For Whom is the Funhouse Fun?
The Necessary Conditions for Reading Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club
The film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club faced many of the same criticisms as the novel, particularly that of glorifying violence in a post-Columbine and post-Oklahoma City bombing America. The idea of a domestic terrorist organization hit too close to home for many Americans. However, both the film and the novel suffer from literal interpreters who often do not think metaphorically or symbolically, even though both book and film indicates that non-literal interpretations are called for. In other words, both say in their wacky postmodern way not to take them seriously. In the case of the book, Fight Club places great responsibility on the reader, who must become a sleuth seeking clues that indicate the book’s genre: parody. Palahniuk sets up traps for those inclined to look for something specific. Such traps subvert ideological thinking. A useful framework to think of when understanding Palahniuk’s play with readerly expectations is one provided by John Barth: Lost in the funhouse. Fight Club imitates American culture and deliberately mocks it, using parody to create a warped funhouse mirror, a reflection with exaggerated features for comic and sometimes disturbing effect. Like a hall of mirrors, a shuffling flight of steps, or a rotating cylinder, Fight Club disorients readers by portraying American culture as a funhouse, responding emphatically to the question: “For Whom is the Funhouse Fun?” with “only for those who are willing to accept American culture as absurd.
The common understanding of the word parody is that it is a mockery by imitation. In parody, the imitation of the subject through an ironic lens can be indicated by an exaggeration of the subject’s traits. Unlike satire however, there doesn’t necessarily need to be a direct polemic purpose while there can be one. As scholar Linda Hutcheon writes, “parody is doubly coded in political terms: it both legitimizes and subverts that which it parodies” (Politics 101). She also writes “Through a double process of installing and ironizing, parody signals how present representations come from past ones and what ideological consequences derive from both continuity and difference” (Politics 93). The ideas of subversion and ideology are critical to understanding parody in the context of Fight Club, as they often function together.
Fight Club tells the story of an unnamed narrator, who is a single, working middle class male who has become depressed and numb to his everyday life. The narrator had achieved the American dream of financial independence, yet remained remains unfulfilled and out of touch with his humanity. This detachment causes him to develop insomnia. His insomnia is indicative of how he is out of touch, and how even “successful” Americans can experience angst and frustration. The narrator visits the doctor in hopes of scoring sleeping pills, which the doctor denies him of, instead suggesting sarcastically that if the narrator wants to see real pain he ought to see the cancer patients in support groups. The narrator does this and finds solace in pretending to be terminally ill, until he meets Marla Singer. Marla is another “faker” and it ruins the illusion for the narrator causing the return of his insomnia. The narrator meets Tyler Durden. After the narrator’s apartment mysteriously explodes, he begins to live with Tyler. Together they start Fight Club, based on underground boxing fights Palahniuk had attended himself. Fight Club is a place where the narrator can assert his own masculinity and exercise his own agency in a world where he feels he has little. Tyler starts a sexual relationship with Marla. Fight Club’s popularity rises and Tyler reveals his larger plans for Fight Club known as Project Mayhem, a terrorist organization hell bent on ending history. It is ultimately revealed that Tyler is not real and is just a projection in the narrator’s mind.
