Fight Club

Fight Club - movie tie-in coverDo I really need to read this book again?

Isn’t once enough? And haven’t I seen the movie like a dozen times? And aren’t they the same anyway?

It’s not like it’s real literature, this stuff. Right? It’s pulp. It’s pop. With its movie poster cover of Brad Pitt and Ed Norton “in character” and that joke soap title device.

Did I ever learn to properly pronounce Palahniuk? “PAL-a-nuck”, I heard someone say on a podcast the other day. I always said “Pal-AN-yuk”.

Palahniuk said Fight Club “might be the most-quoted novel of the 20th century”. I wonder if he gets paid every time some op-ed writer or features hack or sub or anyone anywhere connected with putting words in print said “The first rule about ____ is you don’t talk about _____”

I wonder if he gets a royalty every time someone gets called a “snowflake”.

Obviously he doesn’t. Nobody makes any money out of writing any more, unless you’ve had a hit movie. But this shit has been in currency since the 90s – since the fucking 90s – which actually makes it a prime target for this blog since everything here seems to be about the 90s.

So, tell me why do I need to read this book again? And why now? What’s the point of reading anything?

I am Joe’s complete indifference.

I am 29 again. I’m living in Garnethill, a block and a half from the Art School and two from Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow’s answer to the Sunset Strip but slicked with piss and supper wrappers instead of palm trees and sunshine. All the glamour, glitz and debauchery you can shake a battered sausage at. The M8 motorway’s within easy earshot, but Garnethill is remote as an eagle’s eerie and feels like the Glasgow student rental market’s biggest best kept secret.

I watch the movie and I love it, as everybody does. I shoplift the book from my McJob (or more accurately, my Bargain Job) in a bookshop where I toil at the trough twice a week to provide beer stamps and food tokens to supplement the student loan that paid for the teacher training course which I am still – unbelievably – paying off at £2 a fucking week or whatever nearly 20 years later. I tear through the book in one or two sittings and somehow my shoplifted copy stays with me all that time until now, despite many flittings, lendings and charity shop culls.

Garnethill & Jordanhill. Mark & Jo. Val & Ali. Dom & Gordon. Claire & Johnny. Eastbank Academy & Duncanrig High.

In this world of dualities, we can’t forget our old pals, depression and anxiety, who announced their presence in my life that year, auguring the first indications of my having taken a massive misstep in life. My year of teacher training year ended with my first conversations about mental health with full-bore medical professionals. I’d sort of self-hypnotised myself about going into teaching and it wasn’t going well. Standing at the platform edge at Shettleston station fantasising darkly about potential ways out was a particular low point. I was in massive denial about everything. Why was I putting myself through this? Maybe I was doing it to please my mother. Maybe I was doing it to please my father. Maybe I’d convinced myself I needed to have a profession, a vocation, a title, something – metaphorical or literal – that I could hang around my neck to define me in some way, to create substance and structure out of the slime that I surely was.

And maybe that’s what depression is. Your own personal Tyler Durden rearing up inside and kicking the absolute shit out of you. Or trying to knock sense into you.

I am the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

Reading the book again, depression is, on some level, one of the things that Fight Club seems to be about. I have to say “on some level”, of course, because Fight Club has more levels than a New York City skyscraper. It’s “about” a lot of things, but depression is surely in there. All that stuff about hitting bottom? And I mean, what’s this if not a perfect literary evocation of the blackness of depression:

I wanted to breathe smoke. Birds and deer are a silly luxury, and all the fish should be floating. I wanted to burn the Louvre. I’d do the Elgin Marbles with a sledgehammer and wipe my ass with the Mona Lisa. This is my world now.

But don’t go looking for answers, because on another of those levels Fight Club is like some kind of anti-self help book:

Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer. Maybe self-destruction is the answer . . .
Maybe we have to break everything to make something better of ourselves . . .
It’s only after you’ve lost everything, that you’re free to do anything . . .
I should run from self-improvement and should be running towards disaster . . .

On some other level – quite a few of them, actually – it’s a how-to manual, like the Anarchists’ Cookbook wrapped up inside a day-glo narrative. Fight Club cheerfully primes its readers on the basics of a number of anarchist staples, such as how to make napalm, or nitroglycerine, or plastic explosive, or how to make a silencer for a gun. If you’re paying attention you can even learn how to topple a building, or at the very least how to blow up your own apartment.

Some of the more socially acceptable “tips” include how to be a cinema projectionist, how to run an allotment, and how to make soap. (First we render fat.) On the whole, you could say that Fight Club instructively demonstrates effective multitasking – up to a point, anyway.

