Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

Owl Books, 1996, 208 pages, C$19.50 tpb, ISBN 0-8050-6297-1

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

The barrel of the gun pressed against the back of my throat, Tyler says, “We really won’t die.”

And so begins Chuck Palahniuk’s exceptional first novel Fight Club. If the above lines don’t already send you rushing off to the bookstore, keep reading.

Most readers, including myself, first heard about Fight Club from David Fincher’s 1999 film, which starred Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. I was lucky enough to see the film at an advance screening, and cherish the memory of a darkly funny, nihilistic yet curiously uplifting piece of cinema. I awarded it the top spot on my “Best of 1999” list, and naturally began to hunt down the novel on which the film was based.

Consciously or not, -after all, this is a story partly about anti-consumerism- Owl Book didn’t re-release Fight Club in sync with the film. I had to wait three months until I finally saw it in local bookstores. I hesitated a few seconds, started to read a few lines to pass the time and soon found myself beginning the second chapter without missing a beat. You can’t ignore a book that pulls you in like that. So, faithful to Tyler Durden’s subversive spirit, I paid by credit card… while also buying a book about Jerry Springer. I can already imagine the face of the government analyst sifting through bookstore credit records: “Oh no, an anarchist who’s also stupid enough to like Springer!”

Reading Fight Club is nearly as memorable as seeing the film, and takes about as much time: At 207 pages, this isn’t a big novel, and yet it feels as substantial as a full 500-pager for the sheer density of good material. Palahniuk writes with panache, but also with concision and the ratio of quotes-to-pages is truly astonishing.

Must most of all, Fight Club is an *angry* book. Far angrier than the sweetened-up version shown on screen. Critical reception for Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB was polarized, with younger critics praising it and older critics hating the “violence” of the film. Well, these older critics obviously shouldn’t even touch the book, because it’s ten times worse. While the film has a body count of exactly one, the book makes no distinction between civilian and enemy, praises guns and exercises no restraint. From page two onward (“shag carpet of people”), Fight Club is one of the meanest books I’ve read.

I was in the mood to destroy… everything beautiful I couldn’t have. Burn the Amazon rain forest. Open the dump valves on supertankers. Put a bullet between the eyes of every endangered panda. Don’t think of this as extinction. This of this as downsizing. For years, humans had screwed up this planet, and now history expected me to clean up after everyone. I wanted to burn the Louvre. This is my world, my world, and those ancient people are dead. [P.122-124]

It gets worse. So much worse, actually, that even though there’s immense cathartic satisfaction in reading Fight Club, it’s not as comfortable an experience as what I now think of as the “sweet Hollywood version.” The endings are also considerably different: the book packs in an extra punch or two.

Edgy? Certainly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Worthwhile? Absolutely, especially if you’re a twenty/thirtysomething male. See the film then read the book? Yes, in this order.

(One final note: Screenwriter Jim Uhls’ work in adapting Fight Club for the silver screen is absolutely phenomenal, carrying memorable quotes and scenes, adding more material in the same vein and toning it down just enough to make it palatable to audiences. Would have been well-worth an Oscar nomination.)

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