Fight Club was a critical success, being called “disturbing and fascinating.” Fight Club was noted for it’s extreme violence and addressing the place masculinity in a modern society. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the novel “caustic, outrageous, bleakly funny, violent and always unsettling.” The novel however was also criticized for its violence and nihilism. Guardian Unlimited’s Stuart Jefferies wrote that the novel “suggests that all-male clubs are the only way men can re-establish their male potency” (Contemporary Authors Online). With this idea of the parody of American culture as a whole in mind, it is important to note the vast array of conclusions scholars have reached in regards to the text’s meaning and function. The wide range of conclusions drawn from the text points to the traps Palahniuk has set up for readers. For example Deacy examines the films American Beauty and Fight Club and how they “raise pertinent questions about the nature and quality of human existence, its anxieties and aspirations.” In particular Deacy looks at how Fight Club can be interpreted through a religious lens. However Deacy does not contend that Fight Club serves as a perfect religious comparison but “Significant though parallels between the founding of the ‘fight clubs’ – and their subsequent development into ‘Project Mayhem’ – and the origins of the early Christian community may be to the textual scholar, it is the underlying discourse on the dichotomy between material and spiritual values and on the efficacy of violence as a means of achieving one’s aims that is of more fundamental value.” This presentation of a dichotomy by imitation and its similarity to the rise of Christianity is characteristic of parody, particularly the notion that a group of men beating each other senseless is being compared to what many consider to be a serious religious experience. As the narrator says of Fight Club, “This is what church should feel like.” Omar Lizardo writes of Fight Club that while it has many important themes addressing gender and masculinity, its most important aspect is its commentary on capitalism. He believes Fight Club can therefore be inter- preted as an inchoate attempt to produce some version of a class consciousness and cognitive mapping in the late-capitalist situation” (1). Lizardo’s interpretation, while legitimate, is indicative of the trap Fight Club sets up for the reader. Fight Club can be interpreted as being a serious commentary on nearly any aspect of American culture, when really in parodies the discussion itself. Robert Bennet argues that Fight Club ought to be read through an existentialist perspective. He criticizes many critical readings of the text which interpret it solely as social satire on consumerist culture or a commentary on masculinity. He writes “It is as if critics have forgotten both that Fight Club is narrated by a highly unreliable narrator—a radically alienated individual suffering from a wide range of psychological disorders—and that it employs diverse modernist, postmodernist, and other avant-garde aesthetic strategies” (67). He writes that the extent of which Fight Club functions as a parody is nearly all reaching, even to existentialism itself, saying “It is as if after having proclaimed the Death of God, Palahniuk realizes that the existentialist absurd hero itself may be next. For me, the brilliance of Palahniuk’s novel is that it strikes a precarious balance somewhere between an ambivalent existentialism and existentialist parody, engaging existentialism without either taking it too seriously or dismissing it altogether” (78). I believe Bennet is correct in his characterization of Palahniuk as a skeptical existentialist. The narrator strives to have a purpose like Sisyphus, but the purpose he finds isn’t noble and ultimately fails. Palahniuk even parodies Sisyphus in this regard while acknowledging the culture’s irrationality through his satire of culture. There are even Oedipal interpretations of the text. Paul Kennet argues that the true antagonist of the text is not Tyler Durden or even consumerist culture, but the notion of the Oedipal narrative. Kennet argues that without a father, Tyler becomes in essence the narrator’s father, his example as a man. The narrator then must commit patricide to fulfill the Oedipal narrative. In the context of the modern man wherein traditional modes of masculinity are falling, men do not need to fall into the trap of the Oedipal narrative. Men can create their own new place in the new cultural order. While this is an interesting take, it does seem to be a reach to find something that might not be there, to make sense of the warp in the mirror.
These very different interpretations though can be quite useful. However their legitimacy may show how Palahniuk set up these interpretations as pieces of the parody. In this sense many critics who focus in on one place within the text are not seeing the forest through the trees. Each individual moment of parody is its own warped mirror or shuffling floor in the parodic funhouse of American Culture. Now we turn to several key passages where this parody is developed.
The novel establishes its parodic frame through an elaborate critique of American self-help culture, a culture marked by a comedic narcissistic indulgence that plays out against the pain and suffering of an array of diseases. As the narrator relays the story, an absurd, unbelievable plot emerges. The absurdity arises because a man cannot sleep yet, instead of seeking a cause to his insomnia, an etiological means of dealing with an empirical phenomenon, he prolongs his waking hours by attending support groups, posing as the one who has experienced sickle cell anemia, testicular cell cancer, brain parasites, leukemia, melanoma, and degenerative bone diseases. Not only are the range of conditions the poser experiences horrific and unimaginable, unbearable and the experience of sitting through the sharing of experience and tears painful to anyone reading the text with any sense of empathy, but also the groups themselves often have comic means of coping. For example, the “Firm Believers Leukemia Rap Group” or the brain parasite group with Chloe, a terminally ill subject who seeks to seduce the narrator by describing pornographic films, which lie waiting, along with amyl nitrates, for their mutual pleasure: “Chloe had pornographic movies if I were interested. Amyl nitrate. Lubricants. Normal times, I’d be sporting an erection. Our Chloe, however, is a skeleton dipped in yellow wax” (20). Emaciated, near death, she is not an erotic icon. But she makes an erotic appeal. This moment is an example of Palahniuk’s use of the abject to stir readers; how his funhouse tilts the room the readers are standing in. Here the reader is caught between pity and hilarity, puzzling over which response is best. This is both the mode of telling for the novel—where the reader confronts extreme ambiguity and has to decide whether they are encountering social realism or dark comedy in the form of postmodern parody, one commensurate with the complications of contemporary life. If the struggle to negotiate these extreme positions comprises the novel’s difficulty, it creates both its success and failure. Here, I mean that those who negotiate the extremes successfully will most likely find dark humor, while those who read literally and cannot reconcile the extremes will focus upon the inappropriateness of what is being described.
