One of Tyler Durden’s repeated catchphrases throughout Fight Club is “it is only after you’ve lost everything… that you’re free to do anything.”1 It is one of many refrains that hammer home the anti-consumerist theme within the text which, with Tyler’s charismatic delivery, becomes an attractive prospect to both the book’s characters and readers alike. However, there are many cues that call aspects of this freedom into question. For example, how free can one be while having to adhere to the now iconic rules of fight club, and the somewhat more sinister rules of Project Mayhem? Also, women are conspicuous in their absence throughout the novel. With fight clubs - the gateway to this promised freedom - being exclusively men-only, are women allowed freedom in Tyler’s vision too? Because of Fight Club’s strict gender division, any hope of freedom is effectively denied from the very beginning, at least through the avenues explicitly given to the books unnamed Narrator. It is only through an endeavour to bridge this gap that any freedom or redemption is achievable.
This gender division is established quite early on in the novel through the use of spaces that our Narrator inhabits in order to cure his insomnia. The support groups for the terminally ill are meant to be read as a feminised solution to his problem in contrast to the masculine fight clubs2: one being a passive form of relief through self-destruction (pretending to be terminally ill) and the other a far more literal direct approach. This is exemplified by his attendance to the testicular cancer support group, “Remaining Men Together.”3 The name alone suggests a masculine struggle, since testicular cancer means potentially losing what is regarded as a universal symbol of masculinity: Remaining Men Together can be read as what remains of them is still men, although because of the use of testicles as a signifier throughout history and culture, they are men sans masculinity. It is here where we first encounter Robert Paulson, or ‘Bob’ as he is informally known.
Bob lost his testicles to cancer and due to a hormone imbalance of too many testosterone supplements grew breasts “that hang enormous, the way we think of God’s as big.”4 It is between these huge breasts that our Narrator finds his first respite from insomnia. Jesse Kavadlo sees this as an indication of Bob as a mother figure as he “uses his enormous breasts, hugs, and love to give the Narrator his release, allowing him first to cry, and then to sleep, both infantile needs.”5 However, it is interesting to note that Palahniuk chose to equate Bob’s breasts with God, as it fits with Kavaldo’s interpretation of Bob as a provider for man but twists our notion of a western masculine God, turning both Bob and God into mother figures. This reading then ties in with another prevalent theme within the text, the lack of a model of masculinity in postmodern society. In this society, men such as Bob, who uphold an ‘ideal’ for the masculine form can be viewed as divine avatars in the sense that God created Man in His image. But the pageantry and feminine performance of Bob’s lifestyle are inherently emasculating, highlighted more so by the hormone abuse that cost him his testicles and caused him to grow breasts. Both Bob the former bodybuilder who men looked up to as he “practically invented… the whole how-to-program about expanding your chest,”6 and God are stripped of their masculinity, causing a “generation of men [to be] raised by women.”7 However, while Bob at Men Remaining Together was a shy, constantly crying “big moosie,”8 once he substitutes the gentle and sensitive therapy of the support group with the frenzied and zealous therapy of fight club, “Bob’s breasts move from mothering to smothering”9 as the explicitly masculine surroundings change Bob’s performance from remaining a man to reclaiming his masculinity.
However, the fight clubs, Tyler or the events of the book would not have happened if it were not for Marla Singer. Palahniuk is quite explicit about this in the very first chapter, stating though the Narrator “I know all of this… is really about Marla Singer.”10 This quotation, on first reading, seems almost throwaway. We, as readers, soon forget about it once we are swept up in the Narrator and Tyler’s high-octane hi-jinks. But it is Marla’s first appearance that is the catalyst for the events that follow. We first encounter her at the same time we encounter Bob. Just as our Narrator fakes terminal illness at the support groups, so too does Marla who after working so long at a funeral parlour finds a catharsis in being so close to “a real experience of death”11 compared to a funeral’s “abstract ceremony.”12 Unfortunately for our Narrator, her being there holds a mirror up to his own immorality in being a ‘faker’ too, rendering him unable to sleep again. However, we later find out that this bout of insomnia is when Tyler chooses to take control and run amok, meaning we can attribute the Narrator’s creation of Tyler with the appearance of Marla. This makes sense if we consider Paul Kennett’s reading that “Her appearance, especially in the testicular cancer group, produced the Narrator’s pre-existing doubts of the “manliness” of group therapy.”13 In the film adaptation, she bluntly questions this “manliness” while arguing with the Narrator over who should attend the group: “technically, I have more of a right to be there than you. You still have your balls.”14 The irony being that compared to Bob at Men Remaining Together, Marla is arguably more masculine, both emotionally by being cold and not crying, and physically by having smaller breasts and unkempt hair (as opposed to Bob’s “so thick and blond and the part is so straight”15 mane). This may well be the moment that plants the seed in the Narrator’s mind that becomes his alter-ego, Tyler Durden.
