Fight Club’s Gothic Leanings in a Pre-9/11 Era

In this essay I explore the way in which Chuck Palahniuk uses Gothic tropes in Fight Club (1996) to explore the terrors of the postmodern capitalist city, and how this situates it within the context of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York.

Palahniuk’s Fight Club was one of the leading forces in the rise of transgressive fiction in the 1990s, a genre which Rene Chun describes as:

Subversive, avant-garde, bleak, pornographic – and these are compliments. Such words are used to describe transgressive fiction, books pitched to young adults,  written by authors descended from William Burroughs and the Marquis de Sade, that explore aberrant sexual practices, urban violence, drug use and dysfunctional families in graphic detail.[1]

As Chun notes, this kind of fiction is not specific to the 90s, having developed from the transgressive writing of earlier decades, but transgressive fiction of the 90s holds a unique place in history regarding its relationship to terror attacks of 9/11. Post-cold-war and pre-war-on-terror, these texts explore several of the anxieties that accompanied the continued rise of capitalism, consumerism, excess and celebrity culture. They inevitably turn to the Gothic by using the ‘Gothic language of terror to encompass the more recent terrors of our postmodern age’[2] In Fight Club, the idea of consumerism is not only satirised and criticised, but Gothicised. Palahniuk creates dark, Gothic settings, characters and events, all of which seem saintly compared to the horrors presented by the city and its consumerist culture.

To explain this idea a bit further, let’s look at the relationship between Tyler’s house on Paper Street and the narrator’s city-centre condo. The narrator’s condo represents all things consumerist, highlighted by this famous passage:

I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct. The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in their bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue […] You buy furniture. You tell yourself this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. […] Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovey nest and the things you used to own, now they own you.[3]

The narrator’s condo is clean, modern and stylish, but it is also cold and sterile. It is the destroyer of identity, part of a society in which ‘humans have only equal worth to, or even lesser than, things’[4]. Tyler’s house on Paper Street, on the other hand, is the complete opposite to the narrator’s condo and is its obvious Gothic counterpart. It is isolated, located in a ‘toxic waste part of town’ (Fight Club p.64), and the narrator claims that ‘there’s nothing else on Paper Street except for warehouses and the pulp mill […] at night Tyler and I are alone for half a mile in every direction’(p.58). It is also physically dangerous and threatening, as the narrator describes ‘When it’s raining we have to pull the fuses. You don’t dare turn on the lights. […] Everywhere there are rusted nails to step on or snag your elbow on’ (p.57). Within this house, dark, grotesque events occur – Tyler gives his followers chemical burns, their garden is fertilised with human remains, they make soap out of human fat, and they build bombs and plan the destruction of the city.

And yet, which setting is portrayed as being morally superior? That’s right, Tyler’s house. This subverts our general expectation of the relationship between the city and the Gothic setting: in glorifying the Gothic setting, a place of such horror and darkness, Palahniuk emphasises just how horrifying the city must be. The actions of the members of Project Mayhem are justified, because, as Jesse Kavadlo argues, ‘Project Mayhem arguably performs nothing as lethal on a large scale as the narrator’s corporate task as car recall analyst’[5]. This is particularly emphasised when the narrator describes one case in which the leather interiors of one of their cars was found to have been treated with chemicals ‘so strong that they can cause birth defects in the foetus of any pregnant woman who comes across it’ (Fight Club, p.96); but the cars are not recalled, as the narrator explains:

New leather multiplied by labor cost multiplied by administration cost would equal more than our first-quarter profits. If anyone ever discovers our mistake we can still pay off a lot of grieving families before we come close to the cost of retrofitting sixty-five hundred leather interiors (p.96).

This again demonstrates the way in which human life is valued as lesser than material objects, or in this case, money. How, then, can we not sympathise with the violence and destruction of fight club and project mayhem?