Another area wherein the reader is forced to negotiate between empathy and humor is in the voice of the narrator. Palahniuk presents us with an unreliable narrator with whom the audience can either relate to and experience the action of the text with him, or distance ourselves and allow us to read the action critically and often times find humor in absurdity. This unreliability is demonstrated early in the text when the narrator goes to the doctor to get a prescription for sleeping medication specifically “red-and-blue Tuinal bullet capsules, lipstick-red seconals.” (Palahniuk, 19). The narrator’s knowledge of the color of the pills, knowing red and blue means Tuinal and lipstick-red means Secanol®, indicates that the narrator knows exactly what he wants from the start. He is looking for a quick fix. The doctor tells the narrator to “chew valerian root and get more exercise” (19). The doctor is relatively indifferent to the narrator’s sleeping issues. The language Palahniuk has the narrator use reveals to a critical reader that the narrator is exaggerating his condition by making hyperbolic statements such as “The bruised, old fruit way my face had collapsed, you would’ve thought I was dead” (19). The doctor issues a caustic response to the narrator’s melodrama about his inability to sleep, suggesting that the narrator goes to cancer support groups to see what real pain looks like. The narrator takes the suggestion literally he goes to various cancer support groups such as “Remaining Men Together” under the guise of being terminally ill.
At this point the narrator undermines his reliability, that out of desperation he would rather pretend to be near death rather than try getting more exercise. At these meetings the narrator is finally able to release the tension inside him and cry into the chest of an ex-steroid abusing bodybuilder named Bob, whose steroid abuse create such a hormone imbalance that he developed comically large breasts, or as the narrator calls them “the way you think of God’s as big”. With this release the narrator is finally able to find rest. Here the text is parodying not only support groups and popular medical practice, but the American need for the external quick fix solutions to their problems. The narrator does not mention if he tries simple personal methods to fix his insomnia, such as sticking to a sleep schedule, reducing caffeine intake particularly later at night, or even reading a book before bed. His first solution is to attain prescription medication. The absurd lengths that the narrator goes to in order to sleep are not only humorous but indicate parody.
The clearest revelation of his complete unreliability is the fact that the narrator is clinically insane. At the end of the text he wakes up in a mental institution and one of the key characters in the text, Tyler, turns out to be a figment of his imagination, a projection of an idealized male who is free from the trappings of society. Through this projection the narrator plots domestic terrorist attacks with homemade explosions and makes soap from the fat of Marla’s dead mother. However the unreliability meter goes even further with the narrator’s voice in the text. The narrator expresses a near ambivalent bemusement to most of the violence and odd happenings in the text, creating a distance between himself and the action. For example at the beginning of the novel, Tyler is holding a gun in the narrator’s mouth to which the narrator quips “With a gun stuck in your mouth and the barrel of the gun between your teeth, you can only talk in vowels” (13). In a sense, the narrator does not appear to take the action of the text all too seriously. The narrator himself is detached from the action, which says to the reader they should be as well. If the reader cannot trust the words of the clinically insane narrator, they should not take seriously the philosophy of the narrator’s insomnia produced alter ego and it’s takes on consumerism and masculinity.
Another element of the text that nods to parody, is the extreme, almost cartoon-like violence. An example of this violence is in chapter 15. The narrator is being fired from his job for his ragged appearance from being beaten up in the fight clubs, as well as his erratic behavior linked to the “project mayhem” initiative. When the narrator’s boss says that the narrator’s appearance makes him unemployable, the narrator punches himself in the face drawing blood. The narrator then continually punches himself. He describes the actions as “clowning around.” After the narrator is covered in blood and broken glass from throwing himself about the room, he crawls toward his boss and begs “please.” The narrator tries to extort money from the manager by making it appear that the manager had beaten him. The ruse works as security guards come in as the narrator is clutching the manager’s pants begging him to stop.
The sheer absurdity of this scene is evident through the nonchalance with which the narrator recounts his self-beatdown, “I punch myself, again. It just looks good, all the blood, but I throw myself back against the wall to make a terrible noise and break the painting that hangs there” (116). The nonchalance towards the extremity of the violence signals to the reader that the violence is not to be taken seriously, considering that the narrator himself does not take the violence seriously. Nearly all that was missing from the scene were falling anvils and pianos. In this pursuit of extorting the manager the narrator is fancying himself as a Robin Hood figure, the proletariat taking a stand against the bourgeoisie. The narrator says to the manager “You have so much, and I have nothing.” In this scene the despair of the battle between classes is being parodied, considering that the manager of the hotel where the narrator works likely does not fit into a tax bracket far from the narrator’s. Yet the narrator takes a stand against his boss on behalf of all disenfranchised men by beating himself to a pulp and extorting a human being, the exact charge the philosophy of Project Mayhem levies against society.
