2. 9/11 as turning point in modern history?
3. Plotting terror
4. Fight Club
4.1. The identity crisis of the nameless narrator
4.2. Project Mayhem and its similarities to Al Qaeda
5. Novel into movie: David Fincher’s version of Fight Club
5.1. FIGHT CLUB after 9/11
7. Works cited
Something which was a bomb, a big bomb, has blasted my clever Njurunda coffee tables in the shape of a lime green yin and an orange yang that fit together to make a circle. Well, they were splinters, now. My Haparanda sofa group with orange slip covers, design by Erika Pekkari, it was trash, now. And I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct. The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue. […] It took my whole life to buy this stuff. […] Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you. Until I got home from the airport (Palahniuk 44 f.).
As the narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club comes home from a business trip, he realizes that his fancy IKEA nest has been blown to pieces by a bomb. The moment he steps off the cab, the interior of his apartment is still scattered on the street and firefighters are at work to put out the fire in his condo. However, he does not seem to be troubled by this at all- as it turns out, he himself did this. He has decided to turn against his consumerist life in order to live a more meaningful one. The destruction of his home is the beginning of a quest for identity, a process that makes him the leader of an underground terrorist organization in the end.
Fight Club gives insight to a social malaise that has gripped American men, it is the portrait of the nihilistic generation that is commonly referred to as Generation X. Palahniuk depicts the life of a man who grew up in a time without great wars, without a great depression. Hence, he is desperately trying to give his insignificant life a meaning since he cannot give it to a greater cause.
In my paper, I will discuss both Palahniuk’s novel and the David Fincher movie that has been based on it with regard to what these works convey about terrorism and western culture. Furthermore, I will consider the impact of 9/11 on Fight Club, that is, I will examine how 9/11 changed the perception of the novel and the movie.
Therefore, I will first describe how 9/11 can be seen as a turning point in modern history. Second, I will shortly explain the relationship between terrorist fiction and political reality to show how terrorism has entered the popular imagination. Subsequently, I will give a summary of Fight Club and analyze the identity crisis of the narrator. Then, I will depict some similarities between the fictional terrorist group in the novel and Al Qaeda. Finally, I will discuss the movie, that is, to what extent it is different from the book, and in which way the visualization of Palahniuk’s novel has a more imminent impact on the audience than the novel.
2. 9/11 as turning point in modern history?
The horrifying atrocities of September 11th are something quite new in world affairs, not in their scale and character, but in the target. For the United States, this is the first time since the War of 1812 that the national territory has been under attack, or even threatened (Chomsky 11).
Although the U.S. government has at all times been involved in international crises, Americans always felt save in their homeland, as it used to be an isolated place that was not directly affected by the wars in other countries. Therefore, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were a shock to Americans as they realized that they were no longer invulnerable, that the United States were no longer a secure place to live. The fear of terrorist attacks has since evoked a paranoia, a panic only comparable to the fear of communists in the 1950s.
In the wake of the Second World War, as our Japanese and West German enemies turned into model citizens working economic miracles, the fear and loathing that fascism had so recently inspired were channeled into Communism. Some forty years later, the collapse of the Berlin wall and the evil empire called for a ‘new public enemy number one,’ and terrorism stepped into that role. Now it is terrorists who lurk in every shadow, images of terrorist attacks that fill our television screens, and fears of new varieties- nuclear, biological, cyberterrorism- that drive calls for increased surveillance and larger defense budgets (Scanlan 1).
Hence, many people living in the United States consider terrorism to be the plague of the new millennium, and after Nazis and communists, terrorists have been declared the enemy number one of the western hemisphere. Terrorism is generally associated with Islamic fundamentalism, and that is why in the public panic subsequent to the 9/11 attacks Muslims tended to be stereotyped as evil terrorists, no matter whether they were peaceful citizens or fundamentalists belonging to a terrorist organization. But what exactly is it that people fear? What exactly is terrorism? Halliday gives the following definition :
Terrorism. Arabic irhab (literally intimidation), Persian terrorizm. Denotes the use by political actors, opposition forces or states, of deliberate fear to promote political ends. First used in 1795 to denote the terror of the French revolutionary states against its opponents, used in a similar way by the Bolsheviks, notably Leon Trotsky, to legitimate their actions, Has come in the second half of the twentieth century to refer to almost exclusively to acts by opposition groups: assassinations, kidnapping and hijacking of planes, occasionally ships and buses, with civilians, bomb attacks on buildings and civilians in public places (Halliday 21).