On another level again, perhaps in a building all its own, Fight Club can be read as a philosophical treatise on the crisis of masculinity. That’s well-enough elaborated on elsewhere but it’s really interesting looking back at how tame and simplistic this notion seems with everything that’s going on right now regarding the debate around gender fluidity and the increasingly strident noises made on the radical left where even discussion of biological gender is considered hate speech. In this context, masculinity has it easy.

But how does Fight Club work as a novel?

My first reaction on re-reading it is that the language in this book is one of the reasons why novels – and novelists – continue to exist at all. You can’t write a how-to book or a self-help book or a philosophical treatise with this kind of language. No-one talks like this. No-one else really even writes like this. The only home for this kind of language is in a novel. It’s intrinsically literary.

It’s playful, but not self-consciously so. It’s exuberant, but not tiresomely so. It takes joy in its unusualness, but not at the expense of story and character, but in service equally of both.

And it’s not just the words. There’s the constant timeline fuckery.  The jump-cut syntax and channel-hopping narrative are instinctive and familiar and hugely entertaining. That “twist”, hidden in plain sight from the very first line. The character definition and narrative voice are so beautifully honed, no wonder this book struck a chord that still reverberates.

But it’s the language, the searing, soaring language that keeps me gripped, image after lacerating image. It’s punchy enough to snap a tooth off at the root, you could say.

The text is jam packed with verbs, the muscle and sinew of literature. This book is all go, all do. In Fight Club verbs do the work of adjectives. What he sees, we see. But you see what’s happening, first and foremost, not just pages and pages of costume and scenery. There’s a total lack of adverbial phrases, or static paragraphs bloated with description. Like you read a book like this to know what colour the wallpaper is. The fetching red leather jacket that Tyler Durden wears in the film is nowhere in this book. The bits of description that do exist are there to underscore the violence and darkness at the heart of the narrator’s world.

It’s all very Elmore Leonard in this respect, but the novel it reminds me of most here is American Psycho, a book every bit as brutal as Fight Club, but which uses language in a very different way. Brett Easton Ellis distances you with endless descriptions and lists of brand names. These descriptions point to the vacuity of his narrator Patrick Bateman and highlight his obsession with surface and status, as represented by Bill Blass shirts and silk-screened Armani ties. You don’t see the person he’s describing so much as you see a walking till receipt.

In Fight Club you see everything you need to, but you also feel. A lot. Mostly pain.

Last week, I tapped a guy and he and I got on the list for a fight. The guy must have had a bad week, got both of my arms behind my head in a full nelson and rammed my face into the concrete floor until my teeth bit open the inside of my cheek and my eye was swollen shut and was bleeding, and after I said, stop, I could look down and there was a print of half my face in blood on the floor.

And what do we get at the end of it all? After all this fighting, all this violence and mayhem? Well, his narrator gets the girl, for one, which puts it right up there with all the fairy tale endings that have ever been, and strikes an oddly conservative note for a novel with such radical content. Is Fight Club then a sort of fairy tale? A parable for our times about the redemptive powers of love?

This isn’t love as in caring. This is about property as in ownership.

Possibly not.

Apart from that, though, and different from the movie, there are no explosions, no end of the credit system, no collapsing buildings, no collapse of the world order. No nothing. Which is a closure of sorts, and in a funny kind of 90s kind of way, the end of the book reminds me a bit of the Seinfeld credo.

I’ve met God across his long walnut desk with his diplomas hanging on the wall behind him, and God asks me, “Why?”
Didn’t I realise that each of us is a sacred, unique snowflake of special unique specialness?
Can’t I see how we’re all manifestations of love?
I look at God behind his desk, taking notes on a pad, but God’s got this all wrong.
We are not special.
We are not crap or trash, either.
We just are.
We just are, and what happens just happens.
And God says, “No, that’s not right.”
Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can’t teach God anything.

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The Alchemist

It’s pushing twenty years since I read The Alchemist.

I don’t really remember reading it first time around, to be honest, but I definitely did. A few little bits of memory are shaken loose here and there, but they’re flakes of peeling paint rather than chunks of crumbling masonry. After reading it this time, I kind of want to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Not because I enjoyed it so much, or because I want to deepen my understanding of it, but because I feel there’s something I’m not getting.

Why was it such a monster best-seller?  How does such wooden-legged prose travel so widely? What’s it really about? And what did I find in it that obviously touched me?

