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Markus Oliver Spitz (Luxembourg)

Plot, Psychosis and Protest in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club

Plot, Psychosis and Protest in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club
This article starts with the close reading and the analysis of the novel's structure to define its point of view. Given that the protagonist is the only narrative medium, the reader is constantly obliged to question the reliability of events. The article goes on to analyse the psychopathology, which revolves around the protagonist, his violent alter ego called Tyler Durden, and Marla Singer, whom he rejects on the conscious level but longs for unconsciously. Tyler's defiant and destructive approach consists of living out violent fantasies in the fight clubs and Project Mayhem; it clashes with Marla's attempts at self-preservation. Desperately trying to find a way of coping with the demands of both the ego and the id, the narrator's schizophrenic personality is caught in the middle between those two psychological categories. What finally emerges is that the novel, on a more abstract level, challenges the belief in individualism, rationality, and, ultimately, the current socio-economic order. In this context, however, it does not take a political stance but rather depicts the main character as a representative of the disillusioned and depoliticised Generation X.

1 Unreliable Narratives or: How the Plot brings about the Notion of Schizophrenia

As is generally known, it was Wayne Booth who coined the term "unreliable narration" referring to (mainly first-person) narrators and the issue of their credibility.1 In contemporary American literature, Bret Easton Ellis made effective use of this narrative device in American Psycho (Ellis 1991).2 It is noteworthy that there are several common points between his novel and Palahniuk's: similarly to American Psycho, Fight Club conveys the point of view exclusively through its, however nameless, protagonist. Comparably to Patrick Bateman, Palahniuk's protagonist reveals symptoms of psychological instability. What represents a deviation from Bateman, though, is the fact that, straight from the beginning, his character describes himself overtly and repeatedly as a "faker" and a "liar" (Palahniuk 1997: 8, 13 and passim).

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From very early on in the novel, the close reader is therefore lead to believe that the plot consists of fiction embedded in fiction. As a consequence, certain narrated events are not in the least credible and rather border on the grotesque, particularly the collagen episode in chapter eleven and the murder of the recycling inspector Patrick Madden, who supposedly had threatened the existence of the fight clubs, in Marla's presence during a bizarre "murder mystery party" (Palahniuk 1997: 191).

Already the manner in which the events of the climax that consists of the narrator encountering Marla and the members of the self-help group up in the Parker-Morris Building have been split between chapters one and twenty-nine effectively mirrors the protagonist's split personality. The ever-increasing incoherence of events told coincides with his constant lack of sleep. Regrettably, the medic who informs him that "[i]nsomnia is just the symptom of something larger" (Palahniuk 1997: 9) fails to arrive at a correct diagnosis, despite the fact that insomnia is known as one of the key symptoms of developing schizophrenia.3 At times, the protagonist is himself aware of his mental state, since he accurately defines Tyler as a "disassociative personality disorder" (Palahniuk 1997: 159) and also refers to the movie "Sybil" (Palahniuk 1997: 187) featuring an equally schizophrenic main character. While his dreams and hallucinations are, naturally, beyond his control, he keeps identifying – consciously and metonymically – with body parts that he reads about in "Reader's Digest" (Palahniuk 1997: 49 and passim). Such erratic behaviour comprises a final reference to schizophrenia, this time in the context of "organ language".4

2 'Reality' versus 'Fantasy'

If we approach the novel from this angle and boil the plot down to those events in the face of which we are actually willing to suspend our disbelief, the narrator's life initially represents nothing out of the ordinary:

From a broken home and without experiencing much support from his "estranged parents" (Palahniuk 1997: 57), he still shakes himself up and does what society expects of him: he finishes his degree and finds a job that provides for some social standing. He is well mannered and accepts the conventions dictated by his environment. In short, he becomes a "nice person" (Palahniuk 1997: 89, 105).

In his function as a coordinator for a major carmaker, he has to investigate accidents and deal with the potential need for a recall.

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His attitude towards work is highly ambiguous: on the one hand, he likes his superior and, initially, his conscious personality correlates positively with the job, since it allows for the accumulation of the material goods he is after. On the other hand, he has an epiphany when recognising himself in Walter the IT consultant: he suddenly realises to what degree he detests both his work and himself. His inability to find sleep largely stems from the nature of some of the psychologically troubling tasks attributed to him at work: "Everywhere I go, there's the burned-up wadded-up shell of a car waiting for me" (Palahniuk 1997: 20). He feels the urge to defy the corporate identity and finally develops anarchic tendencies. Since the fundamental divide between his conscious intentions and unconscious drives cannot be bridged, it has to be seen as the decisive factor for triggering his schizophrenia.