However, the Gothic leanings of this text serve not only to wage war against the consumerist city, but to free the narrator from the emasculating poer of the city, and give him back his masculinity. Not only does consumerism threaten identity, but it threatens masculine identity in particular – making it, for the hypermasculine members of fight club, the root of all evil. By portraying ‘consumerism as implicitly feminine,’[6] the city is presented as an emasculating power. As in the earlier quote, the narrator claims ‘The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in their bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue’ (Fight Club, p.43); and the swapping of pornography here – a stereotypically ‘masculine’ interest – with the IKEA catalogue, highlights the emasculating nature of consumerism, particularly due to IKEA’s seemingly superficial focus on aesthetic and interior design over a more ‘masculine’ focus on functional, durable furniture. Not only this, but the suffocating nature of the narrator’s consumerist lifestyle forces him into the most stereotypically emasculated space in the text – the support groups that the narrator attends. It is at Remaining Men Together (a cancer support group) that we first meet ‘Big Bob’, whom the narrator claims ‘cries because six months ago, his testicles were removed. Then hormone support therapy. Bob has tits because his testosterone ration is too high’ (Fight Club, p.17). When we first meet the narrator, this is his only form of escape from his lifestyle.

In destroying his apartment, Tyler allows the narrator to regain his masculinity since ‘the destruction of his comfortable home […] destroys the feminine dimensions of his life and makes him both more real and more of a man’ (Annesley, p.48) by forcing him to ‘shed the weight of consumer society’ (Annesley, p.48). In destroying his condo, Tyler also forces the narrator into the hypermasculine world of fight club – a hypermasculinity that Palahniuk satires almost as much as he satires the society they are rebelling against. The contrast between these two worlds is highlighted in the mirroring used in the image of the narrator’s tears imprinted on Bob’s t-shirt – ‘the front of Bob’s t-shirt was a wet mask of how I looked crying’ (p.22) –with the image of the narrator’s face imprinted in blood on the floor of fight club – ‘Tyler stood next to me, both of us looking down at the big O of my mouth with blood all around it and the little slit of my eye staring up at us from the floor, and Tyler says, “Cool,”’(p.51). This celebration and glorification of violence and destruction encourages a ‘return to a more primal, unornamented sense of masculine selfhood’ (Annesley p.47) through a ‘ritualized system of male aggression and violence’[7].

But what does all this have to do with 9/11? Well, primarily, it highlights the growing air of dissatisfaction within capitalist cities, particularly those in America, in the decade leading up to the attack. Further than this, it explores the way in which the city breeds its own destruction in its oppression of its citizens, and the way in which this destruction was glorified long before the word ‘terrorist’ had even been invented. In dramatizing these events not so long before they occur, these novels evoke the kind of fantasy of terrorism that theorists like Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Žižek explore. Baudrillard claims that there is a ‘terroristic imagination which dwells in us all’[8] and Žižek describes the way in which Hollywood disaster films evoke the ‘unthinkable’. He claims that ‘the unthinkable which happened was the object of fantasy, so that, in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and that was the biggest surprise’[9]. This ‘fantasy’ appears in Fight Club in the destruction of the city – in particular the destruction of the fictifight-club-buildingonal Parker Morris Building. The narrator claims ‘The Parker-Morris building won’t be here in nine minutes [it] will go over, all one hundred and ninety one floors, slow as a tree falling in the forest. Timber. You can topple anything’ (p.13).

Yet perhaps the most unsettling thing about Fight Club’s position as a pre-9/11 text is the way in which Palahniuk portrays the ‘terrorist’. The enemy is not an outsider, not an invader, but a home-grown terrorist – and one which is glorified, not only in the text itself, but by its readers. Throughout this essay I have discussed the ways in which the capitalist city is protrayed as morally ambiguous and emasculating, as a suffocating trap for individuality – and together these things help to create an element of sympathy for the text’s terrorists.

