Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fight Club the Ultimate Abstraction

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is one of those books that people like to talk about, argue over even. I asked five people what Fight Club is “about,” you want to hear what they said?

• 19 year-old male: “consumerism and the destruction of the human spirit.”
• 41-year old female: “good and bad of a person, person confronting their own reality.”
• 49-year-old male: “gay cruising.”
• 21-year-old female: “dude who had insomnia and that was how he fell asleep.”
• 32-year-old male: “what happens when people go to support groups.”

Actually, I asked six. The sixth person, my 16-year-old son. His response, “I don’t know, is there anything to eat? When’s dinner?” Ironic when you consider one of the things people say Fight Club is about is the emasculating effect mothers, who smother their sons by providing too much for them and not allowing them to get tough, have on their sons in post-modern US.

Who’s right, you want to know. What do I think the book is about, you ask. Here’s what it’s about. Whatever you want it to be. Just like that. You read it one way and you get nothing. Because you didn’t try. You didn’t want it bad enough. You read it another way, and it’ll blow your mind.

But making a book like that, a book of possibilities for everyone who wants it bad enough, isn’t easy. There are three things: One, don’t waste time with fancy narration. Talk right to the reader. You’re the one I want to talk to right now, so I’m talking to you. See? It’s just you and me. No time-wasting physic distance between us.

Two, even though you’re talking right to the reader, don’t spoon feed. That’s depressing. And it takes away the reader’s chance to fill in the blanks, make the words their own. Check this:

“The second rule about fight club,” Tyler yells, “is you don’t talk about fight club.”
Me I knew my dad for about six years, but I don’t remember anything. My dad, he starts a new family in a new town about every six years. This isn’t so much like a family as it’s like he sets up a franchise.
“What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women.”
Tyler standing under the one light in the after-midnight blackness of a basement full of men.(i)

You get what’s going on with Tyler, that’s concrete. You get that something went on with the narrator’s dad, that concrete too. But see how not being concrete about the relationship between the event from the present and the event from the past leaves the thread untied? You feel me. The reader ties them how they want. The reader makes the connection. Not sure it’ll work? Check rule six.

Three, pick one big thing, something key that a lot of people think about, maybe care about, maybe love, maybe hate, and drop it into whatever’s going on in a bunch of different ways. Inconsistent. Juxtaposed. Mix it up. The reader will work it out, make the abstract concrete. Maybe use God.

Bob’s big arms were closed around to hold me inside, and I was squeezed in the dark between Bob’s new sweating tits that hang enormous, the way we think of God’s as big.(ii)

A real doctor grabbed my bare foot and hefted it into the face of the other real doctors. The three turned it and poked it and took Polaroid pictures of the foot, and it was as if the rest of the person, half dressed with God’s gift half-frozen, didn’t exist.(iii)

If you could be either God’s worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose? ... The lower you fall, the higher you fly. The farther you run, the more God wants you back.(iv)

And don’t.

If you’re male, and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And sometimes you find your father in your career.(vi)

Our maybe point your finger right at the stuff in people’s lives:

IKEA furniture
Air Mattress beds
Dear Abby columns
National Geographic magazines
Prince Charmings
Xanax tablets

What’s the big deal about stuff, you ask. Why does naming names matter? It isn’t the name that matters, its what the reader thinks about the name. That’s the variable, the thing that makes a concrete object abstract. Listen. What do you think about when I say the word Xanax? That’s not what I’m thinking. Reader’s Digest? We’re not thinking the same thing. See, when you mention a particular thing, something so specific that the reader has experience with it and that experience means the reader attaches some idea or belief to it, you don’t get a specific response—you get a custom made one. Custom made by the reader.

See rule five. It’s all real. Readers know what they know. It’s their truth and their truth is what matters to them.

See rule six. Reader will decide what that truth means and—because rule six, like all the others, can’t be broken—whatever the reader decides the meaning is, that’s what it is.
And since you are the writer—who writes the words—not the reader—who reads them—you don’t get to interfere with the truth. It won’t be tolerated.

i Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996, p50.
ii Ibid., p16
iii Ibid., p104
iv Ibid., p141
v Ibid., p165-166.
vi Ibid., p186.

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