In a desperate attempt to preserve his sanity, he takes his doctor's advice and goes to see the self-help groups established for patients with severe illnesses. Unlike his peers, people there listen "instead of just waiting for their turn to speak" (Palahniuk 1997: 98). It is there that he meets Bob Paulson, the former body-builder trying to recover from testicular cancer, and Marla Singer, who will become the subject of his frustration, his infatuation and his projections.

To all this, however, we need to add everything that is clearly the product of his imagination, the result of his dwellings in a "fantasy world" (Palahniuk 1997: 88). He claims to have met Tyler during a summer vacation although this figment actually goes way back in time. Drawing on the narrator's Boy-Scout experience, Tyler puts knowledge to practice: he blows up the narrator's apartment, whose previous identity is thus figuratively obliterated. What happens subsequently is a game of psychological give and take: in exchange of the favour of putting the narrator up in Paper Street, Tyler is granted his wish to fight, an event that represents the nucleus of fight club and, later on, Project Mayhem.

Every event that involves Tyler is actually either a hallucination or a dream of the protagonist's.5 He and his alter ego "use the same body, but at different times" (Palahniuk 1997: 155), that is to say when he sleeps Tyler takes over: "We're not two separate men. […] [T]he second you fall asleep, […] you become Tyler Durden" (Palahniuk 1997: 158). Following Lacan, it can be argued that this character evidently takes for real what is, in fact, symbolic.6 Unlike his doctor, however, he is capable of both grasping and stating the consequences of this misperception: "Tyler Durden is a separate personality I've created, and now he's threatening to take over my real life" (Palahniuk 1997: 164). The mention of Tyler's work schedule and his "pay stub" (Palahniuk 1997: 91) illustrates vividly how blurred the dividing line between reality and fantasy becomes.

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3 The Criticism of Individualisation and the Role of the Family

After having outlined the plot structure we can now elaborate on the complex psychopathology of the relations that the narrator keeps with both his alter ego and Marla. What is crucial in this context is the issue of identity formation, which can be approached both socio-historically and psychologically. It was Norbert Elias who pointed out that, as a result of the civilising process that set in with the Renaissance, the historical emphasis placed on family and guild affiliation was replaced with an increasing belief in the significance of the individual.7 As a consequence, the extent to which society used to predetermine the walk of life of each of its members was significantly reduced. While this process brought along several advantages, notably a wider range of (at least nominally) free choices and opportunities, the disadvantages proved to be no less significant: traditional milieus were transformed or even disappeared, as did the once clearly defined understanding of one's place and role in society. In Palahniuk's novel, the theme of the contemporary Western male in a profound role crisis, as highlighted by Bob's physical and psychological state as well as the protagonist's constant references to the fragmentation of the self, has thus been analysed in most of the critical readings.8

What is more fruitful for the analysis of the main character's negative character development, however, is to explore the find that, psychologically, his family background shaped his identity and personality to a high degree. The unsteady father left the family when the protagonist was six years old.9 His mother raised him but never established a close emotional bond with her son. Having grown up in a society, which places a strong positive emphasis on the family and in which the father still is "your model for God" (Palahniuk 1997: 133, 177), the narrator, in his distorted view, is subsequently inclined to see in his boss a creator that shapes the world according to his image, i.e. the company's software icon in line with the colour of his own blue eyes (see FC: 40, 89). Initially, his superior clearly represents some kind of father substitute to him before realising that he does not actually need "a father to complete [himself]" (Palahniuk 1997: 45). Tyler, however, is going to turn this positive insight into a variation of the classical Oedipus complex when he assigns homework to the members of Project Mayhem revolving around a series of murders, with the protagonist's superior as one notable target.10 To Tyler, killing the boss equals killing the father that will abandon him.11

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4 The Triangle that consists of the Protagonist, Tyler and Marla

Trying to fight his primal fear of abandonment is indeed the first reason why the narrator invents Tyler, who will be at his disposal as long as he wants. Secondly, Tyler is meant to serve as a vehicle to fulfil his innermost desires, both on a spiritual and a physical level. It is in his dreams and hallucinations that he becomes what he wants to be but dreads at the same time. Tyler provides the narrator with 'freedom from moral restraints' (following the negative example transmitted by his own father) and, at the same time, the 'sense of belonging to a larger whole' (i.e. the family that he never really had).

