In literary history, authors often mirrored the social
situation of its time through their works. For this reason, many of the
greatest works were seen as representations of some social affairs, wars,
political movements and other occurrences of the period of time during which the
literary work was written. When it comes to more contemporary American
literature, one of the biggest outstanding names is Chuck Palahniuk. Making his
major literary outbreak in 1996 when he published Fight Club, and with the subsequent
film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, Palahniuk has become more
of an icon of modern American literature.
In my essay, I will try put focus on Palahniuk’s
depiction of society throughout his novels. The novel I will mostly focus on is
Fight Club, due to its international
success and an ongoing discussion among the critics. I will begin by some
scholarly ideas on his view on politics, which I will follow by my own
understandings of Palahniuk’s depiction of the society. Finally, I will mention
some of the criticism, as well as praises aimed at Palahniuk and try to analyse
it. I will try to point out Palahniuk’s importance in American literature.
Some of the scholarly criticism directed towards
Palahniuk are concerned with his political views of society, as well as his
depiction of violence in the novels. Many of the critics argue that his
characters represent the current situation of the American society and possibly
the rest of the world. It isn’t unknown that his main characters are often
rebelling against existing social and political systems. Is Palahniuk trying to
say that the American society is close-minded and politically ignorant? Is he
trying to say that Americans are violent? Can we put Palahniuk’s criticism of
politics in the postmodern era only?
Charles Michael Palahniuk was born in 1962 in
Washington, United States. His last name is of Ukrainian origin. His parents
divorced when he was only fourteen years old. He graduated from Columbia High School,
after which he attended the University of Oregon. In 1986, he graduated with a
BA in journalism and briefly worked as a journalist for Portland newspaper.
According to Chaplinsky, Palahniuk also worked in a hospice and as a mechanic.
His major novels are Fight Club (1996), Invisible Monsters (1999), Survivor
(1999), Diary (2003), Beautiful You (2014).
Palahniuk’s view of society as seen through his novels
One interesting evidence of Palahniuk’s political view
of fascism in Fight Club was proposed by a critic Peter Mathews. His claim is
that the central character of Fight Club, Tyler Durden, displays a
revolutionary figure with his idealistic leadership which can be taken as
fascist. Mathews idea is that fascism itself should not be taken as a primarily
leftist or rightist political movement, and it is also mixed with communism. He
asserts that fascism is “fundamentally nihilist”, which is a perfect definition
of Palahniuk’s protagonists.
Many of the scholars who were vocal about Palahniuk’s
works would often take Fight Club as a direct commentary to the immediate
political situation of its time. However, I believe his existentialist nature
of writing criticises not only its current political situation, but also its
society as a whole and the nature of human behaviour in general, which is a
claim made by Mathews as well. “Fight Club’s critique, after all, is not
restricted to the “postmodern” world, but repeatedly points back both to the
foundations of modernity (to such events as the French Revolution) and even
further into past, to ancient religious ceremonies and rituals (such as human
sacrifice).” (Mathews, 2005, 84)
A scholarly critic, Henry Giroux wrote that “Fight
Club appears to offer a critique of late capitalist society and the misfortunes
it generates” (Giroux, 2001). Mathews argues that Giroux calls Palahniuk’s work
to be “a symptom of contemporary culture of cynicism, a recent trend in
American culture”. (Mathews, 2005, 81)
In his essay, Mathews argues that Palahniuk’s character,
Tyler Durden, represents a fascist figure. However, fascism needs to be understood
as neither leftist nor rightist movement, as all authoritarian movements were
originally leftist. He concludes that Palahniuk wanted to warn the readers not
to blindly follow any seemingly trustworthy movement and this is a perspective
that can be applied not only to politics, but to everyday life too.
The whole idea of creating a Fight Club includes
having its own rules and a leader who imposes those rules. This, indeed, can be
interpreted as fascist. However, I personally believe that even such a “club”
is a paradoxical element of this novel, because it includes angry men who are
unhappy with their average lives in a country ran by consumerism (a system
which you cannot change yourself, you have to agree with the rules and live
your life accordingly), and yet they create a society in which they, again,
agree to new rules and agree with their leader without asking any questions or
even thinking about breaking the rules. So I believe this is Palahniuk’s
commentary to the human nature: we seek life in a community, and being in a
community requires having rules which apply to everyone included. Whether or
not this represents a specific political idea is an open question.
