‘Fight Club’ Author Reflects On Violence And Masculinity, 20 Years Later

Chuck Palahniuk talks Tyler Durden, Donald Trump and comic books.
Actors Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are shown in a scene from the film "Fight Club."
Actors Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are shown in a scene from the film "Fight Club."
HO Old / Reuters

“We’re the middle children of history,” a blond man preaches. He’s slick, and leathery. “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

He goes on about the squandering of great potential, about working hard and not earning his due. He advocates not progress but a return to roots, not acknowledging the dry and cracked foundation he’s upholding.

His face is on posters in college dorm rooms countrywide, and emblazoned on the hearts of young men: Tyler Durden, the ne’er-do-well alter ego of the narrator of Fight Club, which turned 20 earlier this year.

It’s a book about consumerism, and an expressive, violent response to the cold fact of it. It’s also a book about toxic masculinity, even if its author never deigns to expressly critique or uphold controlled violence. Chuck Palahniuk describes the story as one about the triumph of the individual, a bold questioning of authority. But what does that message mean today, in a political climate where such beliefs could determine voting patterns that prize burning down over building up?

Earlier this year, Palahniuk issued Fight Club 2, a comic book that follows its narrator, Sebastian, as he unknowingly stops taking his medication and is re-introduced to Tyler Durden, the nihilistic devil on his shoulder. Below, Palahniuk talks about the medium of comics and makes an uncomfortable comparison between Tyler Durden and Donald Trump.

Dark Horse Books

When and why did you decide to write a sequel to Fight Club?

I decided about two years ago, when the thriller writer Chelsea Cain invited me to dinner, and ambushed me by inviting Brian Michael Bendis and Matt Fraction, all of whom are comic legends at this point. The gang proceeded to convince me to write a comic.

So it was originally conceived of in that medium.

Yeah. I kind of knew that in trying a new storytelling form, it would be smarter to stay with characters that my readership was already familiar with.

What were some of the challenges of comic book writing?

All my friends said that, for two years, they had never seen me happier. It was so much fun. Working with groups of people, working in meetings, working with the artists and the colorists and my editor at Dark Horse, all of whom are just brilliant at what they do. And getting to be the student again, getting to be the dumbest one in the room was a fantastic vacation for me for two years.

What does the message of Fight Club mean to you today, in our current political climate?

The central message of Fight Club was always about the empowerment of the individual through small, escalating challenges. And so I see that happening on both the right and the left. The left is discovering its power through doing battle with its institutions, in academia and otherwise. On the right I see people doing battle in their own way, against institutions that they see as the authority. In a way, it’s like everyone rebelling against dad, and discovering their own power by killing the father, as the Buddhists would say. Eventually you have to kill your father and kill your teacher.

I read in another interview, someone asked you what Tyler Durden would think of Trump, and you compared the two.

The whole blond at a podium thing was too close. It spooked me.

American author Chuck Palaniuk.
American author Chuck Palaniuk.
Ulf Andersen via Getty Images

Would you say Fight Club is more of a critique of violent masculinity, a celebration of it, or both?

Boy. I wouldn’t say it’s a critique. I think that because it’s consensual, it’s OK. It’s a mutually agreed-upon thing which people can discover their ability to sustain violence or survive violence as well as their ability to inflict it. So, in a way, it’s kind of a mutually agreed-upon therapy. I don’t see it as condoning violence ― because in the story it is consensual ― or as ridiculing it, because in this case it does have a use.

Like the argument that sports are a safe outlet for violence.

And also about Michel Foucault’s obsession with S&M. The really structured, ritualistic, consensual world of S&M is a way of discovering your ability to endure pain or to inflict pain.

But then of course in the original book Tyler Durden’s violence goes beyond the confines of the club. The difference between the book’s intention and how fans perceive him is interesting. Would you say that fans who celebrate him or celebrate anarchy are misinterpreting the intention of the story?

No, not really. Because they are kind of recognizing the phase where they discover their personal power through acting out against the world.

You insert yourself as a character into Fight Club 2, trying to stop Tyler Durden. Why do you, as an author, want to insert yourself in that way?

To kind of demonstrate a futile attempt to insist I could still control the story, which is really out of my hands now. In a way it’s also Roland Barthes’ idea about the death of the author. That the author can only control things up to a certain point, and the author doesn’t really matter once the reader has read the story. The reader brings so much to the story that the author’s kind of automatically excluded.

I think any kind of a creative person is creating a kind of baby that they will leave on the doorstep of the reader. They want the reader to adopt that baby and to raise that baby as their own. Because that’s how your work goes on into the future.

Fight Club 3 is on its way. What can we expect?

I really pulled a lot of punches with Fight Club 2. It’s a child in peril, which is a pretty standard plot device that I would never have used except in this new form, and I felt I should maintain certain standards of conventionality, for fear of losing people completely. New form, too wild a story, might’ve been a recipe for exhausting people.

But in Fight Club 3, now that I understand the many ways in which Cameron Stewart saved me, I can write a really, really wild story, and I think still keep the reader on board. So, all of the things I didn’t do in Fight Club 2 because I was afraid they were too much, I did in Fight Club 3, because now I have, I think, my readers are more comfortable with the graphic novel form.

Do you think you’ll continue with comic book writing?

I think it depends on the nature of the story. In every medium, you have to play to the strengths of that medium. There are some things I want to write that are still too outlandish to be depicted in even comics. Those are the things that I’ll put in short stories or novels. There are still things that are too outlandish to be made into movies, but those will be in comics instead. If things are rendered literally enough to be made into a film, they cross a line, they alienate the viewer.

For example, the dying children soldiers in Fight Club 2. In comic form they work, because they can be made a little comic, easier to be with, a little unreality to them. You could not use those in a movie. Once they’re literal enough to be filmed, they’d be heartbreaking.


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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Brian Michael Bendis’s name. We regret the error.


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