Table of Contents
2. Getting Physical: Palahniuk and the Body
3. An Object-Oriented Ontology? Capitalism and Commodities
4. "We Just Want to Belong". Community and Institutions
Chuck Palahniuk's name has become synonymous with depictions of a dark world populated by morally degenerate characters who are canonically read as both a harsh critique of the United States in times of late / post-capitalism as well as a negotiation of the status quo of the American working and middle class. In the tradition of the early 20th century's literary Naturalism, he regularly constructs characters who are by all means 'normal' but are then transformed by extraordinary circumstances, by internal and external forces outside of their control. His 'average Joes' (and 'Janes', actually) are not necessarily situated on the margins of society: they live in mundane geographies and architectures, work common jobs, seemingly have regular interests and desires and belong to the middle and / or working class, but beyond the surface a darkness is bubbling where hidden dreams and repressed desires fester. His personnel generally are not larger-than-life characters doing outrageous things, but rather 'the guys next door' who only become outrageous, monstrous, or deviant by certain catalytic factors, which in this way are foregrounded by Palahniuk as significant and powerful particles of a person's psychic makeup. On the one hand, Palahniuk grants seemingly drab and mundane lives more complexity instead of merely setting them up as clichéd types or stock characters in a satire of modern (sub)urban life; on the other hand, his fiction continuously interrogates class in a society that continues to construct itself as class-less (cf. Scott and Leonhardt 2005). He also regularly mobilizes the narratological (and psychological) potential of the Freudian return of the repressed—here meaning an individual as well as a collective repressed that lies dormant, embedded somewhere in the depths of the unconscious of a contemporary American culture that is haunted by all that it tries to negate: sexuality, violence, madness, excess, and other forms of deviation from 'being average.'
My reading of Palahniuk's novels Fight Club (1996) and Choke (2001) posits these two as exemplary texts due to the way in which his assessment of the failed American Dream manifests itself. Both novels are organized around individuals who become part of, or form, communities— e pluribus unum. The titular Fight Club / Project Mayhem and the sex addiction therapy group in Choke respectively become arenas in which seemingly average people act out their social incompatibilities such as their violent desires or the need to talk about their sexual (or otherwise) perversions. In a culture that is driven by excessive consumerism and capitalism's empty promise that the meaning of life or pursuit of happiness is the accumulation of status or simply more and more commodities, individuals' pathologies become deformed in ways that seem to give rise to depression, addiction and the need for new and equally excessive outlets. Even though Palahniuk employs certain humoristic modes such as satire or burlesque, his politics (and poetics) are more intricate. He does not expose his characters to ridicule by setting them up as a freakshow for an exploitative gaze, but treats them with a certain empathy, thereby revealing that in fact there is no such thing as an average Joe. As a plea against the normative force of culturally constructed notions of being-average, Palahniuk is proposing that every character and, by extension, every reader is a singularity and therefore, insanity, deviation, or obsession are intrinsic to the human condition, not anomalous.
I will move through my reading of both novels by identifying important themes, tropes, and types in select extracts from the texts, as well as stylistic and narratological devices with which Palahniuk addresses (and debunks) the idea of normalcy.
2. Getting Physical: Palahniuk and the Body
Palahniuk's body of work is especially characterized by his work on bodies. This is actually one facet of the way he constructs his characters that made me attach him to the tradition of literary Naturalism before. Different from the intricately woven inner lives of Realism's protagonists whose bodies often are mere vessels for, or at most, embodiments of the subjectivities they carry (exemplified for instance by Henry James' heroines and heroes), the body as an actant in its own right became more important for the Naturalists (as can be seen in Frank Norris' or Theodore Dreiser's personnel). In a way, Palahniuk modulates both positions as his characters are never uncoupled from their corporeality: what and who they are and what they experience always has a physical component, there is no ontological separation between the inner and outer reality of their selfhood as they are mutually dependent and determine each other. The way Palahniuk utilizes the body ranges from subtle to bold. In the following chapter, I will illustrate this point by analyzing several body-centered moments.