Kavadlo suggests that ‘Palahniuk sees the terrorist as a sympathetic figure, for, rather than emphasizing his differences from his victims, Palahniuk sees his, the terrorist’s, disturbing Everyman quality, an ambiguous line between killer and victim’ (Kavadlo, p.111). Our nameless, faceless narrator is a deliberately ambiguous character – he could be the woman selling newspapers on the street, the man who delivers our mail, the suited businessmen drinking at the bar. Even more unsettling is that it is revealed that he himself orchestrated fight club and Project Mayhem without even knowing; alluding to the idea that within each of us lies not only the power, but the desire to destroy.

The ‘ambiguous line between killer and victim’ noted by Kavadlo is also seen in the distancing of blame and excusing of agency created by the contrasting . As Cynthia Khun suggests, ‘the Gothic architecture of fight club invites us to hold society at least partly responsible for producing such monstrous behaviour’[10]. These terrorists see themselves and are seen by readers as both heroes and villains – their destructive behaviour brings terror to the city, but also a kind of salvation. The image of Tyler Durden, ‘for many young males in dead end jobs, embodies the open attack on the system that they in their helplessness would like to undertake’ (Giles, p.28).

And yet, this sets a precedent for the way we see and talk about white male terrorists in a post 9/11 society as well. Those who commit mass shootings, if they are white, are more often than not referred to as a ‘lone wolf’. They are painted as a victim of an external force – whether it’s mental health, bullying, or simply being rejected by a woman. In many ways, their behaviour is excused. As terrorism – both foreign and domestic, white and non-white – continues to escalate, Fight Club seems to gain more and more new meanings.

Whilst it perhaps seems contentious to explore a text within a context of something which happened some years after the text was written, I feel this is not the case with Fight Club. It is so hard to extract this text from the context of 9/11, because that is the context which suddenly gave the text entirely new meanings and dimensions. Fight Club is not only contextualised by the 9/11 attacks, but also provides a vital standpoint by which to understand the attacks themselves.While Palahniuk obviously could not have been predicting 9/11, Fight Club certainly highlights that there existed, some time before the attacks, an environment within American cities that breeds a desire to destroy.

[1] Rene Chun, ‘Transgressive Tickets’, The New York Times, 23 April 1995

[2] Maria Beville, Gothic-postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity, (Amsterdam: Rodophi, 2009), p.9

[3] Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (London: Vintage, 2006), pp. 43-4

[4] Andrew Ng, ‘Destruction and the Discourse of Deformity: Invisible Monsters and the Ethics of Atrocity’ in Reading Chuck Palahniuk: American Monsters and Literary Mayhem, ed. by Cynthia Kuhn and Lance Rubin, (Oxon: Routledge, 2009),  pp.24-35 (p.25)

[5] Jesse Kavadlo, ‘With Us or Against Us: Chuck Palahniuk’s 9/11’ in Reading Chuck Palahniuk: American Monsters and Literary Mayhem, ed. by Cynthia Kuhn and Lance Rubin (Oxon: Routledge, 2009), pp.103-15 (p.108)

[6] James Annesley, Fictions of Globalization (London: Continuum, 2006), p.47

[7] James R. Giles, ‘Violence, Spaces and a Fragmenting Consciousness in Fight Club’, in Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, Choke, ed. by Francisco Collado-Rodriguez (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp.23-43 (p.26)

[8] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Spirit of Terrorism’ in The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, trans. by Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2003), pp.1-34 (p.5)

[9] Slavoj Zizek, ‘Passions of the Real, Passions of Semblance’ in Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002), pp.5-32 (p.16)

[10] Cynthia Kuhn, ‘I Am Marla’s Monstrous Wound: Fight Club and the Gothic’ in Reading Chuck Palahniuk: American Monsters and Literary Mayhem, ed. by Cynthia Kuhn and Lance Rubin, (Oxon: Routledge, 2009) pp.36-48 (p.39)

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