The Narrator states “I love everything about Tyler Durden… Tyler is funny and forceful and independent, and men look up to him and expect him to change their world. Tyler is capable and free, and I am not.”16 On face value he is - if we take into account why he came into existence –ideally ‘manly,’ the opposite of those men at their support group. But beneath that, he is ideally patriarchal. As Tyler is a construct of the Narrator’s psyche, he is reactive against elements of the Narrator’s life which he sees as passive and unmasculine. This primarily manifests itself through Tyler’s anti-consumerist beliefs that “advertising has these people… working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need.”17 echoing the Narrator’s observation that he “wasn’t the only one slave to my nesting instinct. The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, they now sit in the bathroom with the IKEA furniture catalogue.”18 The idea that masturbation with pornography (a stereotypically male activity) has been infiltrated by not just consumerism - but furniture (home furnishing and decorating being seen as typically feminine) - highlights Tyler’s concerns over the ‘feminising’ of men in a postmodern consumer culture. With Tyler being reactive compared to the Narrator’s passivity, he establishes the first fight club as a group therapy for men struggling with the capitalist and consumerist world. It is a way for them to reclaim masculinity rather than remain men.
In the fight between Tyler and the Narrator which lead to the creation of fight club, a number of readings are apparent. For starters, the fight itself is essentially one man beating himself up. The fight can be seen as an act of self-flagellation, a masochistic way for the Narrator to pay penance for the lifestyle he was beginning to hate and the beginning of his new life with Tyler. This bleeds over into fight club, with the rules stating a dress code, and as Kennett observes; “The Narrator is careful to illustrate how the men standing in the bar basemen in the dim pool of light are identically clothed without shirts and shoes, how they assume the same habits of grooming, with short hair and nails, all mirror images of each other. Each fight is therefore an occasion of fighting one’s self.”19 More important though is the conversation between the two after the fight:
Instead of [fighting] Tyler, I finally felt I could get my hands on everything in the world that didn’t work… the bank… my job… my boss… And Marla Singer, who stole the support groups from me… Nothing was solved when the fight was over, but nothing mattered… I asked Tyler what he’d been fighting. Tyler said, his father.20
The fight enabled the Narrator and Tyler to confront failed masculinity and patriarchy. The former is able to fight the monotony of his previous lifestyle which led him to become the passive man he was up until this point, as well as Marla who usurped his position at the support groups and forced him to question his masculinity. The latter is fighting his non-existent father (what with Tyler himself being non-existent), claiming he never knew him. On the surface, this is a lashing out at the absence of a masculine role-model and traditional patriarch, and when the Narrator reveals that he knew his father “for about six years, but I don’t remember a thing,”21 we can view Tyler’s disdain as an extension of his own. However, the Narrator then goes on to say “My dad, he starts a new family in a new town every six years. This isn’t so much like a family as it’s like he sets up a franchise.”22 From this, it seems as though the Narrator is not only criticising his father’s actions, but the attitudes of the entire “Baby Boomer” generation who left him “foot[ing] the bill for nuclear waste and buried gasoline tanks and landfilled toxic sludge dumped a generation before [he] was born.”23 But it is not the environmentally destructive aspect of capitalism that he is criticising, it is the effect it had on the established pillars of patriarchy and the knock-on effect that had on masculinity through the avenues of corporatism and consumer culture. Just as the Narrator’s father set up a ‘franchise’ family in each town, leaving him without a patriarchal father figure and masculine role model, the rich male businessmen who established free-market capitalism used consumerism as a new way to establish patriarchal control, essentially ‘franchising’ it and leaving men without clearly defined masculine roles. This is manifested in his observation that “the gyms you go to are crowded with guys trying to look like men, as if being a man means looking the way a sculptor or an art director says.”24 The role models for masculinity in this consumer society are signifiers for marketing, made more explicit in the film adaptation with the Narrator recalling this line while standing in front of a Calvin Klein underwear advert, leading to bodybuilders like Bob whose muscles have no real function – a lifestyle that symbolically cost him his testicles.
This displacement of patriarchy from focalised ‘traditional’ points, such as fathers, to signifiers and products in a patriarchal consumer culture, allow us to read Tyler’s attitudes as somewhat Oedipal. Kennett applies Jaques Lacan’s “Name-of-the-Father” model to Fight Club, enabling a complex Oedipal/patriarchal subtext to be examined.
