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Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is an unprecedented novel which is particularly concerned with the problem of forging secure identities in the face of modern challenges: consumerism, capitalism, emasculating white-collar work, an absence of fathers, and an absence of historical distinctiveness. The text’s protagonist is a figure so lost in the ennui of modern life that he is driven to creating an unruly alter-ego who has the courage to act out his unconscious desires, and who promises deliverance from his state of anonymity. The disastrous results that come about speak volumes about the post-modern world in which the story is set; a world which borrows heavily from our own. This essay will explore the various causes of the ‘identity problem’ as offered by Palahniuk, as well as the various solutions his characters desperately implement. It will be argued that identity in modern times, as conceived by Fight Club, is a problem that is as pressing as it is unsolvable.
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One of Fight Club’s main concerns in relation to the problem of identity is the notion of consumerism, and by extension – capitalism, commodification and the endless quest for self-improvement. Early in the story, the narrator recognises the futility of acquisition as a basis for identity. His home is a high-rise condominium, ‘a sort of filing cabinet for young professionals.’ This metaphor aptly describes both the stark physical reality of the condominium, along with the psychological effects of dislocation that it occasions. Relating the incident of his home’s bombing, he later comments on his feelings towards its internal contents:
‘You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life….then for a couple of years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa. The right set of dishes. The perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.’ (p.44)
The narrator’s acute awareness of his generation’s debilitating obsession with consumption grows alongside his relationship with the rogue anti-consumerist, Tyler (who is, of course, only another side of the narrator’s own personality). In a passage which is as depressing as it is amusing, the narrator catalogues all of the IKEA items he owned that were destroyed by the bomb Tyler deployed. The specificity of his descriptions of the items, coupled with the number that he owns, underscores the extent of his obsession. This is an affliction which, he observes, afflicts many others: ‘I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct’ (p. 43). Significantly, he prefaces this very specific list of items with: ‘We all have the same’…(p.43). Not only is his generation preoccupied with acquiring items that, as he explained, ‘end up owning [them]’, but the items themselves (besides the options for various colours and combinations) are not even unique; everyone essentially owns identical things. The sheer amount of colours and designs they are available in, coupled with the narrator’s uncanny ability to recite these colours and designs, emphasise the extent of this multinational corporation’s success; a success made possible by a global obsession with appearances, consumption, convenience, timesaving and moneymaking – all at the expense of depth, originality and substance. With the help of Tyler, the narrator realises that the perpetual processes of self-improvement and acquisition are doomed, and incapable of producing a stable or genuine sense of identity. ‘Oh Tyler!’ he exclaims, ‘Deliver me from Swedish furniture. Deliver me from clever art. May I never be content. May I never be perfect’ (p.46). In saying this prayer, the narrator demonstrates his rejection of society’s preoccupation with superficiality; a preoccupation Palahniuk shows to be as chronic as it is hopeless.
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As Tyler and the narrator discover, the problem of consumerism is not confined to their own generation and class; it exists in the upper echelons of society as well. This is perhaps demonstrated most poignantly at the catering job where Tyler torments the wealthy hostess of a glamorous party – one in which ‘titans and their gigantic wives drink barrels of champagne and bellow at each other wearing diamonds bigger than [the narrator] feels’ (p.81) – by claiming to have urinated in one of her perfume bottles. What was supposed to be a mischievous statement against flashy wealth quickly becomes a pitiful and ugly scene in which the initially poised hostess (‘Madam’) is left drunken and bloodied on the bathroom floor, her perfume bottles shattered and her mood utterly broken. Accusing her husband of having an affair with a guest, declaring that she’s ‘tired of all the people they call their friends’ (p.83) and distraught about the inflammatory act, the once-immaculate woman, who seemed to have it all, is revealed to have very little. With this scene, and others like it, Palahniuk paints a picture of a bleak world in which people continually try (and fail) to base their identities on the items they own and the image they project, rather than on the person they are or the things they believe. It is a world in which ‘there is no you and there is no me’ (p.164) – only empty shells; contrived exteriors; structures without insides.
In Palahniuk’s text, not only are capitalism and commodification damaging to the individual’s conception of self, but also to the workplace – and, by extension – to the individuals who attempt to carve out identities within the workplace. The narrator of the story works as an ‘insurance adjustor’ – a role in which he robotically applies a mathematical algorithm in order to determine whether a product recall or a payout of damages would be more expedient for his company. This process demonstrates the ways in which work has succumbed to the logic of profit maximization and cost minimisation at the expense of moral or ethical considerations regarding the humans involved – in this case, those affected by the malfunction of goods produced by the company’s clients. With this process, people are dehumanised; they are reduced to their bodily forms as figures of profit or liability.
