Fight Club (Book Review)

Fight Club cover

Fight Club

After reading Noise, I really wanted to try Fight Club. Both stories are nominally wish fulfillment tales about violent young men, but neither actually intends for you to root for them all the way through. Strangely, even though Fight Club is one of the best movies of the last generation, I’d never read the book. It was interesting to read something that was so familiar in some ways (almost all of the voice-overs and speeches are lifted verbatim from the novel), but new in others. I haven’t had an experience like this since I read the novel version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest more than a decade ago. But where the Cuckoo’s Nest book immediately supplanted the movie for me, the movie version of Fight Club is still definitely my favorite. There is little if anything of import in the book that the movie didn’t also cover, and the prose never put me there in the same visceral way that the movie did. (In contrast, the text in Cuckoo’s Nest offered much that the movie was missing, and its incredible prose was even better than the movie’s acting.)

That’s not to say that the book wasn’t still good. With most of the movie’s text and plot coming from it, how could it not be?

From this point on, there are spoilers for the story.

Perhaps the most impressive trick of the movie was the way it makes the viewer implicit in the crimes of Tyler Durden. Fight Club is portrayed as such a release, and his anarchic gestures are so amusing, that we can’t help but want to join. Tyler is a charismatic spokesman for the idea that we are only half-alive in this soulless, banal world where matching furniture is more important than survival skills, and he offers a way out. But once we have joined him, we learn how far Tyler really wants to go. The unnamed narrator stands in for us as he finds Project Mayhem growing up around him, and Tyler’s presence become rarer and more abusive. By the time the viewer realizes how evil this is, it’s too late to deny that they would have been complicit in its creation.

The book has all of these elements, of course, but they never quite reach their potential. For much of the book, the Fight Club itself is only featured in one brilliant but too-short chapter, leaving more time to focus on Tyler’s other crimes and the narrator’s nasty side. By the time Fight Club is fully integrated into the story, Project Mayhem has already begun to form, with the narrator’s open-eyed assistance. He still loses Tyler at a later point and starts to realize that the process needs to be stopped, but this doesn’t have the same impact as the movie. I never rooted for these obviously-bad characters, so the consequences are more like the third act of a morality play than a mind-fuck that makes me re-evaluate myself.

Of course, the book offers some tidbits that didn’t make it into the movie. A hole through the narrator’s cheek that just won’t close up is the most memorable, standing in for his entire self-destructive path. Others, though, are unnecessary or even counter-productive. (He first met Tyler on a nude beach instead of an airplane? Neither character seems the type to go lie around a nude beach alone.) It’s a short book, so there honestly isn’t very much that didn’t make it into the movie.

Chuck Palahniuk’s prose is excellent. Direct and punchy, it gets its point across like a nihilistic Hemingway. I’m not a fan of the structure he chose for this book, though. The frequent jumps capture the narrator’s disconnect from reality, especially when describing his insomnia and lost hours, but almost every chapter starts in media res, even if the previous one had ended on a cliffhanger. It sometimes seems that Palahniuk is trying to make the story as hard to follow as possible, even when it isn’t necessary. I may be too harsh here, but in media res openings have become a common tool of lazy comic book writers, so I don’t have a high tolerance for them.

The endings diverge slightly. Without spoilers, I can say that the movie’s is the appropriately cinematic and memorable one. The book’s version is partly dependent on a chance event that feels like a cheat, but it does lead to a new status quo that feels more conclusive than the movie’s. (Seriously, the question about what will happen next week, or the next day, or even five minutes later makes the movie’s ending a little too incomplete.) And the end of book makes it clear that this can be read as a horror story, which was lost in the transition to film. I can imagine some fans of the book complaining about that change.

In the end, Fight Club the novel is a very good book. It has all the elements necessary to make it a modern classic, but they never quite combine in the right way. Fortunately, David Fincher and the rest of the people behind the movie saw that potential and brought it to the surface. I can’t say what the book would have read like if the movie hadn’t made such an impression on me, but I know it would be good at the very least.

Grade: B+

  1. I totally agree. I think this is one of those rare times when the movie outdid the book.

    • Sometimes I question the idea that the book is always better than the movie. We only apply this rule to cases where the book came first. There are plenty of movies that had book adaptations afterwards, and in those cases, the movie is almost always better. I think the rule is that the first work is usually the superior one. This is because the person(s) making the second version either feels restrained by the first (don’t do anything different, even though some of the things that made the first work succeed will be lost in the new one) or doesn’t understand what made the first good (“what the book really needed were more explosions!”)
      Of course, Fight Club is still an exception to that rule. It’s an interesting case, because it doesn’t stray very far from the source material, but still manages to bring out elements that didn’t live up to their full potential originally. I can’t think of enough other cases like this to make a general rule for them, though.

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