Author Chuck Palahniuk tells us why it's time to re-open Fight Club23
“His theory is that there’s been a rock opera for every generation since Tommy and The Wall, and the millennials really haven’t had a rock opera. So he hopes it will be Fight Club.” Author Chuck Palahniuk is on the other end of the phone, and I’m struggling to match the calm, thoughtful voice I’m hearing with chaotic novels like Choke, Invisible Monsters — and of course, Fight Club. It’s the day before Palahniuk leaves on a book tour promoting his new collection of short stories, Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread, but at the moment we’re talking about David Fincher’s aspirations for the Fight Club musical.
“He’s got Trent Reznor working on the score for one year. And after a year they expect to have enough of the primary songs to start putting it together,” he tells me. “David is working with Julie Taymor to figure out how to create these enormous spectacles as she does, similar to The Lion King and Spiderman. So that’s David’s big dream.”
Palahniuk is talking a lot about his 1996 debut novel lately — and David Fincher’s film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Not only does its antihero Tyler Durden show up in a short story from Make Something Up, but the author has written a graphic novel sequel to Fight Club, with the first issue arriving today. It picks up years after the original novel ended, with the narrator — this time he goes by “Sebastian” — married to Marla Singer and navigating suburban fatherhood. As one might expect, cracks begin to show, and both Tyler Durden and the anarchist self-help group Project Mayhem soon return to the forefront. I chatted with Palahniuk about the sequel, what it was like working in a new medium, and why Fight Club continues to entice new readers.
Bryan Bishop: It’s been nearly 20 years since the original Fight Club novel came out. What made now the right time to revisit these characters?
Chuck Palahniuk: One of my best friends, the thriller writer Chelsea Cain — who writes the Heartsick series and the Kick Lannigan series — she knows a lot of comic people here in Portland. And she threw a dinner party where she kinda set me up on a blind date with [comic writers] Matt Fraction and Brian Bendis and got them to really hammer on me about writing a comic. And right from the beginning, that comic was always going to be a sequel to Fight Club. At the time, my current book contract with Doubleday was for a collection of short stories that were for the most part already written, so I did have this big window of time that I could work on the learning curve for comics. And then [Dark Horse comics editor-in-chief] Scott Allie was also a friend of Chelsea’s, and Scott asked for an introduction, and that’s how I got hooked up with Dark Horse. And since they were local, they really told me a whole new storytelling skill.
What was it like writing for a new medium, and learning how comics and graphic novels work?
It was great to be the kind of stupid person in the room, because usually I’m the person that everyone looks to, that expects to take the lead and declare what comes next. And it was nice to be kind of subjugated to the expertise of all these other people, and to be able to learn from them. And make mistakes that they wouldn’t make, and reinvent comics in my own different, weird way.
Were there different aspects of the medium that presented particular challenges for you?
Well I wanted to mimic certain tricks that David Fincher did in the film, where he acknowledged the medium — by making it appear the film was rattling in the cage of the projector, and pointing out changeover dots, and burning the film and splicing the film and breaking the fourth wall. So right from the beginning I wanted to see some photorealistic things that would appear on the page, like rose petals and pills, that would obscure — or occlude — people’s faces; their expression. And also captions and dialogue, that kind of implied the inauthenticity of what was being said. To cut the importance of the written word on the page. And so that became one of the real-world tricks I wanted to do that were kind of a nod to David.
It has to be fun to have that expanded toolset to play with. When those things start happening in the first issue, there’s an immediate tension. It draws you in.
There have been studies that show occluded things, or incomplete forms, are much more engaging, and that’s what led to so many fashion magazines no longer having heads. It’s that we will look at the headless thing, trying to complete it in our minds for much longer than we’ll look at the complete thing with a full face. And it’s another thing I liked about [Fight Club 2 artist] Cameron Stewart’s style, is that he will depict just a mouth or just eyes with dialogue. And we’re much more drawn to that incomplete thing than we are to the respite of a full face or a full figure.
Talking about real-life elements, there are two panels in the first issue where someone calls a character that looks an awfully lot like you. Is that person going to be showing up in future issues?
Yeeeeeeah, that’s our meta thing. [Laughs.] Around issue four and issue five, I’m going to step in as a last resort character that Marla comes to in her search. So she’s actually going to show up in our writer’s group, in which Chelsea Cain is a member. So Chelsea will become a minor character, as will I and the rest of the writers.
What was the idea behind that? Is there are a larger mythology here that you’re building, beyond what the original book and movie did?
We live in a world where the creator becomes as much a character as the creation. People have this mythology around Matt Fraction or Brian Bendis. Or Kelly Sue [DeConnick], Matt’s wife. And it seems like acknowledging the creator would be another one of those breaking the fourth wall things that makes the narrative seem a little bit more true, because on some level you’re acknowledging that it’s fiction. And once I saw how Cameron was going to draw us, how flatteringly… Ah, the writer’s group!
The original Fight Club resonated by satirizing certain aspects of consumer and media culture in a way that felt very fresh at the time — but since then, a lot of other works have tried to do that same thing. When you talk to readers that discover the book today, is it that same anti-consumer culture message speaking to them, or is it something else?