But this dehumanisation is not only inflicted on the general public by the company, it is also inflicted on the workers employed to carry out their objectives, such as the narrator. This is perhaps best highlighted in the early sections of the story in which the narrator describes the monotony of the air travel he must endure in aid of his work. He states: ‘You wake up at Air Harbour International…You wake up at O’Hare. You wake up at La Guardia. You wake up at Logan’ (p.25). This repetition is carried on throughout the chapter, with many other airports that he ‘wakes up at’ inserted intermittently between dialogue and descriptions. There is no sense of personal agency conveyed in this repeated line, rather, he is a pawn who is endlessly transported between cities at the whim of anonymous superiors, only learning where he is upon waking. But perhaps the most striking disadvantage of the work he undertakes, made evident through an absence of description more than anything else, is the loneliness it engenders. At no point in the sections set in his workplace do we learn the names of his colleagues (or indeed, anything about his colleagues). There is no sense of community alluded to, not even one based on a mutual hate for the work they must undertake. The only exchanges that are detailed are those between the narrator and his boss – whose name, significantly, we never learn. The workplace he describes is not even one in which stress provides a focus – instead, he seems to float in and out, completely apathetic about the company that appears to be equally apathetic towards him. This sense of apathy is not confined to the insurance job in which the narrator works. When Tyler gets fired from his job as a projectionist, for example, he displays an attitude which indicates he has been treated in much the same way. Addressing his boss, he states:
‘I am trash and shit and crazy to you and this whole fucking world…You don’t care where I live or how I feel, or what I eat or how I feed my kids or how I pay the doctor if I get sick, and yes I am stupid and bored and weak, but I am still your responsibility.’ (p.115)
These matter-of-fact lines describe the way in which workers are not treated as real people with individual personalities and experiences, but rather as machines that companies utilise to their own ends. This is perhaps best exemplified in the boss’s innocuous response to Tyler: “We appreciate your contribution to our success” (p. 113). Just like the narrator (unsurprisingly – since they are one and the same), Tyler realises that he is wholly disposable in the eyes of his superiors, who make profit their focus at the expense of their employers’ lives. Just as the narrator and Tyler find consumption an inadequate source of self- fulfilment and identity, so too do they find the tedious jobs in which they are forced to work – and which have been corrupted capitalist imperatives – completely insufficient. In these jobs, they are not people. Rather, they are human resources.
The crisis of identity occurring in post-modern societies and explored in Fight Club is one in which men face particular challenges. The futile consumerism previously mentioned, coupled with the exploitative nature of work, not only dehumanise but also emasculate – since men have an innate desire for control, and since both result in a loss of control. The story describes a world in which young men are ill-prepared for the lives ahead of them and at a complete loss as to the purpose of their existence. Palahniuk is at pains to locate this problem beyond the realms of consumerism and work. To this end, the issue of fathers is one which is given repeated attention. The narrator explains that the rebellious Tyler ‘never knew his father’ (p.49). The narrator knew his father ‘for about six years’ (p.50), but remembers nothing. His adult dealings with his absent father have revolved around the irregular long-distance phone calls he makes when arrives at crossroads in his life, asking ‘Now what?’ His father is never able to deliver, meaning the narrator is consigned to a life of restless floating. But what is the deeper significance of the absence of fathers? At one point, the narrator states ‘What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women’ (p.50) and later, the mechanic (who is essentially parroting Tyler) explains “If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never know your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?” (p.141). This is perhaps the most important line of the whole text, as it encapsulates both the cause and the nature of the problem which the fight clubs seek to redress, as well as pointing to the possible repercussions of the problem. Without male role models, young men are unable to construct complete visions of who they are, because they do not know where they have come from. Further, they are unable to fully conceptualise daunting questions about the world around them, the meaning of existence (‘what [they] believe about God) and, hence, what they believe about themselves. Without fathers, these men do not know who they are.
