‘Fight Club’s’ Twisted Mastermind: Chuck Palahniuk on God, Men Vs. Women, and ‘Fight Club 2’
The acclaimed author of Fight Club and Choke opens up about his new comic book Fight Club 2 and short story Expedition—a prequel to the original Fight Club novel.
Chuck Palahniuk exploded onto the literary scene in 1996 with his novel Fight Club, a raging anti-commercialism polemic and outlet to his inner anger. With the release of David Fincher’s 1999 film adaptation, he—like the film—became a looming cultural crusader in a sea of crassness, engraved in the minds of young adults as the hyper-masculine manifesto to all that is wrong with America’s consumer culture.
Now, a flurry of books and movie deals later, Palahniuk is back to reclaim his masterpiece—urine-filled condom in hand.
We caught up with Palahniuk on a loud, bustling New York City day to discuss his newly released comic book Fight Club 2, which follows the events of the previously unnamed Sebastian after he [Spoiler Alert] shot himself in the mouth trying to kill his anarchic alter-ego, Tyler Durden. Set nine years after the events of Fight Club, Sebastian has fathered a seemingly innocent son with Durden addict turned “housewife” Marla Singer in quiet suburbia, holding his mind in check with the help of suppressive drugs and regular visits to a psychiatrist. If that wasn’t enough Fight Club mayhem for you, there’s also Palahniuk’s short story Expedition—a prequel to the original Fight Club book from his new collection of short stories, Make Something Up.
You’re back with Fight Club 2, and the style of writing you employed in the original Fight Club lends itself well to the comic book medium. How was working on the comic different from working on the book?
CHUCK PALAHNIUK: Number one, not being able to depict a series of actions—that every physical action had to be broken down into very specific beginning gesture points and ending gesture points. It was like breaking a movie down shot by shot. I couldn’t say someone walked across the room and sat down on a chair and picked up a telephone and dialed it. Everything had to be broken down into very specific moments. And beyond that, I really wanted to cut back on the dialogue. I hate dialogue to start with because I think it’s the least effective form of communication. And once you get a letterer having to fill those balloons, you don’t want a huge amount of dialogue or captions—and I frankly hate that in comics myself when I read them. I don’t like to see those balloons coming out of balloons, filling up half the page. I wanted to communicate as much as possible through gesture and through visual queues.
How long have you been reading comic books?
You know, I didn’t pick them up again until I started looking into this project and Scott Allie, my editor at Dark Horse, walked me through a comics store and showed me who is who and what artists were doing what so I could start identifying my taste. But as a child, I read mostly EC Horror comics and Classics Illustrated. I liked that combination of the physically grotesque with those moments of really high drama where people are really noble and say really ponderous, important, profound things. Like when Marla humiliates Sebastian early on in the comic. And also those moments of grotesqueness that couldn’t be depicted in a movie and couldn’t really be accurately described in a book. That’s why they are perfect for comics because they can be shown in a cartoonish, unrealistic way so that it doesn’t alienate the reader.
What about film? A lot of people love Fight Club, the movie. But I’m interested to get your take. Did you feel that the movie was able to translate all the emotions that you were trying to convey in the book onto the screen?
No. But I think David [Fincher] wanted to. He was so determined to stay with the book for the whole movie, but there is just too much story for it—even in a two-hour-and-twenty-minute movie. There was a social contract in the book that if you deceive people who are suffering, by lying to the people in the support group, that eventually you must be unmasked before those people and those people must be given the option of forgiving you or of rejecting you. That’s why the book came back to the support group at the end and Marla and Sebastian unmasked each other. The movie couldn’t do that. The movie only had so much time, so it couldn’t fulfill that social contract; it didn’t have the symmetry that the book was shooting for. That was another reason for doing the free comic book day. Because it allowed me to depict the last portion of the novel, as opposed to the movie. And in doing so introduced readers to what these characters would look like in the new medium.
So this is a continuation more from the novel, rather than from the movie’s perspective?
Right. Because if I did anything from the movie, 20th Century Fox would sue me for copyright infringement. And that’s why he is Sebastian instead of Jack.
And how was that process of negotiating the rights from the book to the movie? Did you have any power with what got into the movie versus what didn’t?