Another example of this idea of a “community” of some
kind can be found in Palahniuk’s Survivor.
In this book, the main character is the last remaining survivor of a secret
religious suicide cult. The ultimate rule of this cult is the final suicide,
which is a sort of “enlightenment” into a new life. All members of this society
commit suicide. A scholar Antonio Casado de Rocha, claimed in his essay:
“Survivor is a parody of religion in America, but all its narrator wants is to
be redeemed from his Christ-like role in order to be accepted back into human
community.” (de Rocha, 2005, 106)
Again, there is a group led by rules and its members
are blind followers of those. Also, this religious fanaticism is an obvious
criticism towards today’s craze influenced by the mass media and lack of
rationality, which I also understood as Palahniuk’s commentary on the human
Criticism and approvals
The reception of Palahniuk’s works is very diverse;
some love him and some criticize his work. Either way, the ways in which his
novels are understood seem to be radically different. There are numerous
different interpretations behind the meanings of each one of his characters, as
well as ideas behind Palahniuk’s novels.
One of the approvals comes from Jesse Kavadlo, who
suggests that the obvious nihilism and expressions of violence in Palahniuk’s
novels are actually the result of internal struggles, not the external ones. In
his essay Chuck Palahniuk, Closet Moralist, Kavadlo claims: “Palahniuk’s
narrators rebel against what the books position as the emasculating conformity
of contemporary America (IKEA takes a bigger beating than fight club’s
members), but really what the narrator has been fighting, literally and
figuratively, is himself.” (Kavadlo, 2005, 5).
He goes on to say that Palahniuk’s writing is
influenced by his personal insecurities. This view takes us away from the view
that Palahniuk criticises the society in his novels and makes us understand him
from a different perspective. However, my personal stance is that his novels
are a result of a little bit of both. While his novels are, indeed, a
commentary on modern life and society, they are also highly filtered through
his own views, his own struggles and his own life.
Not everyone has positive reviews. One of the most
controversial, negative critiques written about Palahniuk is the one by Laura
Miller, a book critic, who decided to write completely freely about her
opinions of Palahniuk’s works, therefore clearly expressing her criticism in
the very first paragraph of an article she wrote: “he affects to attack the
shallow, simplistic, dehumanizing culture of commodity capitalism by writing
shallow, simplistic, dehumanized fiction.” (Miller, 2003)
Her view opposes the view later suggested by Kavadlo, and
she is going on to say: “This problem is endemic to his novels: Everyone in
them sounds like Chuck Palahniuk. They have one of two moods: gleeful,
sloganeering wrath and sullen self-pity.” (Miller, 2003)
Why are there such mixed reviews? On the one hand,
there are complex theories that propose Palahniuk was actually fusing different
political ideologies to emphasize everything that is wrong on our society. Mathews
even proposed evidence that suggests Palahniuk intentionally used fascist and
communist elements. On the other hand, there are some critics who completely
dismiss Palahniuk as a nihilist, a boring writer who fails to create a
meaningful story and, in turn, creates complex novels without any ideas behind
My view is that we (the readers) should read
Palahniuk’s works carefully, as he seems to give clues in every chapter of his
novels. Additionally, we should contemplate each of his novels as a whole.
Perhaps the idea wasn’t to create the most complex characters and stories, but
to actually react to the world’s irrationalism and problems.
With all the positive and negative feedback on
Palahniuk’s works, one thing is inevitably obvious. An author who received such
mixed criticism and reviews, from being called one of the greatest authors of
the new generation, to getting such harsh and angry criticism, must have a
reason for causing such diverse opinions which are open for discussion. However
we end up understanding his works, articles are still written about his major
novels, as well as his different political and psychological complexities and
unique humour he used.
In this seminar paper I wanted to show the different
perspectives on Palahniuk’s view of the society. First, I described his
commentary on politics with the help of other scholars’ works. I mentioned how
Mathews explains that Palahniuk criticises capitalism through his character
Tyler Durden in Fight club. Finally, I gathered opposing criticism and
approvals and presented them through commentary by Kavadlo and Miller. In this
part I was hoping to draw attention to different perspectives and understanding
of Palahniuk’s views on the society.
When there is an author who tries to point out the society’s
worst traits, they cannot write and remain unnoticed.
1. Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Norton, 1996.
2. Palahniuk, Chuck. Survivor. New York: Norton, 1999.