With Your Feet in the Air and Your Head on the Ground

I am Travis’ Essay on Love, Sex, Masculinity, and Fight Club

20th Century Fox

Adark room. Two bodies in the center, colliding beneath the amber haze of a single hanging light bulb.

The first rule of watching Fight Club is: the film is not misogyny-pumped propaganda for incels.

All you can hear are flat, hard packing sounds over yelling.

The second rule of watching Fight Club is: the film is NOT misogyny-pumped propaganda for incels.

Muscles ripple. Lips pull back from teeth like swollen window shades. 

Third rule of watching Fight Club: it’s not an anti-capitalist tract; it’s not really a consumer critique.

The wet choke of a gasp. Snorting bull-breath plumes of carbon dioxide exhale from one face into another.

Fourth rule: it’s not even an indictment of white-collar workplace drudgery at the end of the 20th century.

An arm wraps around a neck from behind, the crude approximation of a desperate headlock.

Fifth rule: it’s not a movie in support of anarchism, fascism, terrorism, or any other –ism.

That arm slips upward from all the sweat and the momentum, catching the other’s lip, hard.

Sixth rule: of all things, it’s a film about taking responsibility.

That lip bursts. An arc of spit, braided with a little bit of blood, sprays out into the darkness in a bubbly pink froth. For some reason, they both think of soap when they see this. And smile.

Seventh rule: it’s about a boy terrified of a girl, and of what she might mean for him. Mean to him.

The two bodies fall back down onto the sweat-softened mattress as one. This rawboned man, this bedraggled woman. She pretzels her legs around his hips, his laughing mouth is pulled to hers.

And the eighth and final rule of watching Fight Club: this is a fucking love story.

||

Mirrors.

It’s an easy thing to do, holding your own little cracked and fingerprint-tattooed mirror up to the world, your bruised and swollen-knuckle fists pushing the reflection of the whole rotten enterprise of existence back at itself. For the whorls of those fingerprints to encircle everything held within that reflection like little targets. For the blood in your veins to rage-pump like battery acid, for the bile to carbonate up your throat and sizzle the back of your tongue, for every muscle to tighten and every nerve to fray and every atom to ignite as your teeth grind to powder and dull heat floods your chest the way an oil spill slicks across the surface of the ocean, suffocating all life and light in its inky, abyssal black. 

It’s easy to blame the whole goddamn world. 

For what?

For everything.

Next to impossible, though? What’s next to impossible, for some of us, is to be what is reflected. To be seen. To be the one held within the mirror—rather than the one holding it—and to see oneself as one truly is.

As you are.

As I am.

And so, mirrors. 

To be reflected like one is—like a fistfight—something just about everyone would do just about anything to avoid. 

Wait.

Let me start over. 

Let’s talk about 1999.

||

The films of 1999 form a kind of frenetic psychic roadmap, a gnashing and whiplashing topography of our collected cultural consciousness at the end of the first full century of cinema. They explode forth from the fear center of 1999’s brain, tracing the arcs of apocalyptia humming and thrumming throughout the communal cerebellar corridors of that long strange year—zigzagging off of impending millennium panic, cruising dendrite-quick atop crumbling and confused notions of masculinity that were falling into a rising sea of globalization and shapeshifting social mores, hairpinning neurons firing interrogations into capitalism and sexuality and the American family and reality itself—and emerging to form the sweaty, wide-eyed face of the end of the 1990s, of the 20th century, of the world as we knew it.

The films of any year reflect and define the times that generate them, but something about the movies of 1999 feels different, heightened, more intense:

Titles coalesced around such angry, annihilative themes as domestic terrorism (Arlington Road); the mindless mobward drift of impotent male rage (Summer of Sam) and its terror of women (Eyes Wide Shut); the everyday agonies of cubicled corporate hell (American Beauty, Office Space, The Matrix); the dubious mutability of identity and reality in a digital age (The Matrix again, eXistenZ, Being John Malkovich, The Thirteenth Floor); the capitalist cannibalization and regurgitation of culture as wallpaper (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace); the shocking, haunting unreliability of endings (The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project); and the desperate, almost frenzied way we grasp for compassion and empathy as our bodies betray us with disease and death during the end times (Magnolia, Bringing Out the Dead).