No, and I didn’t try to have a lot of power because part of the process is putting your baby in this basket hoping that someone will adopt it and love it enough to take it on as their own. It takes so much effort to make a movie that you want them to feel like it’s telling their story, and who am I to tell David Fincher how to make a movie?
So then, bringing it back to the comic book: We see Sebastian nine years after the incident at the end of the book. We know he went to a mental hospital at beginning of the comic, and you also include his self-medication process throughout. What sort of commentary does this provide on today’s society?
They come to represent an expression of ourselves, and so Tyler always represents the fully-expressed person—the fully-expressed to a fault. A person that doesn’t withhold anything and doesn’t really care how his expression affects other people; he just presents what he presents. And Sebastian represents the fully-suppressed person. And in this case, to the extent that he has to take medication to continually suppress who he would naturally be in order to become this kind of artificial, suburban person.
And now he has a family with Marla, which is very interesting. You’ve given Marla a role that is much more pronounced than before. Are you planning to weave her more into or out of that family dynamic?
Over the next 10 issues, Marla and Sebastian are mostly apart. They each follow their own path. And in doing so, they each go through their own journey—forming their own allies and going through their own challenges. And then in the end they do come back together. And like all my previous works, it is a return to community with a happy ending with a dark twist that will upset a lot of people.
That sounds intriguing.
Well, otherwise, what’s the point? Because it’s really what upsets people that stays in the culture for a long time, and it’s the things that please people that fade away instantly.
The comic book also deals with Sebastian and fatherhood. How much of your own personal experience did you draw on?
Some of my personal experience is always there as the seed that I use to speak to other people about their experiences. My own experience couldn’t really flesh out a theme, so I have to talk to people about what I’m working on and allow them to contribute their perspective. When I was writing Fight Club, I did not know a single man my same age that felt prepared for adulthood. They all felt that their fathers had failed them in teaching them whatever they needed to know. Which is why I think the book hit that chord with people.
Do you think that’s a generational issue that is resurfacing now?
I’m not sure if it’s a generational issue or if it’s every generation. My father felt like it was expressing that frustration for him about his father. So I think maybe every generation of sons feels somehow let down by their fathers. That’s just my guess. And I wanted to expand that across time in the short story Expedition so that the Tyler phenomenon wasn’t just one thing that happened to one man once, but was something that had been happening to generations of this man’s family for hundreds of years and it’s all working to this ultimate conspiracy that will end with Sebastian’s son. In that way, we’re seeing the result of a long effort by Tyler Durden.
So Felix M. in Expedition is a distant relative of Sebastian?
Exactly. This is a way-back prequel.
Well, the ending of Expedition was quite powerful. It left me wanting to know more about what happens to Felix and how he deals with his version of Tyler Durden.
My rule with novels is that they should have a closure of energy because they have taken such a time and effort to consume. But short stories should have that explosion at the end where it just blasts you through a doorway into a new world and you want more. Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery ends when the children are about to throw the rocks. One rock strikes the woman, but we don't see her die. It cuts off at that point. A good short story ends with that big anticipation.
Even the buildup in the short story is out there. You set up the scene with a closed-off brothel area in a city where children toss condoms filled with fermented urine at women.
[Laughs] Yeah, I learned that in Germany while on tour.
That really happens in Germany? Kids tossing condoms filled with fermented urine at women?
Yes, exactly. And that’s why respectable women always remain outside those barriers. Because if they go through they would be pelted with these piss balloons.
Did you go there for the purpose of research?
No, I was there just on tour and saw these strange barriers with my publishers and some people, and I think that I was the only male in the group. The women said, “We can’t go through those doors,” and they explained why, so I went through by myself, wandered about, and came back out. But I left them standing with those women known as “Women Who Stand in Shame for Their Men,” which was kind of awkward.
Well, what did you see in the brothel area?
[Laughs] What you see in Amsterdam—a bunch of women sitting in chairs wearing bikinis, some of them fantastically beautiful. They were sitting on towel-covered barber chairs in the windows I saw holding little speakers saying, “Haben sie eine frage?” [Do you have a question?]
That’s very polite.
[Laughs] Well, they’re Germans!
Do you ever use any of your short stories as platforms for future novel ideas?