Tyler's philosophy, which in fact resembles eschatology, is a caricature of postmodern thinking and the way it amalgamates different historically received concepts. Tyler puts forward a crude, yet intransigent mélange of "guided meditation" (Palahniuk 1997: 14), eco-terrorism, Buddhism, Christianity, Pseudo-Marxism, anarchy and nihilism, all culminating in the desire to make the despised self disappear: "Individually, we are nothing" (Palahniuk 1997: 126). Not only does this statement seem to hint at reversing the abovementioned individualising process, but it also reflects the needs dictated by the subconscious. Those needs culminate in the revaluation of a number of traditionally accepted ethical and moral values. What, at first sight, seems paradoxical, for example the sweetness of suffering (see FC: 25, 27) and the near-accident on the motorway that is interpreted as a "near-life experience" (Palahniuk 1997: 140), corresponds precisely with the demands raised by the id and diametrically opposed by the ego. The ego is incapable of solving the conflict between self-destruction and preservation that even runs through Tyler who propagates the destruction of the self and, at the same time, scathes society for its lack of responsibility towards the individual. It is the narrator's poor ego-strength in combination with his super-ego failing to keep the forces of the id in check that finally allows the schizophrenic figment to assume the status of a spiritually advanced healer or guru: "The liberator who destroys my property is fighting to save my spirit. The teacher who clears all possessions from my path will set me free" (Palahniuk 1997: 101).

Schizophrenia also interferes with the protagonist's emotional responses and, as a consequence, complicates his relationship with Marla immensely.

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Phonetically, /'mɑːrlə/ resembles /'mʌðər/ or, even closer, /'mamə/ and, on the conscious level, he proclaims that an adult woman simply cannot be his (girl-) "friend" (Palahniuk 1997: 57) because of the troubled relation he had with his mother: "What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women. […] I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer I need" (Palahniuk 1997: 41f). Instead, he can only project his aversion onto Marla and rejects her categorically as soon as she interferes with the needs of his ego, for example when she keeps attending the self-help groups or is "out to ruin another part of [his] life" when starting a relationship with Tyler (Palahniuk 1997: 53).

On the level of the unconscious, he involves Marla in his Oedipus complex, as becomes evident in the Freudian slip: "I can't sleep with you here" (Palahniuk 1997: 14).12 He is thus torn between the needs of his conscious self and his unconscious desire for Marla. His solution to the problem consists of depriving himself of loving her but granting Tyler permission to do so, with the latter once more becoming the vehicle of wish-fulfilment: "From the first night I met her, Tyler or some part of me had needed a way to be with Marla" (Palahniuk 1997: 189). Marla also becomes entangled in the shifting power mechanisms characteristic of the triangle that consists of the protagonist, Tyler and herself: "I want Tyler. Tyler wants Marla. Marla wants me" (Palahniuk 1997: 4). When the protagonist is starting to wonder "if Tyler and Marla are the same person" (Palahniuk 1997: 56), this only adds to his and also the reader's confusion, since the latter suspects that Marla – at least in part – might be as much of a figment as Tyler.

What is evident, however, is that both Marla and Tyler serve as two different psychological defence mechanisms directed against the troubling consequences of the actions performed by the ego. Tyler is portrayed as the blondish angel from hell and Marla as the dark helper. Tyler's approach is destined for (self-) destruction while Marla's is focused on (self-) preservation. At times, it seems as if the protagonist favoured Marla's position, particularly when fantasising about saving each other's lives. However, Tyler's ambition is to protect his 'existence' and subdue any opposition. To him, Marla represents a threat: "If you ever mention me to her, you'll never see me again" (Palahniuk 1997: 63). He ruthlessly instrumentalises his creator's soft spot for Marla for the sake of advancing his own projects: "If you don't cooperate, we'll go after Marla" (Palahniuk 1997: 194). The protagonist yields to this psychological pressure saying that he does "not want" Marla (Palahniuk 1997: 4). This explains why Tyler temporarily gains the upper hand and has carte blanche to live out his aggression against those forces that 'threaten the integrity of the self'.

