggests that the obvious nihilism and expressions of violence in Palahniuk’s novels are actually the result of internal struggles, not the external ones. In his essay Chuck Palahniuk, Closet Moralist, Kavadlo claims: “Palahniuk’s narrator’s rebel against what the books position as the emasculating conformity of contemporary America (IKEA takes a bigger beating than fight club’s members), but really what the narrator has been fighting, literally and figuratively, is himself.” (Kavadlo, 2005, 5).
He goes on to say that Palahniuk’s writing is influenced by his personal insecurities. This view takes us away from the view that Palahniuk criticizes the society in his novels and makes us understand him from a different perspective. However, my personal stance is that his novels are a result of a little bit of both. While his novels are, indeed, a commentary on modern life and society, they are also highly filtered through his own views, his own struggles, and his own life.
Not everyone has positive reviews. One of the most controversial, negative critiques written about Palahniuk is the one by Laura Miller, a book critic, who decided to write completely freely about her opinions of Palahniuk’s works, therefore clearly expressing her criticism in the very first paragraph of an article she wrote: “he affects to attack the shallow, simplistic, dehumanizing culture of commodity capitalism by writing shallow, simplistic, dehumanized fiction.” (Miller, 2003)
Her view opposes the view later suggested by Kavadlo, and she is going on to say: “This problem is endemic to his novels: Everyone in them sounds like Chuck Palahniuk. They have one of two moods: gleeful, sloganeering wrath and sullen self-pity.” (Miller, 2003)
Why are there such mixed reviews? On the one hand, there are complex theories that propose Palahniuk was actually fusing different political ideologies to emphasize everything that is wrong in our society. Mathews even proposed evidence that suggests Palahniuk intentionally used fascist and communist elements. On the other hand, there are some critics who completely dismiss Palahniuk as a nihilist, a boring writer who fails to create a meaningful story and, in turn, creates complex novels without any ideas behind them.
My view is that we (the readers) should read Palahniuk’s works carefully, as he seems to give clues in every chapter of his novels. Additionally, we should contemplate each of his novels as a whole. Perhaps the idea wasn’t to create the most complex characters and stories but to actually react to the world’s irrationalism and problems.
With all the positive and negative feedback on Palahniuk’s works, one thing is inevitably obvious. An author who received such mixed criticism and reviews, from being called one of the greatest authors of the new generation, to getting such harsh and angry criticism, must have a reason for causing such diverse opinions which are open for discussion. However we end up understanding his works, articles are still written about his major novels, as well as his different political and psychological complexities and unique humor he used.
In this seminar paper, I wanted to show the different perspectives on Palahniuk’s view of society. First, I described his commentary on politics with the help of other scholars’ works. I mentioned how Mathews explains that Palahniuk criticizes capitalism through his character Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Finally, I gathered opposing criticism and approvals and presented them through commentary by Kavadlo and Miller. In this part, I was hoping to draw attention to different perspectives and understanding of Palahniuk’s views on the society. When there is an author who tries to point out society’s worst traits, they cannot write and remain unnoticed.
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