Literary history is a reflection of the social climate at the time. In this way, the great works in literary history were often seen as reflections of various social issues, wars or political movements that took place during the time they were written. Chuck Palahniuk stands out as one of America’s most prominent contemporary writers. Palahniuk, who made his first literary appearance in 1996 with Fight Club and the film adaptation featuring Brad Pitt & Edward Norton, is now considered an icon of American modern literature.
I will focus my essay on the way Palahniuk portrays society in his novels. Fight Club will be the main focus of my essay, due its popularity internationally and the ongoing debate among critics. Then I will present some of my own ideas about how Palahniuk portrays society. Lastly, I’ll mention and analyze some of both the criticisms and praises directed towards Palahniuk. In this essay, I’ll attempt to show Palahniuk’s influence on American literature.
Palahniuk has been the subject of scholarly criticism for his views on society and violence. Many critics say that his main characters represent current American society or the entire world. His characters are known to often rebell against established social and politic systems. Palahniuk’s main characters often rebel against existing social and political systems. Is he saying that Americans can be violent? Can we limit Palahniuk’s critique of politics to the postmodern age?
Charles Michael Palahniuk is a US citizen born in Washington in 1962. His lastname is of Ukrainian descent. He was fourteen when his parents separated. He attended Columbia High School and then the University of Oregon. He received a BA from the University in journalism in 1986. Chaplinsky states that Palahniuk was also a mechanic, and worked at a hospital. Fight Club (1996), Invisible Monsters (1999), Survivor (1998), Diary (2003) and Beautiful You (2015) are some of his most notable novels.
Peter Mathews offered an interesting argument for Palahniuk’s views on society, as seen in his novels. According to him, Tyler Durden is a fascist because of his idealistic leadership. Mathews claims that fascism as an ideology is not just a leftist/rightist movement. It’s also a mixture of both. He claims fascism to be “fundamentally” nihilist, which is exactly what Palahniuk and his protagonists are.
Fight Club was often interpreted by many of the critics of Palahniuk as a commentary on the political climate of the time. Mathews and I both believe that the existentialist style of his writing critiques not just its current political state, but its entire society, as well as human nature in general. “Fight Club isn’t just a critique of the “postmodern” era, it also criticizes the nature of human behavior and society in general. This claim was made by Mathews as well.
Henry Giroux was a scholar critic. He wrote: “Fight Club offers a critique on late capitalist societies and the misfortunes they generate” (Giroux, 2001). Mathews argues Giroux refers to Palahniuk’s works as “a symptom a cynicism contemporary culture, a new trend in American Culture”. (Mathews, 2005, 81)
Mathews, in an essay, argues Tyler Durden’s role as a character by Palahniuk is fascist. It is important to understand that fascism does not represent a rightist or a leftist movement. In fact, all authoritarian ideologies were leftist in the beginning. Palahniuk wished to warn his readers against blindly following any movement they find appealing.
Fight Clubs must have a leader and their own set of rules. This is indeed fascist. The paradoxical nature of such a club is, to my mind, a key element in this novel. It contains angry men who are not happy with their everyday lives and a culture dominated by consumerism. Palahniuk is commenting on the human condition: We want to live as a part of a society, which requires that rules are applied to all. It’s not known if this is a political statement.
Palahniuk s Survivor gives another example. The main character in this book is the only survivor from a secret suicide cult. This cult has a final rule, which is to commit suicide. This is an “enlightenment”, a kind of new beginning. This society is a suicide society. Antonio Casado de Rocha wrote in an essay that “Survivor is parody of American religion, but its narrator only wants to be redeemed and accepted back into human society.”
There is another group that follows blindly rules. This fanaticism, which is also an obvious criticism, is directed at the mass media’s influence on today’s craze. It’s also what I understood as Palahniuk expressing his thoughts about human nature.
Critique and ApprovalThe reception towards Palahniuk’s books is quite diverse. Some love his work, and others are critical. In either case, there are many different ways to understand his novels. The meanings of Palahniuk’s characters and ideas are all interpreted differently.
Jesse Kavadlo says that Palahniuk’s nihilism is the result not of external but internal struggles. Kavadlo writes in his essay Chuck Palahniuk: Closet Moralist that the rebellious narrator of Palahniuk is actually fighting himself.
Palahniuk continues by saying that his writing is influenced personally. This perspective helps us move away from the belief that Palahniuk’s novels criticize society and allows us to see him in a more rounded light. To me, his novels reflect a mixture of the two. Although his novels do indeed comment on society and modern life, they also reflect his own opinions, his struggles, and the experiences of his life.
Not all reviews are positive. Laura Miller was one of those who gave a negative review.
She is opposed to Kavadlo and says: “This issue is inherent to his books: Everyone sounds like Chuck Palahniuk.” They are either in a gleeful sloganeering anger or a sullen, self-pitying mood. (Miller 2003)
Why do there seem to be such a variety of opinions? There are theories which suggest that Palahniuk actually fused different political ideologies in order to highlight everything wrong with our society. Mathews suggested that Palahniuk had deliberately used fascists or communists. Some critics, however, dismiss Palahniuk completely as a nihilist and a boring author who is incapable of creating a meaningful plot. They also claim that he writes complex novels with no ideas.
I think that readers should be careful to read Palahniuk’s novels, because he gives clues at the end of every chapter. Also, we should consider his novels in their entirety. It’s possible that the original idea was to not create the most complex of characters or stories, but instead to react to irrationalism in the world.
A certain thing is evident from all the feedback, both positive and adverse, on Palahniuk. If an author has been criticized and reviewed in such a mixed manner, and is called one of today’s greatest writers, but also receives harsh criticism and anger from his critics, then there must be a valid reason. There are articles written about his main novels, his political and psycho-social complexities, and his unique humor.
In my seminar paper, I tried to present different perspectives of Palahniuk’s society. Using other scholars’ work, I began by describing his political commentary. Mathews, in Fight Club’s Tyler Durden character, explains how Palahniuk is criticizing capitalism. Kavadlo Miller provided commentary to help me gather opposing criticisms. This part was intended to highlight different perspectives on Palahniuk’s views of society. It is impossible for an author to remain anonymous when they are pointing out the worst aspects of society.