Most obviously, Fight Club as an unsettling meditation on a certain type of misdirected masculinity (that has gained traction in the recent (Trump) years extreme conservative backlash) uses the characters' physical experience as a vehicle to narrate a body-mind-duality that has lost its equilibrium entirely. From early on, the existential crises of the characters are a crisis of the body, comprising athleticism, violence, and destruction (be it self-destruction or cancer-caused destruction) of the body. How outrageously excessive the preoccupation with the body has turned into an end-in-itself is the premise of the club: while most people go to the gym or work out simply to work on their outward appearance, feel healthier and be fitter, and in doing so aspiring to achieve the same internalized, but ultimately external beauty ideal, for men who take part in Fight Club, deeper meaning, or even some form of twisted spirituality is to be found in physical exercise and keeping in shape:
Fight club gets to be your reason for going to the gym and keeping your hair cut short and cutting your nails. 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 (Fight Club (subsequently abbreviated as FC), 50).
In what to the members of Fight Club is a profound difference, they do not keep themselves neat just for appearances, but in order to become efficient and more powerful in combat. Looks for them do not matter, as after all there is no conventional aesthetic value in a knocked-out tooth or a black eye, as opposed to the regular gym-goers whose motivation is, as Burgess phrases it in her reading of bodies in Palahniuk's work, to become "copies of copies" (273). For a Fight Club member the motivation to get out of bed in the morning and be the best version of oneself lies solely in the thought of the next fight—even more than the author working through his biography1, this is a satire of the kind of self-optimization-cum-bodybuilding that became fashionable and virulent during the Reagan era's neoliberalism and its attached masculinity narratives of physical strength. This narrative still looms over the mid-90s setting of the novel as a returning notion of a repressed 1980s masculinity.2 In Fight Club, the goal of self-optimization is no longer physical appearance, which does not matter, and everyone is tolerated if he is willing to fight: an emptied-out self-optimization in itself has become the goal of men who have become absurd in their violent desires and only thinly veil them in rhetoric of strength-as-a-greater-good.
The critique of masculinity is also embedded in the incoherence of the Fight Club members as people whose unity has been purposefully dissolved into split entities: they are distinctly 'normal' persons with 'normal' jobs, however, their personalities differ greatly between their professional and everyday lives and their free time, or rather Fight Club selves: "Who guys are in fight club is not who they are in the real world. Even if you told the kid in the copy center that he had a good fight, you wouldn't be talking to the same man" (FC, 49). The reputation and behavior of the guy in the copy center changes depending on the setting. While working his day job, he is addressed as "the kid," while in Fight Club he is a "man," a more mature and more respected individual.
Moreover, the nameless narrator says:
Who I am in fight club is not someone my boss knows . . . In the real world, I'm a recall campaign coordinator in a shirt and tie, sitting in the dark with a mouthful of blood and changing the overheads and slides as my boss tells Microsoft how he chose a particular shade of pale cornflower blue for an icon (FC, 49).
While expected to function, to behave professionally and have a neat appearance with a "shirt and tie," he is disfigured by an injury from Fight Club. The secret life of a Fight Club member manifests itself when it starts to seep into the real, professional world and interferes with it, as the wounds affect the physical appearance. The split into increasingly irreconcilable aspects of self brings about the loss of unity. In the Freudian structure model of the human psyche, the Fight Cub self is the Id, while the job self is a version of the Super-Ego, but when they become split by having their own arenas, the Ego with its moderator function gets lost and with it, any kind of stable self. In an environment where the wounds are treated like trophies and are displayed with pride, the Id with its Fight Club-specific convolution of pleasure principle and death drive takes over, as in world of Fight Club, which the club members perceive as 'feminized' ("What you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women." (FC, 50)), men want to feel like men again and reconstruct a lost mythical ideal of manliness by participating in decidedly physical activities, namely fights with each other. As a way out of their repressed lives, uncoupling their Id from the repressive Super-Ego allows them to supposedly access their primal aggressive instincts.3 Victor's behavior in Choke is comparable, as he[BS1] uses meaningless sex as a way of escaping his dull, lackluster and aimless life, and as an opportunity to overcome his repressed thoughts and his state of depression. The ephemeral aspect of the physical act, however, brings him quickly back to his demons. His sex addiction takes on a helpful function and a possibility to find meaning and motivation as he now organizes his existence around the act of always looking for new sexual partners who like him are seeking to act upon their sexual instincts and pleasure principle, unimpeded by the restrictions of the Super-Ego. For both characters, the only way to experience any form of freedom, is by experiencing the freedom over (and of) their own bodies, be it fighting against one another or engaging in sexual acts, and ultimately freeing their body from the meddling of the rationality, mores and conventions stored in the Super-Ego. These body-centered activities and experiences help to create the meaning or a sense of self their jobs or career paths could not provide them with (Ash 2006: 76, 82), a concept that I will revisit later in this paper in chapter 4.