The Alchemist definitely made an impression on my life. It’s there in the black and white photograph that hangs on the wall behind the bust of Ivor Cutler – the photograph I’m taking down now, uncertain of what to do with it. I pause for a moment before I take it off its hook . . .

The photograph is of two stones, one positioned slightly behind the other. The image is composed in such a way that it looks as if they are sitting in a shaft of light or under a breath of air, like a blessing or a wish. It gives them a mystical aura, makes them come alive in the frame.

I feel bad taking the photo down because it was made for me with love by my artist pal A. She created it to be a companion piece to another larger photograph that hangs above it on, an image of a shepherd’s goat horn cup. They’re weird and brilliant and beautiful and I love them. The act of taking one of them away feels wrong, somehow, but I need to make room for a new thing I’ve made, so off it comes and I’m suddenly reminded that these images, the pairing of them specifically, was inspired by our shared enthusiasm for this book. In fact, I realise as I’m writing this, it might even have been A who recommended the book to me in the first place.

Both images have been on my wall since I moved into this flat over twelve years ago and have become kind of invisible to me. I understand there and then that I need to go on a bit of a journey with The Alchemist. Maybe by examining my relationship with this book, by tracing the influences it has had on my life across the years, will I be able to properly “see” these images again.

The stones in A’s photograph represent Urim and Thummim, stones imbued with magical properties which feature in the book as a kind of Macguffin. The story of The Alchemist concerns itself with a young boy called Santiago, a Spanish shepherd, and his personal quest which is instigated by an encounter with an old mystic.

“Take these,” said the old man, holding out a white stone and a black stone that had been embedded at the centre of [his golden] breastplate. “They are called Urim and Thummim. The black signifies ‘yes’ and the white ‘no’. When you are unable to read the omens, they will help you to do so. Always ask an objective question.”

The mystic unleashes the boy’s latent thirst for knowledge, allows him to articulate his desire to see the Pyramids in Egypt, ultimately to find his treasure. Part of his quest is about learning to speak the Language of the World…

“There was a language in the world that everyone understood. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”

From here, Santiago learns to identify omens and portents that will save his life and shape his destiny, to listen to his heart, and eventually to understand “the principle that governs all things”.

“In alchemy, it’s called the Soul of the World. When you want something with all your heart, you are closest to the Soul of the World.”

A’s photograph, therefore, was nothing less than a magical aid to assist me in my life’s quest to find what it is I believe in and desire, the gift of being able to converse in the Language of the World.

Quite a gift.

I’m kind of overwhelmed by the buried associations this book unearths. Teacher training. Mum dying. Living with C. Doing the MPhil. I keep a tally in my notebook the whole way through, alongside notable phrases that might serve as a guide later to help me figure out what this book is actually about.

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

“People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”

There are more quotes here. It all seems so seductive and easy. The story of The Alchemist places the reader at the centre of the universe. Forget Galileo, forget Kopernicus, the sun is you and everything is aligned in your orbit. It’s a guilt-free pass on a high speed train to a shiny happy future where everything is dreamy and you are at liberty to do whatever you so desire, unencumbered by the desires of others.

It’s problematic on a number of levels and speaks of a kind of decadent western entitlement and rampant individualism. Maybe you could get away with this kind of stuff in the 1980s and 90s, but it’s a tough sell in 2018.

mindstoreIn the cascade of associations that The Alchemist triggers, I’m reminded of a course I went on around that time, at the turn of the millenium. The book still sits on my self-help shelf. Billed as “a Personal Development and Performance Improvement Programme”, MindStore communicates many of the same certainties about how the “universe” works, presented with the trappings of a corporate away day – with conference packs, flipcharts, nametags and all – swapping portentous allegorical mumbo-jumbo for portentous allegorical business jargon.

Both The Alchemist and MindStore have in common the idea of a personal, individual quest, of life-as-narrative. It requires no small degree of solipsistic jiggery-pokery on the part of both authors to thoroughly place oneself at the centre of the universe, rather than as a tiny part of it. There are no supporting roles in this quest, only heroes. No bit parts, no cameos, no crowd artists, no spear-carriers.

In both cases, the acquisition of personal wealth is the galvanising, life-shaping, quest-defining goal that “all the universe” supposedly bends itself towards helping you achieve, as long as you imagine, as long as you believe, as long as you want it hard enough.

As far as I can make out, the people who have done best out of this way of organising one’s inner imaginative life are the authors of these fictions.

