Content note: there’s a lot of discussion of sex and violence in this post. Also, spoilers for Fight Club, if somehow you’ve made it without watching it or knowing “the twist” for almost twenty years.
Aren’t Fight Club fans the fucking worst? They’re usually men who think they’re quite smart to have understood a film (or book) which spends an awful lot of screen time giving a blow-by-blow explanation of its own twist. They relate to Tyler Durden, see something in the text which says Very Deep Things about masculinity, find its rather heavy-handed anti-capitalist messaging really revolutionary. They see Project Mayhem as aspirational, and they’re probably “alt-right” neo-Nazis.
They’ve been going about the story all wrong. Like the sheeple they decry, they’ve been simply taking everything at face value. They’ve been nodding along with something which is making fun of them, not understanding that they are the butt of the joke.
Allow me to present an alternative perspective on Fight Club.
“Tyler Durden” is a real, flesh-and-blood human being.
We are told, in the twist at the end of the film, that Brad Pitt’s chiselled character is a figment of the nameless Narrator’s imagination. It was the Narrator all along who was, in chronological order: blowing up his own apartment, starting a fight club, starting more fight clubs, starting the space monkey programme, starting Project Mayhem, blowing up the financial district. Did I miss anything? Probably.
I don’t buy this, for one major reason: logistics. Let’s take our first instance, the destruction of the Narrator’s apartment, which was done with explosives. The Narrator himself arrives home to his apartment already having been blown up. “Tyler Durden” left the airport only moments before he did. There is no way “Tyler” could have personally planted the explosives, nor the Narrator. However, it makes sense if we bring in another variable: those other fight clubs/Project Mayhems.
A nationwide network of fight clubs and more drastic actions cannot simply be put into play on an overnight business trip. We watch the Narrator’s journey. This shit takes quite a lot of time and effort. So, perhaps, the infrastructure was already in place. Another place this makes sense is when one compares how much work goes into setting up the fight club, when these things seem to run themselves in other cities: they’ve been going longer, they’re already set up and functioning. The Narrator’s encounter with “Tyler Durden” is not the beginning. It’s the middle. This is, of course, reflected in the storytelling style of the film itself, where the moment of the beginning is explicitly jumped around, searching for a suitable starting point for his own tale. We also see a clue to this shortly before “Tyler Durden” is formally introduced. As the Narrator rides a walkway to get on a plane, we see “Tyler” on a walkway… going the other way, as if he is returning from somewhere the Narrator is headed towards.
Somebody’s been setting up fight clubs, and it’s somebody with a gift for grifting, a master manipulator, an all-round arsehole. “Tyler Durden” is real, and the Narrator is himself a peripheral character in “Tyler’s” plot.
From “Tyler’s” perspective, the Narrator is one mark of many, another source of money, another pawn for grooming into developing another cell in a larger structure. Even before the glimpse of him on the walkway, we see flashes of “Tyler”: at the Narrator’s workplace, at the doctor’s surgery, at a support group. “Tyler” was checking out his mark before they ever formally met, and decided he had found the right man for his purposes. He went through his well-oiled process, becoming a central part of the Narrator’s life, close as a lover. He manipulated, gaslight, and led the Narrator into a series of actions to get all of what he needed for the cell.
So why does the Narrator think he is Tyler Durden?
“I was the warm little centre that the life of this world crowded around”
That quote above is from near the beginning, when the Narrator explains his addiction to support groups. He goes, he says, because he likes that feeling of being centred. It’s a contrast from the rest of his life, where he is nothing.
His life with “Tyler” gives him this feeling, too. He feels special, being in proximity to this remarkable man. It is only when he realises that he is one of many that things fall apart.
His delusion that he is in fact “Tyler Durden” is the only way for his fragile ego to cope with the fact that he is the centre of precisely sweet fuck all. Like the author, Chuck Palahniuk, who believes himself so important he invented the insult “snowflake” when he didn’t, the Narrator is nothing special. That thought, to him, is terrifying. And so he chooses to believe that he is Tyler Durden, and he has been from the start. He’s been running the show right from the off; he went off to be Tyler Durden while he was asleep. He was cool, sexy, and ruthlessly efficient as Tyler, rather than a pathetic little dork. Who wouldn’t want to literally look like Brad Pitt, and have the supernatural power to create an unstoppable terrorist group?
It is a balm to his fragile ego, picturing himself in the driving seat when he was manifestly not. He constructs a fantasy world wherein he’s in the middle of all things, where he started something rather than got carried along with it. It helps him a lot to imagine that not only was he in control of everything the whole time, but he could defeat the bad side of himself all along. It makes him feel good. In actuality, he isn’t even important enough to have a name.