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5 Tyler defying the socio-economic Order

Tyler's defiance originates from the clash between two different social classes with diverging endowment of economic, social and symbolic capital. The habitus of the rich only allows for seeing the dominated as servants (if not worse), whose sole function in society is to perform duties "at cockroach level" (Palahniuk 1997: 71). Beyond these master-servant relationships, the paths of the two classes never cross and the dominant have nothing to give apart from the odd tip and their general indifference. The resulting social anomy is diametrically opposed to one of the corner stones of democracy, namely the understanding that social cohesion is based on social justice. It also renders the transmission of hitherto accepted values increasingly difficult for the socially disadvantaged, as well as it makes their successful social reproduction increasingly impossible. This becomes apparent, for example, when Marla states she would like "to have Tyler's abortion" (Palahniuk 1997: 51).13

Tyler reminds society of its responsibility for people in need when directing the following accusation to the union president: "You don't care where I live or how I feel, or what I eat or how I feed my kids or how I pay the doctor if I get sick, and yes I am stupid and bored and weak, but I am still your responsibility" (Palahniuk 1997: 106). The radicalism of his approach consists of insisting on the said social responsibility and, when meeting only with indifference, launching a counter-strike. From his extreme point of view, turning from a passive recipient of aid money or minimum wage into an active Project Mayhem combatant is the only possible option.

Tyler's words also show through the fight club mechanic's appraisal of the social underdogs' dignity: "I see the strongest and the smartest men who have ever lived, and these men are pumping gas and waiting tables" (Palahniuk 1997: 141). His is a fantasy that revolves around the reversal of the current social order: "We, each of us, can take control of the world. […] The people you're trying to step on, we're everyone you depend on. […] We control every part of your life" (Palahniuk 1997: 113, 157). Project Mayhem aims at rendering the dominated aware of the suppression they are experiencing instead of remaining content with being given "just enough money to buy cheese and watch television" (Palahniuk 1997: 147). Once this is done, they can go on to exhaust their genuine potential.14 Raymond Hessel, for example, is highly likely to return to college once he has been told that, otherwise, he is going to be executed on the spot.

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Subsequently, defiance develops and turns into active protest and even outright rebellion as it moves on from rather infantile acts of revenge to operations within the organisational frame of a militia-like movement, which takes on a life of its own. To date, the analysis of the 'purpose' of this movement has been strangely absent from the critical readings.

6 The psychological Origins and Targets of Tyler’s Protest

Psychologically, the protest is triggered by the indifference, if not outright cynicism, that the protagonist experiences on a daily basis. As a recall campaign coordinator, he is supposed to fit people into a formula und subject them to cost-benefit analysis. It is his incapability to remain indifferent to the fact that he is part of a professional body ultimately wrecking peoples' lives that causes both his 'self-loathing' and the subsequent 'need for self-punishment and sacrifice'.

Consequently, fantasies of physical mutilation and self-destruction occur frequently. They set in with the main character imagining beating himself up, comprise the Tyler kiss, a chemical burn on the back of the hand, murder, castration, and culminate in the desire to be beaten to death.15 Tyler justifies his views and actions by putting forward the myth of Civilisation based on sacrifice:

In ancient history, human sacrifices were made on a hill above a river. […] The sacrifices were made and the bodies were burned on a pyre. […] After hundreds of people were sacrificed and burned, a thick white discharge crept from the altar, downhill to the river. […] Rain fell on the burnt pyre year after year, […] and the rain seeped through the wood ashes to become a solution of lye […]. […] Where the soap fell into the river […], the ancient people found their clothes got cleaner if they washed at that spot. […] This means something. This is a sign. […] It was right to kill all those people. […] You have to see how the first soap was made of heroes. […] Without their death, their pain, without their sacrifice, we would have nothing. (Palahniuk 1997: 67ff)

This is not the only passage in which the novel mirrors Fredric Jameson's mention of the "underside of culture" that consists of "blood, torture, death, and terror" (Jameson 1991: 5). Marla, for example, states that solely "dying and death and loss and grief. Weeping and shuddering, terror and remorse" (Palahniuk 1997: 28) are capable of rendering her life bearable.

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Yet, there is a fundamental difference as regards the purpose of these references to the said cultural underside: Jameson's approach is highly political, since, in the course of his argument, he links the postmodern focus on popular culture (as the neglected "underside" of culture) with the agenda of late capitalism, particularly the concealment of the economic and symbolic power it exercises; he then goes on to criticise the postmodern hypothesis of general cultural democratisation because of its failure to take into account "American military and economic domination throughout the world" (Jameson 1991: 5).