While both novels share further themes, motifs, or techniques (such as the psychologically unstable unreliable narrator harking back to E. A. Poe's famous madmen narrators), especially important here is the recurring notion that the human body is always exposed to corruption or disease (Collado-Rodriguez 2013: 137). The main characters in both texts want to escape this very (corpo-)reality, the fragility of the body and the self. The nameless narrator in Fight Club engages in physical fights, a revolution of the body, and later literally rebels against society with Project Mayhem, whereas Victor takes control over his body by engaging in sexual activities with other sex addicts, seeking empowerment through the liberation of his carnal and instinctive drives. However, these moves towards overcoming the restrictions of the self by 'deregulating' the body (to use an analogy from the neoliberalist vocabulary), can ultimately never be successful—a body liberated from the Super-Ego is not a free body, it is just a body that is controlled by a different force. Fight Club 's narrator already hints at the futility of trying to liberate the body quite early in the novel: "Maybe self-improvement isn't the answer, maybe self-destruction is the answer" (FC, 49). Since it eventually shows that he and Tyler Durden are the same—split—person, his real fight is not against boredom, capitalism, consumerism, the loss of hegemonic masculinity, or society, but in fact, against himself (Kavadlo 2005: 5). Existential quests not only become literalized metaphors for the characters, they become embodied. They use their bodies trying to overcome their limitations (among these, social / societal, personal, psychic, and the limitations of the human body), ultimately failing to escape the human condition—which is always a 'bodied' condition. Still, they are not tragic figures. Their conflict plays itself out on their bodies, yet it is a conflict that derives from the oppressiveness of contradicting normative forces. It is difficult to be when one is supposed to be so many things, and normalcy ultimately is not a real benchmark, but a coercive cultural construction. The rupture of the characters' unity in that sense is on the one hand a self-induced takeover of the Super-Ego, but on the other hand an inevitable reaction to the mass culture of a deeply conflicted USA that has lost the ability to moderate its prevalent dichotomies, and its ability to find middle grounds in which things such as compromises or average-anythings can be found in the first place. And consequently, Palahniuk's average Joes gradually lose their average-ness, their own middle grounds, as uprooted figures that used to belong to a now hollowed-out middle class.
3. An Object-Oriented Ontology? Capitalism and Commodities
Besides attaching Palahniuk to certain literary traditions, he also needs to be attached to a deep-rooted specific tradition of American life, history and thought as an author who is perpetually engaged with (American) individualism. The concept of individuality is important inner- and metadiegetically. Formally this is carried out via characters 'speaking for themselves', expressing their opinions and being responsible for their own choices; thus, they go through a process of individuation on a meta level, and within the narratives, on the content level, they are preoccupied with achieving individuation—which, as was pointed out above, more often than not morphs into a dividuation.4 Palahniuk revisits the idea how individuality is reduced to a certain level of standardization, of 'readily available' individualities or modes of individuation. To illustrate the point, a reflection on IKEA furniture by Fight Club 's narrator is useful here:
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.
We all have the same Johanneshov armchair in the Strinne green stripe pattern . . . We all have the same Rislampa/Har paper lamps made from wire and environmentally friendly unbleached paper (FC, 43).
Taking on the tone of a satirical rant, the claim that the commodities provided by global players such as the Swedish furniture chain IKEA have overridden even the sexual desire of people and instead replaced it with the wish to own more of the same furniture, becomes an astute observation of how consumerism effectively runs on libidinous forces. In the world the narrator comments on, the Deleuzian neologism of "Desiring-production"5 has been taken literally—and absurdly: consumerism is considered a meaningful drive, situated where all desires reside and can potentially become productive, but manipulated and rendered unproductive by imperialist and expansionist merchants. The result is a pathetic pastime of faux-personalizing apartments, in which people actually achieve the opposite of their goal as their most private spaces, and consequently also their lives, become less individual and more and more similar. This gets even clearer in the following excerpt:
You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then, for a couple years you're satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you've got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you (FC, 44).
The network of anaphoras ("you," "then" and "the") coupled with the mechanical, brief and repetitive aspect of the syntax mirrors the serialization of products and therefore emphasizes the standardization of individuality. The narrator describes Want as distinguished from needs, however the desire to own specific furniture has here become a quasi-basic human need; a need that does not come from necessity or even lack, but as an almost reflex-like response to capitalism. Enslaved by the imposed need for more and more commodities, be they furniture or other, the master-slave dynamic of owner and possession have shifted and turned into a quasi-addiction to own. The objects in themselves, hailed as new and improved things that carry the promise of being able to fill the void in people's lives, do not even matter, it is the act of acquiring, owning, discarding and replacing that has become the addictive and drug-like loop that defines and dominates the existences of the users / buyers.