The FBI provides another, more general, classification of terrorism. Terrorism is defined as the
unlawful use of force or violence, committed by a group(s) of two or more individuals, against person or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population. or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives (msnbc.com).
These two definitions do not specifically speak of Islamic fundamentalism, nevertheless the terrorist actions described by Halliday are strategies that are pursued by, for example, Al Qaeda, the terrorist network responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
This organization, headed by Osama bin Laden, has the goal of preventing the western culture, that is capitalist ideals, from disrupting the Islamic world. For this reason, they carry out terrorist acts against, for example, American institutions. They justify their deeds with their interpretation of the Koran.
Radical Islamic militants, like Osama bin Laden […] reject popular interpretations of Islamic law as being far too permissive. These fundamentalists interpret the Koran in its strictest sense, which leads them to view the United States, for example, as a corrupt and ungodly country, where the pursuit of money and immoral pleasures rules. […] Regarding the United States, with is modern ways and international involvements, as the chief enemy of their faith, Islamic militants have pledged to drive the enemy out (Landau 16 f.).
This view alone would not be too intimidating for a nation like the United States with their well-equipped army and cleverly devised defense system; what makes Al Qaeda and other similar terrorist networks so dangerous is that the terrorists are able to find a way to strike unforeseen, just as they did on September 11, 2001. Islamic militants have to come up against well-armed conventional armies and therefore, they need to fight in unconventional ways. They have to “leave their enemy shocked, dazed, and wondering how to retaliate against an opponent they can’t find (Landau 67).” In describing their style, an Arab official said “They attack, sow violence, and assassinate such state symbols as government officials, policemen, security agents […]. They detonate bombs and strike state institutions and buildings. (Landau 67).”
In attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Al Qaeda destroyed symbols that represented the economic and military might of the United States. The attacks can thus be seen as a symbolic destruction of Al Qaeda’s enemy America.
The World Trade Center stood as a symbol of American business and achievement. It was a towering landmark that reflected the United States at its best. Perhaps that is why it no longer exists (Landau 9).
Notably, Osama bin Laden has not been caught until today, more than one year after 9/11 and it is said that Al Qaeda has recovered to full strength. Consequently, the Bush administration still did not regain the full power and control, the government and military officials seem to be helpless in face of such an unpredictable enemy- and thus the attacks appear to have been more effective than many people thought they would be. They took a great deal of the American self-esteem.
Accordingly, the western fear of the new millennium is that of underground terrorists that can strike at any time, in spite of all security measures. In a way, 9/11 was an epiphany for American society: the question “Why do they hate us?” shook many people awake, and gave way to a discussion of why there is a conflict between western and eastern culture. The discussion, however, soon resulted in a public hate against the other culture, as many people now associate the Islam with fundamentalists that carry out terrorist action against them. Consequently, the “War against terrorism” finally presented an enemy to a whole generation that until then was preoccupied with their own problems.
3. Plotting terror
For the generation of people in their twenties and thirties living in the western world, who have never experienced a war or any personal physical threat, 9/11 is not only a turning point in international affairs, but also a wake-up moment. In his 1996 novel Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk states that this generation has not been involved in a “traditional” crisis but that it suffers from a spiritual depression.
We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression (Palahniuk 149).
On September 11, 2001 this nihilistic and bored generation of people who has always searched for thrills by means of brutal computer games, cyber worlds, or extreme forms of sport in order to feel alive was confronted with a horror scenario which they only knew from television, movies, or books. The fictional worlds they enjoyed so as to escape their daily boredom and aimlessness became reality, a scary and life threatening reality. But which of these realities existed first? The movies and thrillers or the killings and bombings? The borders between fiction and reality are blurred.
