The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
Fight Club
 by Chuck
Fight Club
by Chuck Palahniuk

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The novel of youthful rebellion ain't what it used to be.   
When Holden Caulfield renounced prep school conformity
The Catcher in the Rye (1951), he was content to shout
out "Sleep tight, ya morons!" before leaving the premises.   
Six years later, Sal Paradise stirred the pot in
On the Road
by hitchhiking and listening to jazz—tame stuff by today's
standards.  By the time we arrive at the 1960s and 1970s,
transgressive books pushed the limits a bit further, usually
with the help of that grand triumvirate: sex, drugs and
rock and roll.

But by the 1990s, authors needed
to reach for stronger stuff to stand
out as rebels.  In his 1991 novel
American Psycho, Bret Easton
Ellis finds his path to literary
transgression via the grisly
depiction of murders committed
by a serial killer.  And what Ellis
did for sadism, Chuck Palahniuk
achieved for masochism five
years later in his disturbing novel
Fight Club.  We are now light
years ahead of Holden Caulfield
and Sal Paradise—wimps who never experienced the joys
of cracked ribs and dislocated shoulders.

When I consider that future generations may judge us
by novels such as these, I can’t restrain an involuntary
shudder of dismay bordering on disgust.  Yet Palahniuk
did tap into something here.  Even though he is a baby
boomer (born in 1962), Palahniuk understood the main
paths of rebellion and self-assertion that Gen Y (born
after 1981) noncomformists would follow in their teen
years and early adulthood.  Piercings, tattoos, self-
mutilation, all black attire, the goth obsession with
death, Columbine-esque acts of random violence,
quasi-accepted brutality under the guise of the
Ultimate Fighting Championship and other mixed
martial arts—certainly elements of these dark
cultural themes existed before
Fight Club, but they
were barely visible in mainstream society.  And in
literary fiction, this emerging subculture was all but

Palahniuk, in contrast, not only captures this ethos,
but literally charts its paths of dissemination into
mainstream society.   During the course of
Fight Club,
the scars and mutilations spread from city to city, from
profession to profession.  What starts as a rebellion of
the down-and-out turns into a pastime of the up-and-

Palahniuk recalls the circumstances that gave birth to
his now famous book: "At the time, I had a lingering
black eye, a souvenir from a fist fight during my summer
vacation.  Nobody I worked with had ever asked about it,
and I figured you could do anything in your private life if
it left you so bruised that no one would want to know the
details."  This starting-point gave birth to a short story;  
the short story served as a springboard to the novel;  the
novel grew into a movie, with Brad Pitt, Edward Norton
and Helena Bonham Carter. Along the way,
Fight Club
became a byword, an emblematic symbol of our troubled

In Fight Club, the hard knocks come in late night battles
between bare-fisted combatants, who gather in the
basement of a bar to test their mettle and assert their
manhood.  The rules of fight club are simple:

1. You don't talk about fight club

2. You don't talk about fight club (in case you didn't hear
the first time)

3. When someone says stop, or goes limp, the fight is over

4. Only two guys to a fight

5. One fight at a time

6. They fight without shirts or shoes

7. The fights go on as long as they have to

8. If this is your first night at fight club, you have to fight

What starts as an informal sporting event, soon becomes
an underground national pastime.  Clearly many partici-
pants are violating rules and one and two, since the fights
are now drawing turn-away crowds and more and more
venues are hosting the illegal events.  A lot of people
be talking about fight club.  

The twisted visionary behind fight club is Tyler Durden,
a movie theater projectionist and part-time waiter who
combines the most salient characteristics of the anarchist,
the nihilist and the masochist in one charismatic package.  
He spouts off aphorisms to inspire his growing cadre of

Maybe self-improvement isn't the answer, maybe self-
destruction is the answer.


If you're male and you’re Christian and living in
America, your father is your model for God. And if you
never know your father, if your father bails out or dies
or is never at home, what do you believe about God?


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.

As the Rockefeller Center comment perhaps makes clear,
Durden's plans get more and more ambitious as the novel
progresses.  At first he is content to stage fights, sabotage
the meals and movies at work, and inflict chemical burns
on the people he loves.  But soon Tyler has progressed to
explosives and murder.

Palahniuk has the unenviable task of building a big finale
in a story that started out with a litany of outrages,
blasphemies and despicable acts.  The end result is a
mind-numbing piling up of transgression upon

Let me be blunt:  I don’t find this kind of story titillating
—although I’m sure many of Palahniuk's fans are
entranced by it.  But I do recognize that, behind the
exaggerations of fiction, resides a certain true-to-life
quality in the personalities depicted here.  A real sub-
culture exists that matches, to some degree, the rule-
breaking ethos depicted in
Fight Club.  I'm not surprised
that, in the years following the publication of this novel,
the author was frequently approached by fans who either
(1) believed that many elements in it were based on
actual events, or (2) were determined to turn them into
actual events.  From this perspective, Palahniuk has at
least surpassed Bret Easton Ellis, whose Harvard-MBA-
turned-serial-killer is pure hokum aimed to gain
notoriety through sheer shock value.   

Is that a sufficiently redeeming quality for this nasty
book?   Well, if you seek redemption on any level, from
the spiritual to the metaphorical, this book is thin gruel
indeed.   But you may walk away from it better informed,
especially when your kids come home with bits of metal
embedded in various soft tissues, or your coworker shows
up at his desk with a black eye and a hole in his cheek.  
If you've read Palahniuk, you won’t need to ask.  Even
more to the point, you won’t want to.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

Cormac McCarthy:
Blood Meridian

Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Feast of the Goat

Marilynne Robinson:

David Mitchell:
Cloud Atlas

José Saramago:

Jennifer Egan:
A Visit from the Good Sqad

W. G. Sebald:

Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
The English Patient

Saul Bellow:

A.S. Byatt:

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

Per Petterson:
Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

Ben Okri:
The Famished Road

Joseph O'Neill:

Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity

Jonathan Franzen:

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

Denis Johnson:
Tree of Smoke

Richard Russo:
Empire Falls

Alice Munro:

Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:

David Foster Wallace:

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come

Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

American Fiction Notes
LA Review of Books
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Literary Saloon
The Millions
The Misread City
Page Views

Disclosure note: Writers on this site and its
sister sites may receive promotional copies of
works under review.