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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Gullible Travels – for Russell

There’s nothing like the death of a dear one to make you ask all the big questions.

Why do we do what we do?
How do we know who we know?
Why do things die when they die?
How does friendship survive?
How does love thrive?
What’s the point of doing anything?

The older I get, the longer I live, the more I think that the point of living is simply to make life that bit more bearable for other people.

Colin and Russell, Worcester MAYou don’t know it, my friend, but you kind of showed me that. Not just for me but for countless others who knew you and loved you. You had an amazing talent for looking after people. You even made a living out of caring.

You took people in to your heart, your home. You gave them your time, your space, your energy, even when it cost you, even when it irked you, even when it pained you. Whoever it was, you always had your eye on their angle of vulnerability, and you did what you could to make it better.

Now we’re all taking in the news that you’ve gone. Suddenly and without fuss or fanfare you just slipped away quietly one night, hoped we wouldn’t notice. But we noticed. We’re going to be noticing for a long time that you’re no longer with us.

You were always such a plotter, a planner, a schemer. There was always a project to be getting on with, always a new destination to be setting off for. When we met that time back in East Kilbride at the end of 2015, some twenty years since the last time, it was the day before my birthday and everything was up in the air with both of us. I remember saying to you how much I had always admired this aspect of you, that you were always so firmly future focussed.

And suddenly we were the best of friends again, swapping music crushes, sudden pashes, flash-in-the-pan fads, new raves, old faves. Like twenty years were nothing. I assumed from that point on we’d stay friends into our old age, checking in, hanging out.

It was music that made friends of us back then, at that draughty old rehearsal studio out in the country lanes by Auldhouse. It was music that brought us close, that started conversations, that led to deep discussions long into the night.

IMG_2735You had my name listed as “Sax” in your phone (was that the joke? “Sax in ma phone”?) which made me laugh, even though I haven’t played the thing in earnest in years. For me, Russ, you were all about the bass.

There’s so much music in my life because of you. Things I’d never have listened to in a lifetime have become lifelong companions because of you. There are bands who are indelibly stamped in my mind with your passion and enthusiasm, like a rock n’ roll tattoo. There are songs that conjure places, people, gigs, jams, days spent wandering, nights spent smoking menthol cigs in cars and bars in East Kilbride, Glasgow, London, New York, Boston, Worcester MA.

It’s impossible to list every single piece of music that magically sings of you, but here’s a few things kicking about my shelves at home that conjure you as I best remember you.

Supertramp - SupertrampSupertramp
Supertramp (1970)

You liked proper proggy muso music. Long songs, extended solos, big looping bass lines. I only really knew Supertramp from their hippy-haired Top of the Pops hits; you were all about their early stuff, which I grew to love. Try Again was your favourite, you said, and my first entry point into your musical universe. Weird, trippy, slightly gothic, melodic, mellifluous and emotional.

But it was there in the air that we share in the twilight
Humming a sad song, where was our day gone
But in the dark was a spark, a remark I remember

Traffic - Eagle

Where The Eagle Flies
Traffic (1974)

It’s really all about that one song, Dream Gerrard, and that incredible wah-wah tenor sax. I remember buying a wah-wah pedal for £25, using it a couple of times on my own horn in the rehearsal studio then eventually passing it on to you (who made much better use of it). The song appeared on one of the mix tapes you made that I played a lot, which also contained another Traffic track that’s quintessentially you – The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys – as well as a song you wrote and recorded yourself, called Gullible Travels, which I liked a lot.

Gullible travels
Baby’s gone and papa’s dead
Gonna leave this place now
It’s cold and sick
And I’m feeling blue
cos I’m leaving you

You were amazed I even remembered the song, never mind quote the chorus to you…

Edie BrickellShooting Rubber Bands at the Stars
Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians (1988)

I’m not usually big on lyrics, as you know. I’m paying more attention to them now though, especially the first song of this album, What I Am, and I wonder if the reason you loved it so much was because it seems to sum you up so well.

