The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving of more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…
I know we all know Fight Club. I know most of us have probably read at least one Chuck Palahniuk book. I'm not writing to tell you about the author, as if you've never heard of him. I'm not here to present Chuck as outside of the literary mainstream. I'm here to nominate Fight Club to the Anti-Canon, as a book that is vital for teenagers to read, something that changed the way I looked at the world when I was young. A book that still has the power to shock, subvert and inspire.
Firstly though, how did I find Chuck?
Just like every other teenager, probably, through the film adaptation of Fight Club. I was 16 when Fight Club was released in the cinema. It is one of the few seminal moments of my teenage life I can still remember vividly, along with my first alcohol induced vomit, first time I heard Brand New Second Hand and the first time a non family member told me they loved me.
In the cinema, I can remember being completely exhilarated, confused, challenged and entertained all at once. My emotions were messier than a bag of badger’s turds when I got the bus home. I knew I’d seen something that had confronted most of what I thought life was about at that time. I knew it had changed something.
For a 16-year-old boy in the late 90s, life was all corporate branding. It was on your clothes, worn by your sporting heroes, rhymed about by your favourite emcees, bombarding you on television after school, seducing you at the pubs that ignored your age. I had entered adolescence without a male role model at home. My male role models at 12-13 years old were Michael Jordan, Biggie Smalls, Shane Warne, James Bond and Method Man from the Wu Tang Clan. Not the most anti-brand group of men you could assemble on a bedroom wall.
By the time I reached 16, no one had told me that you were allowed to hate on the big brands. No one had told me it could possibly be cool to be anti-consumerist. No one who hated the political apathy of consumption looked as attractive as Tyler Durden. Or as well dressed.
No one had presented an alternative viewpoint to me, at that age, that resonated so loudly inside my adolescent mind as Fight Club did.
I went as far as printing quotations from Fight Club onto blank T-shirts with iron-on transfers. I would use my next door neighbours computer to write out phrases like, ‘The things you own, end up owning you”, and “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” Then I would print them and iron them on late at night in front of a VHS copy of the movie. These slogans were then worn the next day to 6th Form and I proudly answered questions about their verisimilitude and absolute authority. My mum put a slight downer on the slogans by claiming that Jesus said pretty much the same thing 2000 years ago, but as you can tell from the paintings, Jesus wasn’t sculpted like Brad Pitt. He didn’t have those hip bones.
I adored Fight Club, I still think it’s the film I’ve seen the more times than any other. It was Brad Pitt’s peak, Fincher’s peak, Ed Norton’s peak. It was post-modern, but not quite as cynical as the Nathan Barley era that followed it. I watched it at a time when I simultaneously discovered Public Enemy, No Logo, the Battle of Seattle, DIY culture, Drum and Bass, raves, drugs, girls and writing. Perhaps it was just being 16 that made it all exciting, and yet... and yet...
I digress. All of this means very little, as I’m supposed to be talking about Palahniuk’s writing.
I picked up Fight Club, the book, a few weeks after seeing the film at the cinema. I can still picture the shelf in Waterstone’s where I found it. Back then, I didn’t read all that much. Reading was done in school and it was rather dull. Music, particularly hip hop, was where I consumed language. But something about the film Fight Club made me want to read the book. It was nothing like anything I’d ever read before.
Sentences repeated themselves half way down the page. The narrator skipped between first, first person plural and second person violently. Nuggets of dark information about how to make bombs at home leapt out from its pages. Tyler Durden was whirlwind of chaos that tore through the book. It was told backwards, forwards, to the side, repeated and repeated again. This was not the sort of books we’d been reading in school. After the dull, slow, creaking narratives of Hardy, I was being taught about the unreliable narrator in Remains of the Day. It turned out Stevens the butler did have shit on ‘Narrator (Jack)’ in terms of untrustworthy narration.
On top of this lines like, “What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women,” and “Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy shit they don’t need,” vocalised exactly what I was beginning to think about the male existence. I grew up in an all female household, which as I see now, was undoubtedly a blessing. However, at the time, I felt stung by the lack of older men in my life. Fight Club gave me license to hate men in the generation above me. It allowed my anger to be channelled into a growing sense of injustice at the political developments of the West (which I would later be able to see, and define as the growth of Neo-liberalism).
Nowadays, I happily question everything that I thought when I was 16. Naïve and enthusiastic as I was at that time, life was black and white. Good was this, bad was that. This was oppressive, that was liberating. Everything was simpler, easier to solve; love everyone, redistribute everything, destroy the property myth. I hadn’t yet understood quite how complicated and interwoven life really is.
However, I can’t question the feelings I had.
I can’t question the feeling I had reading Fight Club. The rush of reading words that I knew my mum wouldn’t want anywhere in her house (“I want your abortion”). Words that my school teachers would baulk at (“I want to burn the Louvre, wipe my ass on the Mona Lisa”). Words that I could shout when I was drunk which expressed my melodramatic frustrations (“May I never be complete! May I never be content! May I never be perfect!”). I genuinely felt I was reading something subversive. Something that, if I got caught reading, would be taken away from me. The mere idea that it was okay to support a character who was essentially an terrorist bent on destroying the western capitalist structures was enough to make me consider hiding the book under my mattress.
Writing that now, it does seem ridiculous. But it mattered, just like everything matters when you’re 16 years old. There are books that you read which you feel you slightly missed the boat on. For instance, I read Catcher in the Rye at about 28 years old and hated it. I read Heart of Darkness too young. I read On Beauty too early. But there are a few and far between that are perfectly timed, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was one (read in Pittsburgh when I was 19) and Fight Club was the other. More recently, NW by Zadie Smith caught me in completely the right place.
Inevitably, I went about reading the rest of Palahniuk’s books. Lullaby, Survivor,Diary and Invisible Monsters. All had that similar writing style: choruses, factoids, first person narration, a twist two thirds of the way through, an outrageous premise to kick start the book. For two years I lived with Palahniuk narrating my fictional consumptions. I gorged on his debasement. I revelled in his wish to say whatever he could to make me squirm or take a sharp breath. I had no idea what else was out there for me, so content was I in this world.
Since Lullaby though, each new book was a disappointment. Maybe I’d grown up? Maybe I had started to see through his literary techniques. Maybe I was bored of my past self, wishing to break from its constraints, moving into adulthood.
At 20 I was done with Chuck. Our affair was over. I still read each of his new books - Rant, Snuff, Pygmy etc, but I didn’t enjoy them, I didn’t even finish them. I see an immaturity in his writing now that I couldn’t then. I see it becoming hackneyed, a pastiche of itself. He’s too prolific. Back when I was younger, I couldn’t get enough of his books - now I want him to slow down and take a break. Come back with something in five years time, something he’s been working on for a long time. Not another slap dash thriller with a token twist.
But... Fight Club is still up there when I think about my favourite books. It still ranks alongside High Rise, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, What a Carve Up, Oryx and Krake, The Outsider and all my other favourite, more accomplished novels. I often wonder why this is. Fight Club has no reputation as a great novel, nor does Palahniuk a great writer compared to say, Margaret Atwood or Albert Camus. It’s probably because, as I say, I was young and the things you associate with your youth often end up being your stock ‘favourite’ things. You’re never as enthusiastic about something as you are when you’re an obsessive teenager.
However, as I lumber on through life watching people still tied to their boring but well paid jobs, still shopping like maniacs in Westfield, still saving for house ownership, still believing the capitalist dream, I can’t help but think that for one year, in 1996, Chuck Palahniuk had the measure of things.