Sometimes. For example, Fight Club started as a series of short stories. Each one was a sketch to develop a premise and test it in my writers’ group to see if people would engage with it right away. A short story about the guy who goes to support groups; short story about the fight clubs; short story about waiters peeing in soup. And the ones that worked really engaged people. They instantly said, “Where is this going?” Those are the ones I knew to incorporate in the book.
In Expedition, Felix yearns for a normal life—as opposed to Sebastian, who seems to reject it.
There is a lot more anger in Felix than there is in Sebastian. Felix has an ax to grind. And I loved expressing that thing that I see in myself. When I wrote Fight Club in my 30s, my winning strategy was to fall back on anger; to always get pissed off. Anger would get me past every humiliation or every time where I felt I was being laughed at and failing. Anger was that little engine that drove me. And that is in Felix big-time, but not in Sebastian. Because Sebastian takes pills.
He is a bit more sedated, which brings me back to the comparison between the book and the movie. Fincher’s film is like heavy metal, but the book is a bit more melancholy, like Radiohead.
In a book you don’t want to burn the reader out. A book takes a long time to read. A movie is there passively and is presented to you and it’s over in two hours. If you go boom boom boom all the time in a book, then you just burn out your reader.
Something else that is very consistent in all your works is religion. You paint Tyler as a Christ-like figure by describing him with the line, “The man’s untidy shoulder length hair hinted at a desert prophet lifted from a verse of the Old Testament.” What are you trying to say about religion today by presenting the very figure of chaos in your stories as a “savior?”
It sounds a tiny bit bullshitty from me, but wasn’t Jesus himself kind of a radical? That sounds so bullshit, but if you look at it he kind of was the big radical that had to be destroyed. So much of American 20th century popular fiction consists of three characters: the good boy, passive and obedient; the big and noisy rebel; and the quiet, watching witness. In The Great Gatsby, you have Nick Carraway, who is the narrator that has retreated back to the Midwest and is telling you the story. Then you have Gatsby, who is big and noisy and brash. And then you have Saint Myrtle Wilson, Tom Buchanan’s paramour, because Gatsby is Daisy Buchanan’s paramour, and so one character, the obedient character, always commits suicide. Myrtle throws herself in front of the car and is killed. The rebel character is always killed by society. Gatsby is shot and killed. And then the witness always retreats to tell the story.
And in Fight Club, you have Sebastian shoot himself…
Right. I collapsed the model by having the good boy kill himself and by doing so kill the rebel. They are the same person. This then generated the witness by integrating both characters in the end, recognizing the American model of moderation because it’s teaching us, “Don’t be the good boy, don’t be the bad boy, be the moderate person.” That’s why we love those stories.
It’s amazing. Dead Poets Society was the only other social model movie for men in all of the ’90s—social models that show a way in which people can come together and talk about their experience. There are a lot of those for women—Joy Luck Club, women playing mahjong and talking about their lives; How to Make an American Quilt, some making a quilt to talk about their lives; Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood; Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants—all of these narratives that depict women coming together. The Help eventually ends with all these women sitting around the kitchen talking about what it’s like to be a maid. They all model a way for women to be together, but there are very few social model narratives for men. One of the few was Dead Poets Society. The good boy puts a gun to his head and kills himself. The bad boy is told “get out” and is banished. Typically with female characters, they are banished and not killed, but it’s the same social model.
Why do you think that there are so few outlets to express that sense of community for men?
I don’t know. Maybe because of the existing ones, like video games, tend to be a transgressive narrative. Like Grand Theft Auto, or some sort of war situation or first-person shooting scenario. Zombies have kind of been a narrative for men—but they tend to show people coming together to fight, more than coming together to communicate their experience. I couldn’t say.
Well, the role of women in your books is something that’s been talked about a lot. In Fight Club, you portrayed Marla Singer as a drug addict and overall terrible person that just wanted to take advantage of people. In Fight Club 2, you put her in a much more integrated, conservative role in the story, with a family. Is your plan to include more women in your stories? Or are you still very much focused on showing the point of view of a community of men?