Editing in is an explicit theme of the film, with it set up early in discussion of “Tyler’s” projection job reflected us being told the Narrator edited “Tyler” into his life. What is left implicit is the equal possibility of editing out.
The Narrator is an audience surrogate. The audience for Fight Club is sad little men who want to feel important and special, who want to be Tyler Durden.
So, Tyler Durden does exist. Except, actually…
Tyler Durden does not exist.
The character played by Brad Pitt is a real human, with whom one can really interact. But he is not “Tyler Durden”. “Tyler Durden” as a real entity does not exist.
We see, throughout the film, snapshots of what I’ll call “How Do I Even Begin To Explain Tyler Durden“. Bob’s heard that Tyler never sleeps. Another man in another city has heard that Tyler regularly gets his whole face redone surgically. Nobody knows who “Tyler Durden” is, and that’s because Tyler Durden does not exist and the Narrator missed the memo about that. “Tyler Durden” is more of a password: a way of the initiated announcing themselves to others within this not-so exclusive club. Nobody knows anything concrete about “Tyler Durden” because they are never entirely certain if they had met him or not. “Tyler Durden” is a presence who is never really present, a name used by those who fulfil “Tyler Durden’s” goals.
“Tyler Durden” is the person who is doing the organising at any given moment. All fight club members are “Tyler Durden”, and none of them are.
Just because “Tyler Durden” does not exist, does not mean that ultimately there’s no leadership. It also does not mean that the Narrator spent a lot of the movie hanging out in the bath with Brad Pitt.
Marla Singer is the entity the Narrator calls “Tyler Durden”.
We talked earlier about how editing in allows for editing out, but a third possibility is available: editing into something different.
Most people don’t pay a lot of attention to the beginning scenes of Fight Club, waiting for the manly punching to begin. This is a mistake, because Marla Singer’s introduction is fascinating. We meet a woman who is dissatisfied with life, enjoys standing on that thin line between life and death. She’s a gifted grifter, a master manipulator and an all-round arsehole. She smokes like a chimney, lies, infiltrates, steals, and wears some really great thrift store costumes.
We are told that “aside from humping”, Tyler and Marla are never seen in the same room together. This is because Tyler is Marla. We see so many parallels between the first meeting with Tyler and the first meeting with Marla, these life-changing conversations that flip reality on its head. Both Marla and Tyler are nihilists and fakers.
Again, this is more than the Narrator can handle. He is a misogynist. He holds women in contempt. He held women in contempt long before he met Marla Singer, and continues to do so after that. It pains him that a woman can know so much about how the world works, and can live without fear in a way that he never could. And so, he finds it easier to imagine that a man is doing all of this. First, Brad Pitt, and later, himself.
The parallels between the characters are strong, and that attention is drawn to the fact we never see them in the same room is a beat-you-over-the-head-with-a-chair hint that the two are one and the same. Tyler completes conversations that began with Marla, because the narrator cannot bear to be talking to a woman.
This, too, explains Marla’s frustrations with the Narrator, who acts like two different people around her. Sometimes he treats her with respect, while other times he treats her like a woman. He is, perhaps, different from her other marks in this respect: he is so misogynistic he frequently imagines her away.
So now, let’s consider how some of this works with Marla running the show. It adds a dimension to the film which was once flat: the dimension of misogyny and how women are treated. Imagine that first fight, “I want you to hit me”. Instead of punching Brad Pitt, he is punching a scraggy woman, and she is giving it right back, and then some. Imagine that scene with Lou, the bar owner, as “Tyler” takes a beating, cackling and spitting blood–suddenly, the befuddled horror on the faces of witnesses makes more sense if it’s a frail lady as the victim.
Marla’s entire scheme works because as a woman she can make herself invisible. In participating in fights, she shores up her reputation as the omnipresent crazy bitch at the side of the man who they’ve been told is in charge. She seems completely erratic, and that gives her a cloak. She had done this in cities all across the country. She is manipulative, and she’s experienced at it. The Narrator is not the first man who has been subject to her gaslighting, her fucking about, and her plonking him into the position she needs him in. Marla knows what makes men tick, and it’s getting to hit each other and feel like they’re smart enough to have noticed the world is a bit fucked.
At the end of the film, the Narrator banishes “Tyler”, and Marla arrives very conveniently swiftly afterwards, carried in by space monkeys–who, we’ve already been told, are to manhandle their own perceived leaders if instructed. The Narrator finally sees reality for what it is, and perhaps even sees beauty in Marla’s plot. The Pixies play. A penis flashes up on the scene. Credits.
The Narrator is a sad little misogynist who likes to imagine himself doing all the cool shit the chick he fancies pulled off. Tell this to ur MCM next time he tries to lecture u about how special FC is, and ruin it for him.
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