I’m not aware of too many things
I know what I know if you know what I mean

What I am is what I am
you what you are or what

Or maybe it was just the wah-wah solo. I remember you describing me once as a “Bohemian”, which I thought was preposterous. But by East Kilbride standards, though, I suppose both of us probably were.

QueenQueen
Queen (1973)

I’m thinking, obviously, of the first track, Keep Yourself Alive. It’s a rather cruel and ironic title given the circumstances, but I bet you’d allow yourself a chuckle. Or even a LOL. I never got on with Queen, though God knows you tried to win me to the cause. I eventually bought this album at your insistence and listening again now I think I hear something of what you heard. Adrenaline pumping hard-rockin bombast, a bunch of guys acting as if they were already superstars, doing wildly inventive things with guitars, and a massive flouncing fatally flawed show off in the middle of it all. It’s basically your anthem.

rush

Moving Pictures
Rush (1980)

Another key piece of genetic material in your musical DNA. Not hard to see what appealed to you about this triumverate of turbocharged neo-prog hyper-rockers. And the 1991 Roll The Bones gig was a big one for us.

Again, the lyrics in the first track, Tom Sawyer,  seem to say meaningful things about you.  I don’t know. Pick a lyric.

Don’t put him down as arrogant
He reserves the quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events

Always hopeful yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent
But change is

The world is, the world is
Love and life are deep
Maybe as his eyes are wide

Janes Addiction RitualRitual de lo habitual
Jane’s Addiction (1990)

We played the bejesus out of this. Manicmetal. Mischief music. The song about shoplifting caught your ear by accident late one night on MTV, you passed it on like a flu bug. Every few days another track became a fevered favourite. Like we’d invited a pyromaniac worm into our ears. You’ll find this weird, but I always think of the song Of Course… as being about you and me. I have no idea what the song is actually about, but these lines spoke to me of our relationship: simultaneously close and aloof, affectionate and brusque, concerned and indifferent. Like brothers in music.

When I was a boy,
My big brother held on to my hands,
Then he made me slap my own face.
I looked up to him then, and still do.
He was trying to teach me something.
Now I know what it was!
Now I know what he meant!
Now I know how it is!

VarmintsVarmints
Anna Meredith (2016)

You used to send me things in the post. Ruth Gordon’s autobiography appeared one day – the Harold and Maude actor you had a massive thing for. You were so delighted to have found it from an ebay seller halfway across America. There was the card you made from a photo you’d taken congratulating me on a new job. Mostly it was music, of course – Future Islands, Tame Impala, couple of other things, chief among which was this album by the Scottish artist Anna Meredith which I grew to love enormously. I bought tickets for her band show in March at the CCA that I wanted you to come to but by then you were doing the First Bus thing and you couldn’t commit the time. Things moved so very quickly after that. The year passed in a blur and I saw you only a couple more times.

Empire State and Twin Towers 1993The Anna Meredith thing was so typical of you in so many ways. You were so open to new and interesting stuff. For every Rush or Bryan May gig we went to, there was an equivalent Ornette Coleman & Prime Time or John Zorn. And as much as you loved big bombastic cockrock, you could be just as passionate about female artists – Joni Mitchell, Ricky Lee Jones, Tracy Chapman, Oleta Adams, Aimee Mann.

Only latterly I found out we had a shared love of St Vincent. Now, since you’ve gone, I keep returning to her song about love and loss and New York. It always transports me to our week there in 1993 when you were heading to Worcester, MA, to begin a career in care and I was off on a transcontinental train trip.

All the things we did. That first sunset taxi ride into Manhattan from JFK, taking in that breathtaking skyline – a waterside city the height of the clouds, the colour of rust and diamonds. Staying at the Chelsea Y. Endless wanderings. Walking downtown to Battery Park from 110th St. Dinner in the Dojo. Tasting tahini. Camp Kiwago. Nights with Carolyn. Seymour’s house full of whales in Jersey. Then returning the next year when you were settled in Worcester and the madness of all that.

