I Am Jack’s Contested Legacy
Fight Club 2
By Chuck Palahniuk
Dark Horse Comics, 2015-16
“You’ve met me at a very strange time in my life,” says Jack, the schizophrenic narrator in David Fincher’s film version of Fight Club (1999). In the upper floor of an office building, he takes girlfriend Marla Singer’s hand as controlled demolition drops numerous surrounding skyscrapers. His ballsy alter ego, Tyler Durden, and their cult, Project Mayhem, are assaulting the city’s infrastructure to wipe credit records from existence—a haymaker to capitalism. The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” haunts the background, and we’re treated to a final in-joke when a monster erection flashes before the credits.
This scene, and virtually everything else in Fincher’s whirlwind of testosterone and cynicism, elevates the novel on which it’s based. The director’s style at the time—a slick obsession with textural filth, exemplified by Seven (1995) but dialed back for The Game (1997)—translates the black humor of Chuck Palahniuk’s debut into sustained visual angst. Fincher’s pummeled shades of green and brown do for the eyes what Kurt Cobain’s voice and guitar on Nevermind do for the ears. And in terms of bracketing the decade’s disillusionment with glamour and fame, starting with Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough, Fincher’s version of Fight Club is better positioned as the era’s last gasp, before 9/11 ushered in the politically unforgiving world we currently enjoy. Most people talking about Fight Club (shhh!) mean the movie, not the book.
Nevertheless, Chuck Palahniuk’s debut turns twenty this year, and the author relishes challenging his audience—or at least trying to (see 2009’s disastrously-received Pygmy, about a North Korean teen infiltrating the US and narrated in broken English). Fight Club stars an insomniac whose real name we never learn, treading emotional water in his catalog-decorated condo and infuriating desk job. Miraculously, he then “meets” Tyler Durden, a Renaissance Bro who splices porn into kids’ films as a projectionist and runs his own soap company. He lives in a dilapidated Victorian mansion full of old magazines. The narrator just loves (ahem, loathes) the Reader’s Digest articles from the organ’s perspective, like “I am Jack’s Nipple,” and takes that name throughout. The meat on these bones is that needing a vital ritual outside of work that recharges your soul—like writing, wood-carving, or punching yourself in the parking lot—is something millions of people can relate to.
In mainstream 2016, who on Palahniuk’s radar might be challenged by Fight Club 2 the comic book? If pop culture is a dance floor, superheroes and their non-masked ilk (like Scott Pilgrim) have been gobbling up more and more parquet for the last decade. Palahniuk, however, is an awesomely weird storyteller, and if novelists-writing-comics hadn’t become a widespread marketing strategy in the 2000s (there’s Jodi Picoult on Wonder Woman and Brad Meltzer on Justice League), he may have done so years ago. With Fight Club 2, we get his vision filtered through artist Cameron Stewart, who’s worked with imaginative heavyweights like Grant Morrison (Seaguy) and Ed Brubaker (Catwoman). Painter David Mack’s (Daredevil) covers are bruised masterworks. The challenge, then, may be entirely Palahniuk’s.
For ten issues, Stewart’s deceptively cheerful pencils tell the story of the narrator, here called Sebastian, and Marla Singer living Boringly Ever After. It’s been ten years since Tyler split from Sebastian’s personality to franchise the underground boxing rings known as Fight Club, which escalated into the dangerous public stunts of Project Mayhem. Tyler’s endgame involved tearing down civilization, so that, as the novel put it,
You’ll hunt elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center, and dig clams next to the skeleton of the Space Needle leaning at a forty-five degree angle. We’ll paint the skyscrapers with huge totem faces and goblin tikis, and every evening what’s left of mankind will retreat to empty zoos and lock itself in cages as protection against bears and big cats and wolves that pace and watch us from outside the cafe bars at night.
Sebastian and Marla have a nine year old son, named “Junior.” The story opens on the couple’s ninth anniversary, and snarky blue narration boxes remind us that this haggard suburbanite “was destined to be another Alexander the Great. A new Genghis Khan. But Sebastian… he calls himself happy.” He pops prescription meds to keep Tyler at bay, though the florist who gives him free roses for Marla has been bludgeoned. The florist says, “Happy anniversary, sir,” as if a successfully brutal Fight Club earlier in the week had tamed him.
Stewart designs Sebastian without Edward Norton in mind, to help the sequel stand freer of the iconic film. Likewise, there’s little trace of Brad Pitt or Helena Bonham Carter in his versions of Tyler and Marla. The artist’s take on Palahniuk himself, which I’ll explain later, is perfect. When Sebastian gets home, he finds Marla missing and the babysitter at odds with Junior, who’s been making his own saltpeter from “dog poo mixed with wood ashes and straw,” then moistened with pee. Saltpeter plus charcoal equals gunpowder. The first time around, whenever “Jack” described weaponizing everyday items, he said, “I know this because Tyler knows this.”