Coelho’s genius is to create a protagonist blank enough, generic enough, for readers to project themselves into. The Alchemist is written in a sparse, flavourless prose that reads like white bread tastes. Perhaps even less so. The whole thing is heavy with import, stodgy with borrowed resonance, and stripped of any the usual literary nourishment –  linguistic invention, colour, texture, nuance, all lacking. The short, stumpy, declarative sentences that define the book’s style call to mind the worst examples of much myth-lit, full of grandiloquent prognostications and oracular pronouncements.

But where Rumi sings and Gibran seduces, Coelho merely connives. Frankincense to snake oil.

MindStore sells a different perfume of snake oil, aimed at the stilted olfactory regions of the trudgers on the corporate treadmill sleepwalking to Neverland. It’s psychobabble posing as business sense. Right-brain/ left-brain guffscience. Motivational anecdote upon motivational anecdote bounces all rational thought right out of the room.

MindStore is presented on stage at the Concert Hall over two days by its creator, the garrulous Jack Black (ex-social worker from Cumbernauld, not the other one). He may not be an actor, but his performance is a winning one. He’s brilliant orator and a charismatic conjurer. His tricks with a fag and magic marker will have you believing almost anything. He’ll even convince you of the profound potential of renaming your alarm clock an Opportunity Clock.

A fucking opportunity clock.

I set my opportunity clock for three of these weekend seminars over a two year period. I bought right into it. “It only works”, he says. And for a time I was inclined to agree.

The particular genius of MindStore is the little bits of content in there that you can’t argue with. For example, when he says that action grows from strong desire, he’s reciting a truth that has echoed down the years since Aristotle.

When he says that the easiest and quickest way to kill the dreams of a child (or anyone, for that matter) is to ask them how they are going to achieve it, it resonates hard with me, deep and loud all the way back through every dream I ever had right to my childhood.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Aye? How you gony do that, then?

And the killer: What do you want to do that for?

Desires you once whispered to yourself then found the courage to articulate, wither on your tongue. You learn not to trust your instincts. You learn to fear your wildest imaginings. You stop dreaming. A life of boundless possibilities becomes curtailed by the limited life experience of those around you. You choose the well-trodden path. Your world shrinks. Your capacity for wonder dies. You take your place on the treadmill.

Then twenty, thirty years later, you read The Alchemist. Maybe you go on a motivational weekend seminar in a room of people dressed by Next.

Later still, maybe, you have a daughter, a brilliant funny loving daughter, whose capacity for imagination and invention astonishes you every time she’s with you and more and more each day. She’s a princess, she’s a superhero, she’s your mother, your best friend, your sidekick, your twin. She builds a castle, a burrow, a planet, a nest. Out of paper and ribbon and the magic of words. It’s your birthday every single day and she celebrates with a cake she made in an oven of air.

You wonder what she will make, do or be with this magical transformative power she possesses and you will do anything within your own limited life experience to help her grow it, use it, live it, be it.

You want her to find her treasure, whether it’s a trove of actual coins or the power to harness the boundless wealth that lives within her.

And I set aside my quarrels with The Alchemist. And I forgive Mr Black for daring us tired trudgers to get off the treadmill and to dream again.

And I think of my daughter’s dreams, my own dreams.

And I look at my photographs again and I think of the friendship that’s been lost but the best of which is recalled here in these images. I recall the love with which they were made and the gratitude with which they were received.

And I think of it all and I think maybe this time I get it.

Bench Press

by Sven Lindqvist
Granta (2003)

bench-press

I’ll admit to being a sucker for a self-help book. There are a few from that particular genre tucked away in a quiet corner of my bedroom bookshelf, on the opposite end from the sports books. Bench Press, sits half way between them.

It’s a book that belongs to neither category, though it contains elements of both. In fact, I’m not even sure what kind of book it is – it’s an essay made up of lots of essays, it’s a kind of fragmentary memoir, a selective history of body-building that’s also a book of dreams, a book about self-improvement that offers its reader none of the usual pointers and platitudes.

Ultimately, it’s a book about finding oneself which is possibly why I return to it so often. I love the way it’s composed, almost like music. Like a song-cycle of thematically linked, individually discrete, perfectly formed chapters that each sing out resoundingly on their own. Taken together, they make a strange and compelling whole.

Bench Press seems to lack any kind of central narrative. If it’s a quest, as many such autobiographical explorations are, it’s not about a search for anything obvious – a missing father, a family mystery etc. And I don’t think the author began writing it with a clear idea of what he was looking for. There’s nothing to hook you, to propel you forwards. Instead, it seems to propel you downwards. It’s a book that takes you deeper into its subject, deeper into the author’s dreamworld, deeper into the source of whatever it is – and we have only a few clues to go on – that incited him to begin writing in the first place.