I was in New York recently and the wide city streets still ring with those memories.

She sings,

I have lost a hero
I have lost a friend

and boy do I know it.

Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

Dir: Jim Jarmusch
With Forest Whitaker,
Isaach de Bankolé, Henry Silva
(1999)

ghost-dogOf all the millennial-themed movies around at the end of the last century, and for a few years before, this is one that has kept its flavour freshest.

There was a a rising sense of dread at large in 1999: existential dread, technological dread, theological dread, things moving towards their end. So we got doomy, dready zeitgeist-defining offerings like The Matrix, Fight Club, Summer of Sam, films called things like End of Days. And, the doomiest, dreadiest of them all, The Blair Witch Project.

Hagakure symbol

“It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream.
It is said that the world we live in is not a bit different from this.”

It’s not a watertight theory. Ghost Dog came out the same week as the first of the new Star Wars prequels

But Ghost Dog felt, still does, fresher and cooler and had more interesting things to say than many of the other offerings that year. Watching again, 17 years after it was released, it still has plenty to say about themes that have come to define this age too: urban decay and alienation, multiculturalism, the demise of the old order, the terminal decline of the New World and its eclipse by the Far East.

And as much as it’s a twist on the lone hitman movie – a philosophical Dirty Harry, a zen Leon – it’s also a film about the enduring relevance and validity of the old codes of honour, respect and valour and what happens when they disappear.

Hagakure symbol

It is said that what is called “the spirit of an age” is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world’s coming to an end.
For this reason, although one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done.
Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation.

I love Ghost Dog for many reasons. I love its humour, its stealth, its grace. I love its clever use of text, its bookishness. I love its cast of mad gangsters gone to the wall, gone to seed. I love that it’s set in a North American version of Glasgow. I love the music.

Above all, I love Forest Whitaker’s performance. He brings something simultaneously fragile and threatening to the title role. His beautiful, serene face and lazy left eye suggest tranquility, passivity, possibly even weakness, but also deep intelligence, compassion, humility. His size and agility suggest strength, danger: you completely believe in him as a assassin who cuddles pigeons. In other hands, the pigeon thing could have been an affectation; the hitman thing laughable. If there had been anyone else in Jim Jarmusch’s mind to play the part, I’d be astonished. He is Ghost Dog.

Hagakure symbol

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road.
But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking.
This understanding extends to all things.

Leaving aside the whole hitman scenario, if we can, Ghost Dog is the story of a man who has overcome hardship to find peace within himself, who has made peace with his outsider status, who has found a way to live – at one with nature, and with his own nature – who by doing so has earned the respect of his community, his peers. In the face of a dog-eat-dog world that’s turned to bear-baiting, where values are eroding along with the infrastructure, where the system’s dying but the ancient ways are not yet dead – this is an achievement that’s nothing short of heroic.

It’s an achievement that’s managed to elude me, anyway. Like the best, art, Ghost Dog contains philosophies I still yearn to live up to. Like, I’ll never learn that lesson about rainstorms. Certainly not literally, living in a country where you’re only usually a couple of days from receiving your next soaking. Even figuratively, I’m still dodging along under the eaves, still getting wet.

Hagakure symbol

There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there is nothing left to do, and nothing else to pursue.

I tried to live by this code, once upon a time. Living in the moment, taking care of now…

Perhaps I needed to take better care of my moments. Perhaps I lacked the necessary understanding and insight. Perhaps texts like this exist for one only to aspire to, never achieve – which is surely the point of all codified systems of thought, from diets to religions: peddling false hope to the credulous.

I fall for it every time.

Hagakure symbol

Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall, there was this one:
“Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.”
Master Ittei commented, “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”

Could almost be a motto for this blog.