But where’s Marla? She’s returned to her self-improvement roots by attending a support group for a disease she doesn’t have, this time for victims of the rapid-aging Progeria. Marla, whose face “launched a thousand trips to the E.R.,” sits with the diminutive husks and bewails that, at thirty-five, she’s tired “of dieting and coloring my hair. I just want to get fucked for who I am!” A wrinkled child in a baseball cap lowers his head and says, “Me, too.” Again, for those who like their comedy dark purple and penetrating, there’s Chuck Palahniuk.
The glitch here is that, under Fincher’s tight direction, and with a script by Jim Uhls that quotes ninety-eight percent of the novel, Norton, Pitt, and Carter have come to embody Palahniuk’s characters. Reading the first issue of Fight Club 2, you can’t not hear the actors’ voices. In most instances this is a thrilling bonus, because the comic itself is an example of how relentlessly innovative the medium is—like when realistic pills and rose petals are scattered on top of Stewart’s art, obscuring faces and dialogue, emphasizing that life is often a parade of distractions.
At other points, this automatic-voice-over phenomenon can hinder investment in the story. Later, as we learn that Tyler has managed to periodically seep from Sebastian’s brain and manipulate world events, like creating the military contracting group Rize or Die International (and other global players… like ISIS), there’s a knee-jerk desire to further visualize it all through Fincher’s lens (one character that Stewart does homage to a fault is the gloomy, imposing Paper Street building). Unable to squander the opportunity, Palahniuk makes Fight Club 2 darker and weirder than its predecessor.
Unforgettably so, in the case of Marla’s wandering subplot. After Junior’s been kidnapped, and while Sebastian infiltrates the Paper Street Soap Company, she and a friend from her Progeria group visit clubs inspired by Fight Club (including Pint Club and Film Club, the first rule of which is You Don’t Talk About Rosebud). They enter a mansion to find the members of Write Klub hard at work, emptying red wine bottles and work-shopping Palahniuk’s latest—that is, in progress—slab of fiction. When Marla asks Chuck (whose face maintains the calm of a Hindu cow), “Where’s my son?” one of his writer friends replies, “This borders on being too meta.” Jotting down his phone number, the author tells Marla, “Don’t call unless the plot lags.”
Before the film suffers any lag, after Jack finishes pounding Angel Face (Jared Leto) into burger, a scene from the novel appears in which an unnamed mechanic and some of Tyler’s “space monkeys” take a drive. As the car nearly plows into opposing traffic, the point of the scene becomes, “If you were to die right now, how would you feel about your life?” Fincher and co. reconfigure the moment, which doesn’t quite stand out in the book, and make it the dramatic turning point of the film. Tyler replaces the mechanic, and he and Jack argue about friendship, self-fulfillment, and the bounds of Project Mayhem. Jack answers Tyler by screaming, “I don’t know! I wouldn’t feel anything good about my life. Is that what you want to hear me say?” As the car flips down the highway shoulder, we get the slow-motion chaos of passengers tumbling and branches whipping through shattered windows. A “near-life experience” Tyler calls it.
Viewing the film years later, no longer as a young man hunting for Big Ideas but as an adult who does his best to minimize the effects of consumerism and identity politics on his mind, this scene has emerged as my favorite—because it emotionally grounds the absurd flying teeth and shattered eye-sockets. Fight Club might play superficially as a crass, juvenile experience, but damn if it can’t be smart and earnest, too.
Fight Club 2, meanwhile, is a great comic series. Not a brilliant one, that you immediately want the next nearest person to read, but one worthy of Jack’s Contested Legacy. It’s arrived in a much more politically charged era, and the Big Idea it touts, that “war has become a continuous sporting event. A world-cup that never ends” is clever, but nothing that Steve Colbert hasn’t been explaining since 2005. Instead of grounding the sequel, Palahniuk and Stewart double-down on the silliness when Marla and her entire Progeria group head to the Magic Wand Foundation, where the dreams of terminally ill children come true. They request trips to various Third World battlegrounds, like Mogadishu, where they can fight Boko Haram as a final joyride. Shriveled Progeria soldiers, armed and parachuting behind enemy lines, is something that couldn’t—better still, shouldn’t—be seen outside of a comic book.
Palahniuk told Esquire that, because today’s youth are less materialistic and more identity-driven, things Tyler should appreciate, he’s set his sights on demolishing preconceptions instilled by society. Tyler’s narration says:
Young people, they’re so hungry to anchor themselves in the vast world. It’s too bad that someone couldn’t plant a bomb and explode all the worthless furniture stored inside Sebastian’s head… his cheap, mass-produced Ikea ideologies. His secondhand junk-store epiphanies and thrift-store political positions. Those bargain-basement dreams—it’s too bad a cleansing fire couldn’t sweep them all away… making room for true enlightenment.
I wish I could say that Fight Club 2 has found me at a very strange time in my life, but it hasn’t. By now, the truths I’ve learned from living outweigh those I’ve read in fiction. The only furniture in my mind are the essentials that have survived a few breakups and two full-time jobs. And as long as you’re paying attention, life is always strange. I do, however, envy those who haven’t yet heard the line, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” You have time to catch up before Fight Club 3 comes out.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.