Jaques Lacan’s theories consider the role of the father in the Oedipal complex as a linguistic signifier…not limited to the presence of a particular father in body… but is present and exerts its influence from the symbolic fabric of reality via historical, cultural, media and commercial narratives… Lacan quips that since the identity of one’s father is never certain, culture has inherited, via religion, the ideological construct of a father… In reality this function is so intimately central the customs, rituals, institutions of our reality that the father will prevent the narcissistic enjoyment of the infant and establish the law necessary for socialization. 25
If we consider the comparisons made by the Narrator between attending fight clubs and church, how “There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved,”26 we can see how fight clubs are a mode for men to reconnect to this ideological construct of father: not through God at church, but through the other participants of fight club, the idea of ‘men worshipping men’ still remains. This sentiment is illustrated perfectly by the Narrator when he talks about how a kid working at a copy centre became “a god for ten minutes when you saw him kick the air out of an account representative.”27 However, while fight club is seen as a temporary release and a way to reclaim their masculinity for the participants, where “Nothing was solved when the fight was over, but nothing mattered28,” for Tyler it is the beginning of fulfilling his Oedipal goal of asserting himself as a new patriarchal father figure.
As fight club becomes Project Mayhem, the Narrator begins to view Tyler as the father figure his life was lacking. The initial fight, as well as self-flagellation, is an act of Tyler as father imposing his anti-consumer law on the Narrator for the first time. He also acts a masculine, patriarchal role-model, the Narrator observing that “men look up to him,”29 including himself. But while Tyler gains followers through promises to “Deliver [them]… from Swedish furniture… from clever art… from being perfect and complete”30 with a lifestyle which appears to celebrate male equality from capitalist patriarchal controllers, he in turn takes their freedoms while establishing himself as their new controller. They, Kennett writes, “become the sons of the Father who make possible Tyler’s status as lawgiver, lord and punisher.”31 This Oedipal desire of Tyler’s followers, who once in Project Mayhem are referred to as space monkeys, calls into question the prospect of any freedom that might be gained through their actions as the name itself is based on the first animals sent into space. Early in the book while on top of the world’s tallest building, the Narrator says “It’s so quiet this high up, the feeling you get is that you’re one of those space monkeys. You do the little job you’re trained to do. Pull a lever. Push a button. You don’t understand any of it, and then you die.”32 He first equates the space monkey mindset to cubicle jobs similar to the one he used to do, the idea of being a ‘cog in the machine.’ However, once it gets applied to Tyler’s followers – as a permanent name, no less – we can see that they have been shifted from one system of patriarchal control to another, while still being kept in the dark (the first and last rules of Project Mayhem are to not ask questions and to trust Tyler).
Tyler’s goals in Project Mayhem extend far beyond the initial ambitions of fight club, which successfully established a way for men of a consumer culture to reclaim their masculinity. Tyler, by way of Project Mayhem, instead seeks to not only punish the current patriarchal consumer culture through vandalism, but to ultimately destroy the history creating that culture and regress to a primitive state of clearly masculine ‘hunter-gatherer’ roles: “to return “civilization” to a point where the narratives of privileged masculine dominance are still intact, where the God still walks among His people and recognizes them with his gaze.”33 In order to do this, he takes control of the Narrator’s body, travelling the country to set up new fight clubs and establish a web of Project Mayhem cells. By doing this, to the Narrator, it appeared as though he has left to ‘set up franchises,’ just as both his own father and patriarchy had done. There is an obvious hypocrisy in Tyler’s actions, and his desired outcome, while at first appearing to directly oppose the current system of patriarchy, only restructures it. To fund Project Mayhem, Tyler makes incredibly expensive soap from human fat, becoming part of the consumer culture. In fact, he doesn’t make the soap himself, but instead has the space monkeys do it, effectively enslaving them with his promise of freedom from consumer culture – a culture they are now, under him, feeding into and no longer benefitting from.