By contrast, the novel excludes politics from the triangle of culture, democracy, and power. Rather, it presents two highly individualistic approaches towards dealing with the characteristic experience of the "Generation X", namely the loss of purpose in life.16 On the one hand, Marla's attending the self-help group meetings is simply part of her survival strategy. Just like working in a "funeral home" (Palahniuk 1997: 28) uplifted her, she uses those meetings as negative reference points to put her own misery in perspective and to curb auto-destructive tendencies. Tyler, on the other hand, acts out violence. In the lengthy quotation given above he supposedly stresses the need to be willing to give your life for the sake of a superior cause when, in fact, he merely employs a typical, however ineffective, defence mechanism when displacing his self-hatred onto the dominant social class.

It is therefore plausible that Tyler revolts against highbrow culture as the incarnation of the symbolic power exercised by the dominant that is out of the reach of underdogs such as himself, who can only express their defiance: "I wanted to destroy everything beautiful I'd never have" (Palahniuk 1997: 114f). Tyler intends to start a "great revolution against the culture" (Palahniuk 1997: 141) as manifest in the "national museum" (Palahniuk 1997: 4). However, such devalorisation of highbrow culture does not imply the valorisation of popular culture, which has been labelled one of the characteristics of postmodernism, but rather points to the implicit acceptance of highbrow culture setting the norms in the field of cultural production.17

Next to dominant culture, two other targets can be identified: firstly, icons of globalisation and international corporations that represent the consumer society quickly turning once desirable items into "waste" (Palahniuk 1997: 39) and finally disposing of everything in "'Valley of the Dogs' style" (Palahniuk 1997: 59). The emancipatory momentum, once inherent in the civilising process, has given way to consumption at an ever-increasing rate for the mere sake of advertising the individual's social standing.

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What Project Mayhem calls for is yet another kind of regress, this time the abandonment of commoditisation in favour of moderation and minimalism, as those will "force humanity to go dormant or into remission long enough for the Earth to recover" (Palahniuk 1997: 116).

Secondly, the media are portrayed as manipulative, because they start as well as fuel the race to what they define as perfection. In addition, they have brought into existence a "whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum" (Jameson 1991: 6), which contributes to the stabilisation of the social status quo. Bob, for example, literally incorporated the standardised ideals as his norm. When posing in a bodybuilding contest, he is deafened and blinded and acts like a puppet on his jurors' strings. Paradoxically, it is only when joining the collective Project Mayhem that, in sacrifice and death, he regains his individual dignity. Instead of the belief in health and streamlined (physical) perfection, the novel advertises the necessity to deviate from the norm. It clearly privileges the strife for genuine, if only transient, perfection and first-hand, if only painful, experience: "I just don't want to die without a few scars" (Palahniuk 1997: 39).

The protagonist thus adopts Tyler's point of view despite the fact that he is supposedly "perfect" (Palahniuk 1997: 36), however only in the reductionist sense that he finally owns all the goods he has always desired. Consumerism is of no help when facing the challenge of spiritual emptiness: "It took my whole life to buy this stuff. […] [T]he things you used to own, now they own you" (Palahniuk 1997: 34). Once more, post-materialist self-restraint is supposed to fill this void.

7 Overarching Criticism: the American Dream, Economism, Rationalism and democratic Participation

By means of providing such protest with a forum, the novel challenges several culturally established convictions of contemporary Western societies. Again, there is little to be found in the secondary readings that analyses the 'essence' of those challenges.

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First and foremost, the belief in the American Dream is severely criticised. Like many of his contemporaries, Tyler holds two jobs, one as a movie projectionist and the other as a banquet waiter.18 The precarious nature of this work provides for a denial of the materialistic component implied in the Dream:

Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don't really need. […] We are […] raised by television to believe that someday we'll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won't. And we're just learning this fact. (Palahniuk 1997: 141, 157)

Tyler's self-perception as "everybody's trash" (Palahniuk 1997: 104) and "all-singing, all-dancing crap of this world" (Palahniuk 1997: 160) both reveals the narrator's subconscious low self-esteem and emphasises his negative evaluation of how and why he initially embraced the Dream.19 The novel also transforms two additional elements crucial to the Dream, namely freedom and imagination, into their opposites: freedom is practically absent from the protagonist's life and work and, when trying to break free from these constraints in his imagination, he finds that Tyler, on the basis of the willing subordination of his followers, carries out nothing but acts of violence and destruction.