Hmmm…. There still seems to be this desperate need to be tested, and to discover a person’s full potential. And one thing I’m writing about more overtly in the sequel is Joseph Campbell had a theory that every child needs a secondary father. That there’s a birth father that can love the child, and support the child, but after a certain age — usually in adolescence or young adulthood — there needs to be a secondary father. A mentor, a teacher, a reverend, a minister, a drill sergeant, a sports coach. Someone who isn’t as nurturing, but calls the child to perform greater and greater accomplishments that expand the child’s idea of their own potential. They basically send the child on quests, and they’re not precluded from the child getting hurt in minor ways in order to gain a greater confidence and ability. Which is something the birth father can’t really do; the birth father is just too invested in the child’s safety and well-being.
"There still seems to be this desperate need to be tested."
But the problem is that so many of these secondary fathers have fallen out of the culture right now. Religious leaders are seen as pariahs, and teachers, to a large extent, are seen as would-be sex offenders — as are coaches, and the military, and so many of these forms in which the secondary father would arrive are disappearing. So we see more and more kids going into gangs, which have always acted as a secondary father for certain groups. It usually groups the Irish, the Italians; there was even a Jewish mafia, so there was always an organized crime and gang world that acted as the secondary father. And that’s what I’m seeing more of now, just because the conventional secondary fathers are disappearing.
I’m not nearly as verbose about it in the comic, but it is a point. And it’s something I hear from a lot of people.
With regard to filling that void, after Fight Club came out people started up real fight clubs, which seemed to be focusing predominantly on the physicality of it rather than the thought and intellect behind it. Is that something that bothers you or gets in the way of your writing process, or are you able to just put that aside and focus on your work?
You know, on one level I’m glad they did the fight clubs, because it’s a step. It’s a kind of first step to personal discovery, and whether it’s that kind of consensual fight, or whether it is weightlifting, as long as it is some way of discovering their own physical capacity. And it’s an action; it’s not someone sitting and thinking. So I fully support that.
Hmmm. Beyond that, my work — my dream, or idea was that Project Mayhem and the whole organization would work to create empowered individuals who would go off to create their own visions. And that the organization itself would disappear. People weren’t meant to stay in it; the organization wasn’t meant to sustain its own power. Which was my experience with doing [Werner H. Erhard’s self-improvement training] EST. A lot of people who had a vision, who were empowered by EST — including myself — then went off to become the person they dreamed of being. That’s how I started writing. But a lot of people who didn’t really have a vision became part of EST. They really couldn’t bridge out of it. They just kind of perpetuated the power of the organization, because they didn’t have their own personal vision. And so what we’re seeing in Fight Club 2 is that Project Mayhem has crossed the line where it’s no longer about empowering people. It’s about maintaining its own power in the world.
When you first started publishing, there was comparatively little online activity out there, and books could percolate by word of mouth over time. Today things can be spread and dissected so rapidly by online culture there’s a very different vibe to how things spread. What’s your take on that evolution, and do you think it impacts writers coming up today?
It’s one reason why comics were so appealing. [Laughs.] The comics would have to come out over months and months, this very gradual discovery process, and I like that a lot. On the other hand, I feel a little… pity, for starting-out writing and creative people, because I perceive it as harder and harder to get the isolation that you need to really create your vision. I remember friends used to be appalled that I would unplug my telephone while I wrote, and I would spend a whole day with the phone unplugged. They thought that was the most antisocial, misanthropic thing you could do. And these days people automatically have to respond to every text and every call. How do you develop the concentration, and a vision, and a narrative in your head if you’re so constantly pulled away by the outside world?
The fact that there are apps designed to shut out everything but the window that you’re writing in seems indicative of a much larger problem.
I can totally understand that. I know writers who have one computer for the social stuff they have to do and one computer that is just their writing computer, that has no connectivity.
Speaking of that, what is your writing process like these days?
My process is still very journalistic. The freshest, most incredible stuff is always the stuff that people tell you in person. So someone will tell me an anecdote, and if I find it really compelling and heartbreaking and funny, I will repeat it at a party. And because of the competitive nature of human beings, everyone hearing that anecdote will have to offer a similar anecdote trying to top it. And by doing so, I can present a theme and allow dozens or hundreds of people in different social settings to develop that theme from their own experience. And in doing so, I turn one anecdote into a very large thing that is quilted with details from a lot of people’s lives — but still along the same theme. It’s a very Studs Terkel kind of work, but it keeps me from, you know, from stealing ideas off the internet. Which are in a way already published and out there. And it gives me access to the very freshest things that nobody’s acknowledging.
I hate to throw this last question at you because I’m sure you get it in every interview, but — you’ve got the graphic novel coming, the book of short stories, possibly the musical — Are there other Fight Club stories you want tell? Is there another novel in the works?
When I go on tour tomorrow I’ll be taking a rough screenplay for the Lullaby movie that I’ve agreed to look through and make notes on. So Lullaby is supposed to start production in a year, and we just finalized the agreement with James Franco for the Rant film, and so my dream is that it gets made, and turns out well enough that I can do the Rant sequel as a graphic novel. Just like repeating that pattern. And beyond that, I just don’t know.