An extension of the problem of fathers within the text is the problem of history. The men of fight club, particularly the narrator, have an ambivalent attitude towards history. On one hand, they are resentful about their role as the inheritors of a deeply troubled past. This is exemplified in the narrator’s rant which begins ‘for thousands of years, human beings had screwed up and trashed and crapped on this planet, and now history expected me to clean up after everyone’ (p.124). He is overwhelmed by the extent of the world’s problems, angered that he is expected to fix them, and frustrated by his inability to do so. Therefore, he sees destruction as the only solution – not merely destruction of problematic places and things (eg. endangered pandas, damaged rainforests), but of culture and history itself, declaring that he wants to ‘burn the Louvre…and wipe [his] ass with the Mona Lisa’ (p. 124). Echoing Tyler, he literally wants to destroy history, to ‘blast the world free of it’ (p.124) in an attempt to relieve his frustration regarding his inability to solve its problems. But there is another aspect of the narrator’s and his peers’ attitude towards history. Not only do they wish to ‘destroy’ it so that it can no longer torment them, but they also wish to control it – two desires which appear to be in opposition. Feeling they are ‘God’s middle children’ (p.141), with no special place in history, but rather in a perpetual postmodern present that is bereft of distinctiveness, they want to carve out a ‘special place’ through Project Mayhem – the anarchic group which grew out of fight club, and which was a series of escalating disruptions aimed at businesses, consumer consumption, and the financial system itself. By reaping havoc on society – perhaps even dying in the process – the men of Project Mayhem hope to redress their feelings of insignificance occasioned by their abandonment, their emasculation and their unfortunate place in history. As Tyler explains: ‘getting God’s attention for being bad was better than getting no attention at all. Maybe because God’s hate is better than his indifference’ ( p.141). This line reveals the extent of the narrator’s (and his peers’) sense of worthlessness and anonymity in a world in which they are ‘the crap and the salves of history’ (p.123), all too aware of the extent of the world’s problems, yet at a loss as to solutions.
Just as significant as the many causes of unstable identities which this text explores (consumerism, commodification, dehumanisation through work, abandonment, a lack of historical distinctiveness) are the comments it makes on the solutions adopted to redress these problematic identities. While at first effective, the cancer support groups which the narrator attends in an attempt to cathartically cure his insomnia eventually prove ineffective, because he feels exposed by the fact that Marla knows he is a fake. Both his and Marla’s sick obsession with attending these groups underscores the extent of their desperation, their loneliness and their complete lack of direction in their depressing lives. They do not know who they are, and in order to address that problem, they masquerade as people they are not. In doing so, they are granted an insight into death and, paradoxically, this is the only thing that helps them feel alive. The fight clubs are similar in that they strip the narrator of his (unstable) identity, reducing him to an anonymous body, and allowing him to feel more alive by bringing him closer to death – in this case, through masochistic violence. They also provide a sense of community, which is an essential precondition for the formation of a stable identity. Yet, unsurprisingly, they too are eventually unable to fully deliver him from his listless, lost state. Project Mayhem, an extension of the fight clubs, is equally ineffectual in bringing about a stable sense of self for the narrator. While its goal is to ‘blast’ its members free of history, it ends up doing anything but. Project Mayhem eventually becomes a recapitulation of the familiar ideologies of history – most notably fascism and communism. The ‘space monkey’ members become sadistic slaves and clones, they shave their heads, burn off their fingerprints, worship the dictatorial Tyler and essentially become instruments to the movement’s disturbing collective will. Project Mayhem thus fails to secure new, individualistic identities for its members in which they are free from the bonds of history; instead, it offers them only the same positions of enslavement which they experience in their regular lives, and which they tried (and failed) to overcome through fight club.
The narrative culmination of Project Mayhem, and of the story itself, in which the narrator stands atop of the Parker-Morris Building with a gun in his mouth, is essentially a return to the masochism of the fight clubs. This circularity reflects the futility of the task of ‘reaching’ or achieving a stable sense of identity in the perpetual present of the dizzying post-modern world. Fight Club’s notion of identity becomes, in essence, a continual ‘waiting’ for an identity. “There isn’t a you and a me anymore” (p.164), Tyler explains, and with these words, he encapsulates every aspect of the problem of identity which this story takes as its focus. The dehumanising effects of self-improvement, commodification and of capitalist-based professions make people slaves to trends and to corporations that care little about their welfare. They are no longer people ( a ‘you’ or a ‘me’), rather, they are anonymous figures of consumption and production who are forced to perpetuate the capitalist system. An absence of fathers renders these people confused as to their origins, their purpose and their place in the world, and an absence of historical distinctiveness leaves them lost as to their significance. The insomniac narrator attempting to make sense of himself in this world is driven to everything from creating another personality, to faking cancer, pissing in perfume, stealing human fat, vandalising film reels, blowing up buildings, brawling in fight clubs… to establishing a terroristic revolutionary organisation hell-bent on murder and martyrdom. The radicalness of his efforts demonstrates both the extent of the problems he and his peers face in relation to identity, and the failure of his efforts (coupled with the story’s depressing denouement) demonstrate the futility of finding solutions – as long as our post-modern world remains unchanged.
Palahniuk, Chuck, Fight Cub, (New York: 1996).
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