Bombings and hijackings begin with a few people plotting violence for maximum exposure, come to us on television, where distinctions between news and entertainment are ever more tortuous, and quickly pass into the popular imagination, into blockbuster movies and paperback thrillers. Yet however mediated and manipulated it may be, the terrorist story chronicles actual deaths; however low its casualties in comparison with those exacted by terrorizing states, they are real enough; they have historical and social origins and consequences. This paradoxical affiliation between our violence and our fiction lies at the heart of those complex novels about terrorism sometimes called “literary thrillers,” as vital to them as gore and mayhem are to the blockbuster (Scanlan 1).
According to this, political events find their way into the popular imagination, however, it is hard to tell if terrorists are influenced by novels or if authors of novels are influenced by terrorist acts. Scanlan cites a Don DeLillo character with the words that “writers know how reality is created (Scanlan 2)” and says that this is why “[terrorist] fictions elucidate the process that allows militants, journalists, and politicians to construct terrorism as a political reality (Scanlan 2).” That means that there is a close, reciprocal relationship between terrorist fiction and terrorist reality.
Historically speaking, writers have been always drawn to terrorists, Scanlan explains that the late 19th century revolutionaries had a traditional affinity to writers, as they both shared “a romantic belief in the power of the marginalized persons to transform history (Scanlan 2).” The term revolution is associated with adventure and hence, revolutionaries are related to romantic values. The term terrorist has different implications as it always goes along with violent actions that result in death, as for example bombings.
Since terrorist has negative connotations, to figure the writer as terrorist is quite different from fighting him or her as revolutionary. Far from being a ritual acknowledgement of originality or power, it is an imputation of violence or underhandedness. Thus within contemporary fiction, we find terrorists both as rivals and as doubles of the novelist. […] In the imagined act of terrorism, a writer may assess his or her political commitments, actions, and failures. Thus the terrorist novel opens itself up to more general questions about the writer’s ability to understand, respond to, and influence politics (Scanlan 7).
4. Fight Club
In Fight Club (1996), the author takes a terrorist as double. By describing the identity crisis of his narrator, Palahniuk gives reasons as to why someone who, according to consumerist ideals, has everything he needs turns into a terrorist leader. The reality Palahniuk creates in his novel is that of the nameless narrator, a white middle-class single in his early thirties. He works in the car industry where it is his job to calculate whether it is cheaper to pay off accident victims or recall the cars with defects. He has a fancy condo and all his furniture is by IKEA. He has everything he needs and that is exactly what bothers him. His life is boring, mediocre. The life of the narrator resembles that of the lives of many people belonging to the so-called Generation X.
As he suffers from insomnia and thinks he is seriously ill, his doctor advises him to go to support groups for the terminally ill in order to see what real pain is like. He likes it so much to be there, that he becomes a support group tourist as the group meetings are the only place where he is able to relax.. One day he detects another support group tourist, Marla, and from then on, he cannot relax, he feels as a fake. On a business flight, he meets his alter ego, or to put it better, his ideal ego, Tyler Durden. They go out together, then move in together, and finally they establish fight club. Fight club is a group of men who meet in basements to beat each other up bare-fisted.
But the emotional outlet of violence is not enough for the narrator, he wants to destroy history, that is why he establishes Project Mayhem, a terrorist network. As time goes by, the narrator cannot cope any longer with the pressure that is imposed on him by the organizations he himself has founded, and thus he tries to shoot himself on top of a building just before members of Project Mayhem trigger its explosion. As it turns out, he only shoots himself through his cheek and the explosives do not work. For this reason the narrator survives, but manages to ‘kill’ his alter ego Tyler Durden. The last chapter of the book suggests that afterwards, he ends up in a mental hospital.
The story is told by the nameless first person narrator. The fact that he has no name suggests that his life stands for a whole generation of men in their thirties, men who are emotionally drained. In an interior monologue, the narrator tells the readers about his life and his experiences. His monologue can be read as a stream of consciousness as well as a handbook for anarchism addressed to an unspecified audience. On the one hand, the book depicts the crisis of the narrator, and on the other hand, the monologue contains guidelines for building a terrorist network and bomb making instructions.