There are a number of recurring images: a new-born’s fontanelle, fire-eaters, desert divers, falling keys. The thread that sews it all together is body-building, specifically his entry into the discipline of weight training. Lindqvist intersperses snappy little chunks of sporting history, from the development of weight-lifting machines to the training techniques of successful athletes, alongside a report on a body-building contest held in Gothenburg. But the aspect of the book that provides its centre of gravity, as it were, is where Lindqvist recounts the effects of weight training on his interior life as his exterior body adjusts to the demands of his new discipline. I can relate to all of it. Reading this book always unleashes surprising recollections and associations.

Body-building was the first sport I got interested in as a teenager. I bought a set of dumb-bells and a chest expander (!) which I worked with at home until I got the confidence to start going to a gym. I bought a book on body-building, read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biography, studied all the main muscle groups and how to work them: learned my deltoids from my trapezius, my lats from my pecs from my quads, my glutes from my abs. I bought some disgusting protein shake stuff from the health food shop and trained ardently but aimlessly for a while until America came calling.

When I enrolled in high school in El Paso, I expressed an interest in attending the gym. My host brother was a varsity quarterback. He took me to where they worked out, the only time I ever went there – the kids here were operating on an altogether different level. I met boys my age but twice my size, huge mustachioed Mexicans in their early teens built like refrigerators, freshmen that could bench their fathers, all of them proving their might and muscle in a range of vigorous team pursuits that required strength and bulk and power. I felt weak and wan. I tried out for the wrestling team because I had been practising a martial art called Tukido at home for a while and I fancied I could handle myself. I lasted a couple of gruelling training sessions and finally balked after being tangled painfully to the mat during practice by a boy made seemingly entirely of knuckle.

The gym habit never entirely left me, though I’ve never quite felt at home with the heavy mob, the Muscle Marys, the grunters and humphers heaving into floor length mirrors. The vocabulary I had picked up came in useful when I started teaching in Turkey. I met an ambitious young man called Ozdenir, a former Junior Mr Turkey who trained at a gym across the road from the school where I worked. Ozdenir’s plan was to work in the posh hotels in Ankara, to become a personal trainer to rich Westerners, make his fortune, move to America. He was in that school every single day attending every extra class he could, as well as my own elementary class. We became friends – Ozdenir was friends with everybody – and I offered to give him personal English tuition in exchange for a bit of weight training. I taught him the language of the gym: sets and reps, pull-downs and push-ups, curls and squats. All that. And in return he helped me put together a training programme, showed me how to use a few machines, got me to think about my diet. It worked perfectly until we both had what we needed. His English continued to improve at an amazing rate; I trained on my own for a while until my social life started to get in the way.

I still go to the gym a couple of times a week, still lift tiny weights – I kid myself on that I’m building endurance, not mass. Which is kind of also true, but I prefer to annihilate myself on the stationary bike and rowing machines, plunging my heart rate into and out of the red repeatedly until I can barely see. I love that.

And I’m talking about self-annihilation here in the metaphorical sense, of course; the best sense. I realised, not long after my mother died, that I needed to have exercise in my life to keep me happy. I was smoking, I was over-weight, I was in a job I hated, I was in a relationship that was making me miserable. Everything was connected but I couldn’t find a way out.

I had been suicidal before so I knew that I was prone to extremely dark and dangerous thoughts relating to my lack of self-worth. These thoughts weren’t connected to any particular event or situation, it was like it was just in me, like the way you get a really bad cold every few years that keeps you off work. Feeling suicidal was a bit like that. It came over me like a virus.

I took to exercise as a way of staving off the demons. And it worked. But it’s a lesson I repeatedly forget to remember. So much of our psychology is bound up with our physiology. This should not be news to us, but it is. It repeatedly is. We forget we are flesh. We get so lost in our heads and hearts that we let our bodies that carry them turn to mush. Every time I feel the wave of crushing self-hate crashing over me, it takes ages – sometimes months – to realise that I’ve stopped exercising. Or that I’m tired. Or that I’ve been eating shit food. And, yes, they’re all related, one begets the other, but it’s relatively easy to stop the rot. Go to the gym. Get on the bike. Go for a run.

I’m not really interested in why I’m like this. I’m not looking for a narrative, not looking for a reason. I just am, and kind of always have been, kind of always will be – to one extent or another. And I love it when you meet a fellow traveller, someone like Lindqvist, to remind you that your faults and failings and frailties, along with your delts and quads and abs and glutes, are the very things that make you a human, just like everybody else.