The second belief called into question represents a sub-category of the first in that it consists of the naïve assumption of a stable social order based on an ever-prospering society. The novel parodies the cyclical nature of economic exchange processes when members of Project Mayhem sell "liposuctioned fat" in the form of soap bars back to those "who can afford it" (Palahniuk 1997: 142), i.e. those that had the fat removed in the first place. This episode stresses once more the divide between the rich and the poor and how the replacement of genuine solidarity with cynical economism is gaining ground.20

Thirdly, gathering factual information and achieving progress through rationalism, of which economism is again a paradigm, is presented as an illusionary enterprise. The belief in historical progress is substituted with a regress towards a "prematurely induced dark age" (Palahniuk 1997: 116). This results in a "weakening of historicity" (Jameson 1991: 6) corresponding with what Jean-François Lyotard called the end of the master narratives and their truth-claims, since such a viewpoint refutes any attempt at shaping the future by turning to experience gained, for example, from dialectics.21 In the novel, the subject – perceived traditionally as both the bearer of such experience and potential agent of change – cannot master the challenge of coming to terms with its environment. The failure of grasping and understanding the world rationally results in taking refuge in illness and delusion.

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Fourthly, this critique of rationalism and the ideal of the autonomous individual must be embedded in the wider context of democratic participation. For a number of reasons, both the fight clubs and Project Mayhem, although they attract members from all walks of life, are clearly not meant to be grassroots movements. On the contrary, the recruitment procedure bears all signs of that of an elitist order. By no means is everyone accepted into the ranks, but once the individual has passed the test, the internalisation of the arbitrary rules set by Tyler is supposed to be complete. What used to be an individual willingly joins the group of "trained monkeys" (Palahniuk 1997: 122).

In addition, Tyler's power is absolute. He neither debates matters nor is he prepared to make compromises. Instead, he assumes (and strives to keep) dictatorial leadership, which can only be challenged by the most extreme measure, the suicide attempt of his creator. Furthermore, Tyler's organisations are characterised by their decided lack of the political impetus that inspired, for example, the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 70s, notably the Vietnam War Protests. Since Tyler is looking impatiently for a channel to give vent to self-contempt and frustration, any political claim he makes is reduced to "pep talk" mimicking (party) political discourse (Palahniuk 1997: 111). At best, this approach is a parody of the current political system and its apparent incapability to address the issues of social cohesion that Tyler is referring to.

8 Psychic Violence and the Disintegration of the Self

The final belief called into question is that inter- and intrapersonal conflicts are supposed to be solved in non-violent ways. Numerous are the critics that accused the novel of propagating cynicism, misogyny and violence.22 Those, however, for the most part fail to see that the novel depicts an inner struggle. The fight clubs, some sort of high school of anarchy, and Project Mayhem, the college of anarchy that serves as a condensation as well as an intensification of the fight club experience, are merely vehicles through which the unconscious expresses itself. It is therefore of secondary significance that these organisations revolve around fighting and killing, since rather they represent the protagonist's 'idiosyncratic definition of a self-help group'.

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Regarding the question whether Fight Club advocates acting out or repressing violent fantasies, the novel's bottom line is the acknowledgment of the archaic, partly violent roots of human behaviour. On a more specific level, Tyler's approach is based on the narrator’s observation that "[m]ost guys are at fight club because of something they're too scared to fight. After a few fights, you're afraid a lot less" (Palahniuk 1997: 45). Accordingly, the novel encourages confronting one’s primal fears and intra- as well as interpersonal conflicts rather than applying the "ironing out" procedure (Howe 1992: 25), which is one characteristic of mass societies.

This notwithstanding, the protagonist's case is lost when, to him, the outside world has become "crazy" (Palahniuk 1997: 184) and the organisation of his self revolving precariously around Tyler and Marla is affected: it loses whatever coherence it may once have had and falls apart, which finally becomes apparent during the suicide attempt on top of the Parker-Morris building.23 Especially against the background of the lack of early therapy encompassing professional psychological help only the application of antipsychotics remains.24 In the ward, Marla the helper is out of reach and, even with the insomnia gone, there is no cure for the narrator’s chronic condition. When he is of the opinion that he is being addressed as Mr Durden it becomes clear that Tyler has taken over what was left of his identity. Tyler’s prophecy stating he would outlive his creator (see FC: 159) has thus come true: the figment, once the servant, has finally become the master.


