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Fighting Fight Club

The past couple of weeks, I have been trying to present the novel Fight Club in my freshman composition classes.  Some time in the spring of last year, I sat in my office, trying to figure out what to teach my students.  I was in the midst of three classes, all of which consisted of many second language students.  Though I clung to my need to teach Shakespeare in each class, I wanted to reach them with work that 1) they could read and 2) they would find interesting.  I was tired of giving quizzes on basic plot information to force them to read, and I was likewise depressed by having to grab themes from the lofty sky and bring them down to earth.  No one was getting anything.

That spring, we were lost in a collection of short stories by various authors, the best of the year before.  I think, in general, the classes liked one story out of thirty.  The rest could have been a chemistry text, as far as they were concerned.

So I looked around my office and pulled Fight Club off the shelf.  I'd taught it years before, and I'd always been drawn to the nihilism, the mythological imagery, the riff on our consumer culture.  It was a good story and there was an accompanying film.  Done deal.  I ordered it up and packed it in my bag so I could read it over the summer.

Since teaching the novel for the first time, my life has changed.  That first semester back in 1998 when I last taught it, ten years ago exactly, was around the time it must have come out in paperback.   Back then, I was the mother of two boys, one of whom was about to enter high school.  He'd not gone through the phases that would change our family yet, our altered life just under the surface of the almost bubbling water.  We'd just moved to Orinda from Oakland for the schools.  I was just getting ready to write my first novel, my life all about driving my children to various activities and teaching and poetry and short fiction.  I was still married.

At that time, the path of narrator of Fight Club and his evil twin Tyler seemed freeing.  Burn one life down to start another and then burn that one, down, too.  Keep burning.  Nothing here on this vapid, materialistic surface is real or worthy of thought.  Take the part of you that knows this and integrate it.  Live the truth.

Because I can't remember my students' responses, I think it must have gone all right.  And this semester, in two of my classes, the students are engaged, enjoying and hating and discussing.  Many have seen the movie, and they just put Brad Pitt and Edward Norton into the scenes and read along. 

But I'm hating the story.  It makes me angry.  Maybe I'm old now, too old to appreciate the burning and the burning again.  And then more burning.  Maybe the anarchical viewpoints Tyler espouses--the utter disregard for anything--reminds me too much of what my son often flings around.  While acknowledging the experience of men and their fathers, I want to tell the narrator to put on his big girl panties and shut the hell up.  I don't find any of the plot (except for the hidden surprise on pages 159-161) to be of any interest any  more.

Meanwhile, in my third class, composed of 27 Koren (mostly men) and 4 Japanese students (plus two girls of color raised in the US), I am having to explain the idea of a "double."  I am about ready to bring in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to explain the narrator's behavior.  I am reading thesis statements on the board, one that read "People are crazy and crazy of this modern society."

Well, damn straight.

Many of the students want to fight the narrator, and some others are starting to think that the idea of beating others to a pulp is cathartic and useful.  A therapy that should be applied at times, like, in our class.  They will all run to the classroom, no shirt, no shoes.  Everyone will have to fight because it will be everyone's first time at fight club.

The first rule of fight club is that you don't talk about fight club.

I'm having to discuss irony, and then I read, "Violence is not tolerated."

Well, yeah, that, too.

I wonder what Palahniuk would write with those same characters now.  Would Project Mayhem still exist now that people have blown up buildings to such effect already ? Has the terrorism point been made?  Now that financial centers have fallen, would he just nod and move onto another story?  Would he say, "I knew it would happen," and leave his characters behind?

All I know is that it's not my story any more.  Once, it made sense.  I was going to burn something down in a few years, and I burned and emerged, like his narrator.  But the story seems old.  Unlike many novels and stories I've read over and over again, this one hasn't welcomed me back.  This novel is a guidepost, a marker of an older time, a time that does not fold itself into now even if it predicted now.  Even if it was right.