The building we’re standing on won’t be here in ten minutes. You take a 98-percent concentration of fuming nitric acid and add the acid to three times the amount of sulfuric acid. Do this in an ice bath. Then add glycerin drop-by-drop with an eye dropper. You have nitroglycerin. I know this because Tyler knows this. Mix the nitro with sawdust, and you have a nice plastic explosive (Palahniuk 12).
In the moment of the attempted suicide, the events of the past years pass by him again, and that is when the narrator starts telling his story. Hence, the plot is devised as a closed circle, it both starts and ends with the killing of his alter ego, though, at the beginning of the book, the reader does not yet have all necessary clues to know that Tyler and the narrator are the same person. That Tyler Durden and the narrator are indeed one and the same person is indicated in several scenes throughout the novel. As he has to travel a great deal for his job, he thinks a lot about time and space. Due to his insomnia, he is not able to sleep and in the state of being half asleep and half awake, he has confused dreams on the planes.
You wake up at LAX. Again. How I met Tyler was I went to a nude beach. This was the very end of summer and I was asleep. Tyler was naked and sweating, gritty with sand, his hair stringy, hanging in his face. Tyler had been around for a long time before we met. […] You wake up at the beach. We were the only people on the beach. With a stick, Tyler drew a straight line in the sand several feet away. Tyler went back to straighten the log by stamping sand around its base. I was the only person watching this. […] If I could wake up in a different place at a different time, could I wake up as a different person (Palahniuk 32 f.)?
In case the narrator does not have to travel around for his job, he takes night jobs as movie projectionist and waiter. During the night, he is Tyler, the handsome man who does what he wants. Thus, in the night, his bad side comes to life and he does the things he would not do in daytime. The opposition between day and night therefore stands for the split personality of the narrator: the night symbolizes the dark side of his personality, and the day represents his mediocre everyday life that is empty of emotions, and in which he is just a functioning part of a society he does not like.
Tyler would work part-time as a movie projectionist. Because of his nature, Tyler could only work night jobs. If a projectionist called in sick, the union called Tyler, Some people are night people. Some people are day people. I could only work a day job. […] Tyler’s a banquet waiter, waiting tables at a hotel, downtown, and Tyler’s a projectionist with projector operator’s union. I don’t know how long Tyler had been working on all those nights I couldn’t sleep (Palahniuk 25 ff.).
The fact that the narrator is a split personality questions his reliability. Can the reader believe what he is telling them or are the fight clubs and the terrorist actions only excesses of his screwed-up mind? The question of the narrator’s reliability gives the novel a surreal character at first, but there is one instant towards the end of the book which shows that everything that is told is true. The narrator comes to his senses for a short moment and realizes everything that he has done and admits it to Marla. This realization and remorse leads to the assumption that the reader can believe everything that he has been telling, and hence the story becomes the dark description of a lost man’s crisis.
4.1. The identity crisis of the nameless narrator
The development of the narrator’s crisis is not depicted chronologically. The narration starts in medias res, and it is through the interior monologue that the reader gets to know his problems that lead to his terrorist actions. One cause of the narrator’s crisis is the fact that he cannot cope with his job. He is trained to live a life that is empty of all emotions as he has to apply simple arithmetic to loss of life.
Wherever I’m going, I’ll be there to apply the formula. I’ll keep the secret intact. It’s simple arithmetic. It’s a story problem. If a new car built by my company leaves Chicago traveling west at 60 miles per hour, and the rear differential locks up, and the car crashes and burns with every one trapped inside, does my company initiate a recall? You take the population of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), then multiply the result by the average cost of an out-of-court settlement (C). A times B times C equals X. This is what it will cost if we don’t initiate a recall. If X is greater than the cost of a recall, we recall the cars and no one gets hurt. If X is less than the cost of a recall, then we don’t recall. Everywhere I go, there’s the burned-up wadded shell of a car waiting for me. I know where all the skeletons are. Consider this my job security (Palahniuk 31).