In Choke, capitalism and its interpellative strategies is not given as much prevalence as in Fight Club, but nevertheless plays a crucial role in the form of a desire-addiction-amalgamation, here in the form of Denny who starts to obsessively collect rocks as a way to cope with, or rather redirect his sex addiction:
Yeah, first it's a few rocks. Then it's fan-tracery vaulting. My point is, this is America. You start out with hand jobs and progress to orgies. You smoke some dope and then, the big H. This is our whole culture of bigger, better, stronger, faster. The key word is progress. In America, if your addiction isn't always new and improved, you're a failure (Choke, 203).
Capitalism's modus operandi (and its means of economic and systemic self-preservation) is to instill desires that only capitalism can fulfill. Palahniuk's analysis how subjects (in the sense posited by Althusser when he defines how acts individuals becomes subjects through acts of interpellation) become entrapped in a perpetual loop is a recurring theme, as he often "takes precise aim at such targets as corporations and wealthy elites that put profit before human life" (Keesey 2016: 9). Fittingly, Fight Club 's narrator works in an insurance company to figuratively weigh human lives against the costs of a recall of a specific automobile model, thereby reducing people to mathematical formulas (cf. Bennett 2005: 73).
Palahniuk's preoccupation with the absurdity and oftentimes indifferent brutality of big companies is directed at institutions such as insurance companies who rather work in the abstract, but more tangibly, as in the IKEA example, coupled with actual objects as carriers of meaning. IKEA here assumes the actual and symbolical function of a big-scale trade operation that simply sells identical objects to different people, leading to a society brought into line by the sameness of their commodities, all individuality and peculiarities flattened out. It is significant that the IKEA furniture is known for being affordable yet stylish, therefore aiming at the lower and middle class who are attempting to sate the 'need' of filling the empty space in an apartment, and by extension, existential emptiness as actual space becomes a metaphor for social space, emptiness and distance. Another aspect of IKEA furniture deeply embedded in pop consciousness (as evidenced mainly by jokes addressing it) is the required self-assembly of the furniture. The objects come as modular building sets and have to be put together, which entails an interaction with them that goes beyond the mere acquisition. However, there is no real productivity or creativity in the construction of IKEA furniture, as they can only be assembled in the prescribed way. In this regard, they also become metaphors for the non-existing potential as commodities of individuation: just as they can only be put together one way (or falsely), they can only achieve sameness, if used properly. The narrator has furnished his home over the years with seemingly perfect furniture but feels trapped in the unproductive completeness and false sense of safety provided by his objects, so his counter strategy to this standardized, un- (or de-) personalized atmosphere is the destruction of his apartment, the de-construction of the objects leading to a dismantling and subversive and irreversible 'rearranging' of his modular IKEA surroundings. While the ideas of perfection and completeness are traditional characteristics of a utopia, here—being devoid of real meaning—they are mere clichés and cause the narrator's profound unhappiness, as Burgess concludes: "While society has achieved a high level of outward completeness, it has done so at the expense of creativity, civility, and impulse, leaving the Narrator inwardly numb" (2012: 270).
1 Keesey points out that this correlates with Palahniuk's personal life, who was told by teachers when he was eleven or twelve years old that he needed to go to the gym and 'bulk up' because he was not 'boy enough.' In his school environment, physical differences were not tolerated and weak and vulnerable students were left unprotected (2).
2 Also see Jeffords' study of Hollywood masculinities during the Reagan years (1994) who iterates this idea by using cinematic texts.
3 A behavior reminiscent of the carnivalesque, as theorized by Mikhail Bakhtin in his observations on carnival: "While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom . . . all were considered equal during carnival . . . People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced. The utopian ideal and the realistic merged in this carnival experience, unique of its kind." (Bakhtin 1984: 7-10).
4 With reference to the Deleuzian concept of the "dividual" as discussed in his "Postscript on the societies of Control" (1992).
5 With reference to the concept as introduced by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus (1972).
- Quote paper
- Christoph Schrank (Author), 2020, Normalcy and Deviation in "Fight Club" and "Choke" by Chuck Palahniuk, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/594676