Tyler effectively establishes himself as an oppressive god/father figure for the space monkeys. They recite his words as mantra; one space monkey, distinguished as ‘the mechanic’ informs the Narrator “I see the strongest and smartest men who have ever lived… and these men are pumping gas and waiting tables”34 without a hint of irony to the fact that he is travelling to steal fat to make soap for no pay. Once he ‘leaves,’ they also enforce his law and perform his punishment, which is a fittingly Oedipal castration for anyone who interferes with Project Mayhem’s plans, although we as readers only ever hear of threats of castration (stripping the victim and tying an elastic band round their testicles, only to snip the band off and let them go35). Even when the Narrator tries order the space monkeys to stop, his words as Tyler are more assertive than his own mouth (but Tyler’s image) ordering the opposite. The Mechanic, reciting Tyler’s teachings, makes explicit his logic to the Narrator when he states:
All a gun does is focus an explosion in one direction. You have a class of young strong men and women, and they want to give their lives to something. Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need… We have to show these men and women freedom by enslaving them, and show them courage by frightening them.36
Here, Tyler equates his rule as a gun. By enslaving and frightening those under his rule, the explosion of their anxieties will be Project Mayhem’s acts of vandalism and violence against consumer culture, which reads more like a new patriarchy removing the old than an act of liberation. Interestingly, this is the only time Tyler mentions women in his goals, his misogynist streak is highlighted if we read the last line of this quotation against his suggestion to “put these men in training camps and finish raising them”37 only nine lines beforehand. The implications behind this are alarming to say the least, as enslaving the women and training the men seems to be nothing more than a revenge fantasy for his belief that we have a “generation of men raised by women.”38
However, ultimately it is women, or mother figures, that hold the most power. For the Oedipal reading to function properly, a mother is required. In Fight Club, the mother switches between two characters who, when we first encounter them, appear to be complete contrasts: Bob and Marla. As mentioned at the start of this chapter, Bob is the Narrator’s initial mother figure. He is able to give him the release required to fend off his narcolepsy and enables him to cry to find release. This is blocked by Marla who, at the time, represents a troubling masculine foil to Bob’s mother. Once the Narrator finds Tyler to be his father figure, and Bob’s participation in fight club strips him of his qualities as mother, Marla begins to fill the role. She is, on the surface, not a fitting candidate as mother at all, explicitly eschewing maternal duties by telling Tyler she “wanted to have [his] abortion,”39 as a way of initiating sex. This linking of sex and death places her more in the femme fatale camp, as Cynthia Kuhn notes “Marla has unmistakable femme fatale traits; she is urban, alluring, threatening, nonmaternal, and antidomestic – even her last name is sirenesque.”40 Though Marla only fulfils this role for Tyler.
Due to the fact that she sees the Narrator and Tyler as one person – more importantly, just as Tyler – she is unwittingly flirtatious with both; the Narrator spurning or ignoring her and Tyler having sex with her whenever the Narrator is asleep. Because of this, the Narrator begins to view Tyler and Marla as a couple who “Except for their humping… are never in the same room,”41 crucially making the connection that “This is exactly how my parents were invisible to each other.”42 As well as adding to the Oedipal subtext, this scene may also tell us something about the Narrator’s attitude to sex; Tyler only capable of seeing Marla as a sex object and the Narrator only capable of seeing her as otherwise. The Narrator/Tyler’s dual personality is what enables him to deal with Marla’s sexuality. In being two people, he is able to view her as the two patriarchal roles for a woman; both mother and whore. However, at this point, the Narrator rejects Marla as mother. This may be due to her outwardly nonmaternal qualities, appearing as almost a second father. She mirrors his goals and Tyler’s attitudes towards self-destruction such as employing her own self-deprecating mantras43 and rejecting traditional consumerism in favour of thrift-store clothing. Tyler even shows begrudging admiration by remarking “At least Marla’s trying to hit bottom;”44 a barbed comment to the Narrator who feels he is being usurped by her. This impression of her changes at what can be considered a turning point in the narrative: Bob’s death.
When Bob is shot on a ‘homework assignment’ for Project Mayhem, for the Narrator, it is Tyler as father/god figure causing the death of his original mother figure (further backed up by the space monkeys’ refusal to listen to him, but obey Tyler’s orders). This causes him to go to Marla for guidance and accept her as the mother figure in her relationship with Tyler. However, the Narrator has to come to terms with the repercussions of him and Tyler sharing a body – that he, technically, had sex with Marla. At this point, the Oedipal and femme fatale narratives of Marla work together: the son she had sex with becoming the agent by which the father is murdered. This happens during the climactic scene at the top of the Parker Morris building where the Narrator is held hostage by Tyler. Marla interprets the scene as a suicide attempt, forcing her to admit “I think I like you,”45 which the Narrator sees as a cue to kill Tyler with a gunshot through his own cheek, resulting in a “jagged smile from ear to ear”46 – a horrific image of happiness due to the destruction of the damaging patriarch. Unfortunately, precisely because of this, the Narrator ends up punished by the law of the father, living out his days in a mental institution where the orderlies are all enforcers who refer to him as “Mr. Durden”47 and inform him that “everything is going to plan.”48
What we have at the end is an illustration of the pervasiveness and danger of a patriarchal order. In Project Mayhem, Tyler succeeded only in removing the consumerist element of today’s patriarchy, increasing its harm and oppression in the process. The pursuit of father figures and patriarchs is shown to be a destructive alternative to passive equality which is, ultimately, far less successful in bringing any sense of freedom. Marla, as the lone woman, is shown to be just as strong as Tyler, succeeding in living outside consumerism and finding her own freedom and relief in its society. Eventually she enables the destruction of Project Mayhem’s mastermind and becomes the conduit through which the Narrator is able to free himself from a patriarchal oppression. Finally, as Kuhn observes, “not only is Marla the catalyst for the narrator’s split into Tyler, but she is also the catalyst for his split from Tyler,”49,” meaning our Narrator’s statement that this is “really about Marla Singer”50 is truer than even he realises.
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