Meanwhile, underneath and behind and inside everything that was being projected on screens in 1999, something horrible had been growing:

A film that wrestled and bound together all of the themes and problems spattered above into a single bloodied and nose-bashed narrative: a frenzied and frenetically funny Molotov cocktail of a movie that attacked, embodied, and reflected the zeitgeist of its time, a serrated social critique structured to mirror the MTV-ADHD’d mind of its unreliable Narrator (Edward Norton) as it flits and flings itself from scene to scene and subject to subject with jarring abandon the same way he channel-surfs deep into insomniac’d oblivion every night, feeling more and more lost as he tries to define himself and his life by the silly little things he buys and the petty little job he works—all as his schizoid subconscious secretly constructs a godbodied chaos-Adonis alter-ego named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who frees the Narrator from social constraints and allows him to reconnect with his withered masculinity first by forming an underground boxing club that rejects the tenants of a materialist society of manbabies raised by women, and then by launching an all-out terroristic assault on the fabric of civilization itself—a movie that holds a mirror up to all that is wrong and rotten and oh-so-disgustingly perfect about a world of gym-hard bodies and money-soft minds, a release that was utterly rejected at the box office in 1999 by a world that looked away and refused to see itself reflected in the film’s magazine-glossy, antifreeze-green sheen, but was later embraced on home video via a wildly popular Collector’s Edition DVD (despite the film’s ardent anti-capitalist and anti-collect-anything message); lonely home viewers who felt rejected by society could find in the violently nihilistic or nihilistically violent film a conduit for their rage amidst a series of marrow-shattering man-on-man brawls and antisocial warfare setpieces, all stretched across a Casio crunkfunked and sample-strewn digital disco score by the Dust Brothers and a bedrock of Nietzsche-with-a-dial-up-modem aphorisms (taken from the incendiary original novel by Chuck Palahniuk) about the state of modern male malaise and the horribly unfair and hedonistic culture that had wounded those fine young men and caused that malaise.

Fight Club.

Except.

Except that’s not what David Fincher’s sly, satirical, and bruisingly brilliant masterpiece of an adaptation is about at all. And if you think that is what it’s about, well, that means a lot of people have been breaking the first two rules of watching Fight Club.  

And so, what’s it about? 

All of this—the film, the book it’s based upon, this essay—has got something to do with a girl named Marla Singer.

||

“…Like so many others, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct… Home was a condo on the 15th floor of a filing cabinet for widows and young professionals… Fucking condo world, watching sitcoms… Can’t get married, I’m a 30-year-old boy… We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need…”

This is how the Narrator (and the Narrator-as-Tyler) describes himself, his life, and the lives of the men of his generation at the end of the 20th century. Directionless, effete, powerless, with all blame directed at a country, an economy, a culture, women, capitalism, Hollywood, celebrity, their missing fathers, their overbearing mothers, the world, a hateful god. 

It’s no wonder that, in the 25 years since Fight Club’s release, the movie has become misidentified as a kind of siren song to and safe haven for incels (by incels and their critics, as well as Fight Club’s).

What is a wonder, though, is how many of those incels, and their critics, and the film’s, don’t seem to clock Fight Club’s ending, in which the Narrator and his alter-ego Tyler are shown to be fascistic children cowering from both a world that frightens them and from the responsibility required to live in it. To love in it. To be reflected in it.

What’s more, if you flash back from the film’s ending all the way to the beginning, you find that Fight Club’s meaning—much like Tyler’s identity—was right on the surface from the very beginning.

And it all begins with a lie.

We’re still men.” 

“Yes, we’re men. Men is what we are.”

No, not that. Not the ritualized call-and-response chant at Remaining Men Together, the film’s support group for men with testicular cancer. They are indeed still men, despite being metaphoric stand-ins for the Narrator’s fears of a generation of men castrated by the cancers of consumerism, paternal abandonment, and capitalism (also: note how Tyler’s go-to act of retribution throughout the film is literal castration of his enemies).

No, the lie is the Narrator’s presence there, at Remaining Men Together.

He isn’t dying, He doesn’t have cancer. 