Palahniuk creates a world where from the narrator’s and Tyler’s perspective, femininity and masculinity are pit against one another. This feminized culture appears in a number of ways. One such way is the culture of the support group, where the narrator and his fellow cancer/brain parasite/blood disease carriers are encouraged to talk through their feelings and to literally “hug-it-out.” The seminal moment where the narrator finally reaches peace to sleep in these groups are in the arms of Bob, as the narrator’s face is buried into his breasts, invoking the image of a child crying into his mother’s chest after a bad dream or falling off their bike. Bob strikes this maternal figure after developing breasts from a hormone imbalance caused by steroids. The steroids also cause his testicular cancer, requiring his testicles to be removed. Not only like Chloe where we are presented with a character we can either pity, or find humor in from the absurdity, but Bob represents the completely emasculated male. Bob once was a towering and physically imposing man, who overtime has been feminized by losing a pair of masculine physical traits and by gaining a pair of feminine ones. He also instead of lighting weights and injecting steroids, Bob is now a veteran of the “Remaining Men together” testicular cancer support group, giving encouraging advice and offering hugs to his fellow physically and culturally emasculated men.
Tyler and his ideas represent the opposition to this feminized culture. Tyler even participates in some emasculation himself. As fight club spreads to other cities and turns into “Project Mayhem,’ they begin to garner police attention. Members of the clubs are instructed by Tyler to do what he calls a “cut and run,” meaning to capture the police commissioner trying to shut them down and threaten to castrate them. As far as the narrator knows these were only to be threats until he found a pair of testicles in the freezer. To Tyler this emasculation is just the logical extension of the direction of society. The police commissioner trying to stop Project Mayhem can be castrated because as far as Tyler is concerned, he already was.
Tyler’s philosophy is influenced by his perceived feminization of culture. Tyler focuses on exercising personal agency. Tyler suggests that in order to assert this agency one must first break themself down. The narrator and Tyler spend the entire text trying to hit bottom, trying to die in order to resurrect, as Tyler says, “It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything” (70). To do this, the narrator blows up his own apartment and gets fired from his job. Ultimately Tyler decides all of society as a whole needs to participate in this self-destruction and creates Project Mayhem to do the destructing. Tyler’s half-baked philosophy of sacrifice and breaking down in order to rise is all in the narrator’s head and stems from his insecurity with his masculinity. Palahniuk carries Tyler’s nihilistic ideas out to their conclusion and exposes how nonsensical they are. While Palahniuk may not personally offer answers to life’s questions in the text, he indicates Tyler’s aren’t the correct ones by outright mocking them reduction ad absurdum. In essence, to suggest that males are suppressed in society and need to rise up and take what is theirs is absurd enough to indicate parody in itself.
Throughout the insanity of the text, the fighting, making soap from the fat of Marla’s dead mother, terrorism, nihilism, and castration, it is important to keep in perspective the previously stated core plot of the text; it is the story of a man who cannot sleep. The sheer absurdity of how far the narrator goes to try and find peace to sleep and his unreliability as a narrator shows that the text is a parody of the action that takes place. Tyler’s nihilistic rhetoric, the narrator’s Robin Hood act, and the cancer support groups as sleeping aids solution are not to be taken seriously. Neither is the text’s surface commentary on masculinity and it losing a grip on its place in society. Though the opposite is not being argued either. Palahniuk uses the parody of masculinity as a trap for his real object of parody, which is dominant American culture as whole and in particular its insistence on external satisfaction, be it through medication, consumerism, punching, or all the above.
Fight Club insists that readers submit to its postmodern minimalist pyrotechnics and follow its self-referential clues to arrive at a non-literal understanding of the language and images in the book. Mostly, the book targets those who are simply literal readers. It provokes them, deliberately challenging them to question its use of language and content and turning the parody on their heads. Thus, in the end, the one engaged in the nihilistic fight is the literal reader, the one chewing the Denny’s plastic image of the “Moons over My Hammy” special who complains about the taste of the plastic and never tastes the true parodic dish.
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