I just want to take the best advantage of all my resources. Marla is a character, so Marla has to pull her weight. We need to cut back and forth between things for better pacing to create the illusion of time passing. I don’t care if Marla is a man or a woman—she is just another character and needs to pull her weight. I’m not developing her because she is a woman; I’m developing her because she is a character. In a way, by always focusing on action instead of description, I want to keep the momentum of the story moving, constantly having the tension move forward because description kills your tension. It really slows things. I always try to avoid too much gender or race in my stories because I think they are both distractions; they both alienate the reader. The reader wants to picture their own world in this world of moving things. You can do that best with just verbs and leave the description out of it. That is a pitfall of the comic book: it forces you to depict things in a more literal way. But in a book, if you don’t dictate what a person looks like, the reader fills that in. I never gave him [Sebastian] a name in the book.
Right. I originally thought his name was Joe because he kept referencing this “Joe.” “I’m Joe’s Anger,” “I’m Joe’s Clenching Intestine,” etc.
[Laughs] It’s ironic because the “I am Joe” series was a reference to a real series of Reader’s Digest that I read as a child. And I could refer to it in a book, legally. But when Fox went to depict it in a movie, Reader’s Digest said that it was a violation of copyright. So they had to change it to Jack. And now I can’t use Jack because Fox says it’s a violation of copyright. We are constantly reworking these characters so we don’t get sued.
And liability. Probably another reason why I don’t tell my friends who’s who in the book, because I’m afraid of getting sued.
Better safe than sorry. Going back to Fight Club, I read the foreword of the book and was intrigued. In the last sentence of the foreword, you say, “Being tired isn’t the same thing as being rich, but most times is close enough.” What did you mean by that?
Feeling fully self-expressed, and there is a sense of satisfaction with being fully self-expressed and being tired—having that comfort of being able to kind of fall asleep. That is comparable to the satisfaction of being completely cared for or in luxury, which is what I equate with being rich. That idea of being completely satiated either from wealth or from being fully self-expressed.
Do you think that now, with the millennials, the case is that people are not satisfied?
I think it’s kind of in flux because the millennials have seen their parents achieve a lot of the things that their parents were taught would make them happy, and yet their parents are still very unhappy and unsatisfied. So, the millennials can’t go after the same goals their parents went after. They are going to have to find some other goals to go after with the idea of satisfaction. And what those are, god only knows.
Do you think Tyler then represents that unhappiness? Because in Fight Club, Sebastian is very much sedated and Tyler is the angry one. But in Expedition, we see Felix as the angry one and Tyler takes on a much more passive role.
I’m not sure if it was really a decision. It was more of a realization that I didn’t want them all to be the same. I don’t want Tyler to be always the angry, scheming, vindictive one. I don’t want Sebastian to always be the martyr. I want them to each be their own person. But in a way, too, Felix is a passive bastard. He plans to destroy people’s lives from a distance, kind of like writers do. Bastards. They sit at home and write their stories and use your life and they make their money and they never have to be at the scene of the crime. That’s what Felix does. Felix is a bastard the way that Sebastian is a bastard by going into situations to figure out damage control for his company. They are both passive-aggressive bastards. At least Tyler is always an aggressive-aggressive bastard.
So do you, being a writer, include yourself in the “bastard” group?
[Laughs] I fully do, yes.
“Do you forgive God?” and “Do you forgive your father?”—these are questions posed to Felix in Expedition. You put “God” and “father” in the same place in his case. Is that how you feel? That god is a resentful father figure?
Don’t we always resent our circumstances? Just replace the word “God” with “fate,” or whatever. In a way, if we quit rebelling and rejecting the circumstances then maybe we can make some progress. That’s why I love the idea of Burning Man. The fact that it’s gone on for almost 30 years and it’s still about creativity and performance, year after year after year. And it just keeps getting bigger. As opposed to, god bless it, the Occupy Movement, which was kind of about complaint and protest. It happened one year and never came back. If you don’t make yourself a reaction and set yourself up to always hate god, then you have the freedom to do something else—to accept your circumstances and move beyond them. But, if are just constantly protesting against circumstances, then you are trapped by them. God, that sounded stupid, but that’s what I think.
So what’s next?
I’ve got a draft of the Lullaby screenplay, and will be doing a polish of that while I’m touring. We just signed a deal with James Franco for a Rant movie. And if that comes to fruition I’ll be doing a graphic novel sequel to Rant. Beyond that, I don’t know. A lot of things.