What he does have, though, aside from his literal–if not figurative–balls, is a self-loathing so fundamental that he can’t sleep at night. He obsessively ruminates about being part of a generation of men who are “the middle children of history,” so undeserving of love that even God itself hates him and them, with God refusing to provide any kind of monumental narrative for their lives to cohere around. The Narrator drones through his empty life while abdicating any answerability for it, instead blaming celebrity culture and hair dye commercials and his IKEA sofa for his joylessly unremarkable place in the universe. 

Even his stultifying office job as a recall coordinator for a major car manufacturer is an extension of his unwillingness to cop to any kind of liability—his work is wholly dedicated to refusing responsibility on a global scale, crunching numbers to ensure that the out-of-court settlements his car company pays on behalf of the hundreds or even thousands of drivers and passengers it kills via negligence never costs more than the price of a potentially embarrassingly public recall campaign. Because a recall would be an admission of fault. Because a recall would require reflection. Because a recall would require responsibility.

And while the Narrator is obsessed with the ownership of material things, the one thing he refuses to own are his feelings. After discovering a Reader’s Digest-esque article wherein organs of the body introduce themselves in the first person (“I am Jack’s medulla oblongata. Without me, Jack could not regulate his heart rate, blood pressure, or breathing”), he shunts his feelings through a distancing motif of smug archness (“I am Jack’s wasted life…I am Jack’s inflamed sense of rejection…I am Jack’s broken heart”) as a means of avoiding ownership and responsibility for the pain he feels and the pain he causes.

His entire waking life is dedicated to avoiding consequences.

How can anyone who feels so insignificant—and is so inert as to be totally unwilling to stop blaming the rest of the world and accept responsibility for the man who stares back at him in the mirror every day as he applies contact lenses and hair product and color-coordinated neckties—how could any man like that love himself? And if he can’t even achieve that baseline of loving himself, how could he possibly accept, or believe he deserves, love from another?

So, instead: the Narrator creates fake personas, and begins attending support groups, a place where he can fool others into loving him. He creates a series of false selves (frequently choosing names from Robert De Niro’s most incel-ish characters from Martin Scorsese films—“Travis,” “Rupert”—or straight-up riffing on nerd-culture properties like Planet of the Apes with literal space monkey names like “Cornelius”) so as to receive the love he needs without earning it. Reveling in love without responsibility, love without risk, love without consequence, love without sacrifice, love without loving himself. Love without having to see himself. Love without being reflected

Love as a lie. 

And she ruined everything.”

||

You know, the girl who lives there used to be a charming, lovely girl! She has lost faith in herself. She’s a monster! She’s infectious human waste! Good luck trying to save her!”

This is how Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) describes herself and her life in Fight Club. She is many things: a thief, a grief tourist, a hypersexual dirtbag (“I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school”). But one thing she isn’t: a liar. Especially about herself. Unlike the Narrator, even in her self-loathing she is honest, copping to it, owning it, laying it at her own feet and taking responsibility for it.

While the nature of Tyler Durden’s existence (or, rather, nonexistence) is the synapse-snapping twist that gets all the attention upon first viewing (and then got all the ink and the oxygen when Fight Club was discussed for the next 25 years), Marla’s storyline in the film exists as a kind of counter-twist, one that resonates far deeper while working in conjunction with Tyler’s to deliver the ultimate meaning of the film.

When she first breezes onto the screen, crashing Remaining Men Together for the free coffee, free donuts, and free empathy, she is presented as hard, cold, alien. Large insectoid sunglasses hide her oversized eyes, her sheet-white skin stretched tight over vulgar cheekbones, corkscrewed hair like demonic horns, her tar-dark street clothes an ominous and messy cloak. She is presented as villain, antagonist, femme fatale, monster. And seen through that veil, her cruising of support groups cannot have the same pathos (pathetic though it may be) as the Narrator’s upon first viewing; as a misdirect, she is presented as a crass tourist vulturing upon the sadness of men who can’t protect themselves against a woman so casually brazen as to join a support group for testicular cancer. 

It’s as the film goes on, though, with each successive scene (and successive rewatch), that her appearance evolves, grows softer, kinder, more human. She continually reaches out to the Narrator. She strives for an intimacy with him, recognizing him as, like her, another of God’s forgotten children. 

