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Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel, Fight Club, is written in a hyperhip lingo, informed by a hyperhip sensibility, and constructed along the usual fault lines of a hyperhip, violent world. If that combination reads like a warning label, consider this: Fight Club actually possesses a plot.

Fight Club is the story of powerless postmoderns attempting to empower themselves in a typically postmodern way—by engaging in shocking and ineffectual activities. Palahniuk’s narrator is a young man with no history, bearing the marks of no particular region or family tradition. He is as thinly constructed as a paper towel. He is depressed and alienated. Readers would be depressed and alienated were it not for the fact that Palahniuk proceeds with bracing, exuberant prose, and Tyler Durden. Durden becomes the narrator’s best friend. They meet, discuss the fact that each suffers from ennui, go out to a parking lot, and beat the hell out of each other, after which they feel much better. And so does the reader—finally, a novel where the crybabies get what’s coming to them!

With Durden on board, off the novel goes. Where the narrator is the type of person who complains a lot and attends support groups for people suffering from terrible illnesses, Durden starts his own religion and, along with the narrator, his own club, the eponymous fight club. Fight club is a supersecret organization populated by men who are alienated, emasculated, and suffering from, you guessed it, ennui. When they join fight club, they are forced to bludgeon one another. It makes them feel better, but it doesn’t do much for their appearance, as the narrator learns: “My boss sends me home because of all the dried blood on my pants, and I am overjoyed. The hole punched through my cheek doesn’t ever heal. I’m going to work, and my punched-out eye sockets are two swollen-up black bagels around little piss holes I have left to see through.”

Fight club does wonders for the male sense of self-esteem, though: “You see a guy come to fight club for the first time, and his ass is a loaf of white bread. You see this same guy here six months later, and he looks carved out of wood. This guy trusts himself to handle anything. There’s grunting and noise at fight club like at the gym, but fight club isn’t about looking good. There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.”

Robert Bly, eat your heart out—Fight Club is Iron John for men with cojones. Why beat a bongo drum in the woods when you can crack craniums in the basement of your neighborhood bar? As the great Tyler Durden says: “It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.”

But after a while fight club is not a desperate enough gambit to free the soul, and the ever-inventive Durden ups the ante. Fight club diversifies. It expands into the business of terrorism. Buildings are blown up, and airline flight-safety cards are tampered with: Drawings depicting calm passengers making use of oxygen masks are replaced with drawings of frantic passengers fighting one another for the masks. Tyler is plain about why—”Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken.” Fight club is concerned with getting real and getting alive.

Our narrator begins to lose his nerve, however. Everywhere he goes, all across the country, he sees accountants with broken jaws, attorneys with blackened eyes, waiters in neck braces—and they’re all smiling at him, giving him ultrasecret winks. They’re battered, but breathing the fresh air of freedom. Men who do not feel like men and who lead lives that do not feel like real lives happily join the vigorous, subterranean fight club army, partaking of the simple pleasures of belonging to a group that insists on discipline and sacrifice. And our narrator is a hero to them, one of the fight club founders.

The success of fight club terrifies him. He decides to shut fight club and its devious departments down before more people are hurt, only to discover that fight club is beyond his control. And there is a further problem—Durden has disappeared. And so, the chase is on: The narrator must locate Durden and stop fight club.

Palahniuk is to be congratulated for dealing with philosophical questions in a way that does no violence to the form of the novel. The colorlessness and rootlessness of a suburban, single-parent upbringing are explored not through digressions but through narrative action. Durden’s solutions to postmodern ennui and angst are shown to be fraudulent, but they are exposed within the structure of the story itself.

“I’m breaking my attachments to physical power and possessions,” Durden whispers, “because only through destroying myself can I discover the greater power of my spirit.” That, finally, is Durden’s answer—a humanistic inversion of Christ’s dictum that only through losing one’s life can one find life. Durden’s version proves to be no more effective at restoring a sense of self than the self-help mantras of the support groups the narrator is fond of attending. When the narrator and Durden and their fight club friends attempt to discover the god within, they find ulcers.

Fight Club’s flaws are the flaws of most contemporary fiction as practiced by most younger writers. Characters are thinly sketched, and the world inhabited by those thinly sketched characters is thinly sketched. There is too much cuteness and too little genuine narrative development and psychological exploration. But Fight Club’s strengths are strengths that many of Palahniuk’s colleagues lack. He knows how to build a story, and his use of language reveals a writer who has fallen in love with the craft of composing thrilling sentences. He takes on big issues but understands that he must first do justice to the imperative of storytelling. And he effectively renders brutality—Palahniuk’s violence is unsettling and disturbing, not sleek and titillating. And one cannot forget the truly surprising surprise ending that Palahniuk serves up.CP