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Phillips, Jennifer (2009): "Unreliable narration in Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho: Interaction between narrative form and thematic content", in: Current Narratives 1, 60–68.

Tuss, Alex (2004): "Masculine Identity and Success: A Critical Analysis of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club", in: Journal of Men's Studies 12.2, 93–102.


1 Booth 1961.

2 See Phillips 2009 and Mannila 2013.

3 See Häfner 2010: 37.

4 See Freud 1957: 198.

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5 At first sight, it seems possible that, looking back, Tyler Durden finds himself in the psychiatric hospital imagining the main character as 'his' creation. Peter Mathews, for example, interprets the novel as an "enticingly open-ended" work (Mathews 2005: 111). However, the narrative mode places the main character in an active position throughout and renders him the agent that drives the story. Tyler also tentatively acknowledges that, in fact, he is the figment (see Palahniuk 1997: 159). Still, this would not categorically rule out an interpretation claiming that the protagonist has been in the mental ward throughout and that 'all' the events told are simply a spawn of his imagination.

6 See Lacan 1966: 392.

7 See Elias 2000.

8 For reference, see Boon 2003 and Tuss 2004.

9 The narrator creates Tyler partly so as to fight the image of his own absent father who had once "dumped" him (Palahniuk 1997: 126). Tyler, in turn, wants to fight everything he hates in life, particularly his 'father', i.e. the narrator (see Palahniuk 1997: 41, 45). Thus, a psychological pattern is emerging: by getting rid of Tyler, the protagonist will repeat the act of abandoning his 'offspring'.

10 At some point, the main character is conscious of the fact that his boss is actually "on vacation" (Palahniuk 1997: 130), but subsequently he takes the actions of the figment he has created for real.

11 In Freudian terminology, this resembles "condensation" (Freud 1913: 261–283). In the end, it is the narrator who will similarly fuse the psychiatrist in the mental ward and God into one.

12 His dreams of having intercourse with Marla (see Palahniuk 1997: 50) also have to be seen in this Oedipal context.

13 This statement could also be interpreted psychologically: since Tyler forms a couple with Marla, both resemble the narrator’s parents – an interpretation that gains credibility when he expresses his frustration at being obliged to act as a messenger for Tyler and Marla just like he once did with his parents (see Palahniuk 1997: 57). In the context of the said "abortion", it can be deduced from this analogy that the narrator assumes he was an unwanted child. In combination with his feeling neglected by his parents, this does not necessarily cause his disease, but plays a role in predisposing him to it.

14 However, it would be a hasty conclusion to try to read Marxist thought into this crude and over-simplified approach towards raising class conscience, as I will demonstrate further down.

15 Both the police chief and the protagonist are threatened with castration. The identical phrasing "scared but intact" (Palahniuk 1997: 158, 183) fuses both characters and can be seen as one of the rare and unsuccessful instances of super ego interference, with the chief representing order. For a psychological interpretation of castration anxiety in the context of the Oedipus complex see Freud 1961.

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16 See the eponymous novel by Douglas Coupland (Coupland 1991).

17 See, for example, Berman 1989: 52.

18 In fact, these occupations are part of the main character's dream-work, as is the incorporation of certain remainders of the day into his dreams, such as the travel utensils and clothes that become the tool kit of the members of Project Mayhem and their uniform respectively. Finally, his birthmark, mistakenly diagnosed as AIDS-related skin cancer, later on becomes part of the legend of Tyler Durden.

19 Significantly, only once and in the form of a joke he makes about his strife to progress from coordinator to dishwasher, this becomes conscious (see Palahniuk 1997: 21). For the link between wit and psychology, see Freud 1916.

20 This is also exemplified by comparing the family to a "franchise" (Palahniuk 1997: 41).

21 For details, see Lyotard 1979.

22 For an overview, see Mathews 2005: 89–90.

23 This attempt is in line with the medical fact that suffering from schizophrenia correlates with heightened suicidal tendencies, particularly in younger males (see Hor and Taylor 2010).

24 See The National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health 2010: 96–179.