The surprise twist of Fight Club isn’t that Tyler Durden is a figment of the Narrator’s imagination; the surprise twist of Fight Club is that Marla Singer is a warm, intelligent, hilarious, empathetic woman capable of seeing and loving the Narrator for who he is, rather than who he pretends to be. 

For him to see that, though, would require that he see himself.

But back to Remaining Men Together

Marla’s first appearance there—asking “this is cancer, right?” while pluming clouds of cigarette smoke into the air—shatters the Narrator’s false persona. Her empathy tourism there reflects his own. She is a mirror whose presence in the same support group forces him to be self-aware, to see the real Narrator. Her very existence there poses a question before she even asks it—“Who are you? ‘Cornelius’? ‘Rupert’? ‘Travis’? Any of the stupid names you give each night?”—and stymies his ability to fool others into loving a fake version of himself without cost or consequence.

Even worse, he’s attracted to her because of it. The way she passes through the world, unaffected, unbothered. The way she catches and dodges his bullshit like no one else in the support groups. The way she hits bottom instead of trying to clamber to the top. The way she achieves true anarchy in a world of rigid order. The way she survives. The way she is real. 

The way she is free, in all the ways he is not.

But the Narrator is so angry at the world for who he is, and so loathing of who he is, that he is incapable of loving himself, and so cannot even admit to feelings for a woman like Marla Singer, because she reflects him, and forces him to see (and take responsibility for) who he is.

So he starts over. He resets to zero.

He shutters one persona franchise, and begins another.

He invents a new persona, one that a new support group will love and adore. A persona who looks how he wants to look, who fucks how he wants to fuck, who is smart, capable, and most important, is free in all the ways the Narrator is not.

When he pretends to be this man, then he is brave enough to be with Marla—even as Marla desperately fights to punch through this new persona back to the Narrator she first met at Remaining Men Together

When he pretends to be this man, then he can fuck how he imagines Marla wants him to wantonly, athletically fuck—even though Marla strives for a deeper intimacy with the Narrator, going so far as asking him to perform a breast exam as a sign of the kind of trust she does not give lightly but gives freely to him, literally putting her life in his swollen and fight-bruised fists as a gift of hope and love.

The Narrator creates this entirely new personality not because consumerism leads to soul-death or because office jobs exsanguinate the spirit or because society batters us each into cogs that serve the machine (even if all those things are indeed true); the Narrator creates an irreal ideal of a superhero self so that he can indulge in the acceptance of love—from both the lost souls who populate his Fight Club and from Marla—while continuing to close his eyes to himself. 

And this is how I met Tyler Durden.

||

You created me. I didn’t create some loser alter ego to make me feel better. Take some responsibility!

This is how Tyler Durden describes himself and his relationship to the Narrator at the end of Fight Club.

In a wickedly black comedy—the film is far past gallows humor, finding itself joking at the very end of the swinging rope, of the millennium, of the end times—perhaps the single most deliriously absurdist (and thus best) joke in Fight Club is that a man would engineer an alter ego persona—who then creates a series of franchised underground boxing rings in which men punch each other to bloodied, bonemulched pulp and then, eventually, organize into terror cells called Project Mayhem with an ultimate goal of destroying all credit card companies using nitroglycerin homemade from soap as means to eradicate the civilization that made him feel small and unworthy to begin with—rather than asking a woman out on a date. It’s a kind of “Men would literally rather ____ than go to therapy” routine taken to a blistering, celluloid-warping extreme. 

Because, in the end, all the things we talk about when we talk about Fight Club—Tyler’s war against commercialism, the hollowness at the center of mainstream pop culture, the ridiculousness of our silly little cog-jobs that keep the meaningless atrocity exhibition of society rolling along, the supposed diminishment of American masculinity, the mania of materialism—it’s all just window dressing. Or, rather, it’s mirror dressing. It’s what keeps the Narrator busy from seeing himself, from seeing his reflection, and from seeing Marla. Tyler keeps the Narrator from claiming responsibility for himself—and keeps him too busy to have a real life of consequence with a woman who wants him. That’s it. That’s the movie.

And misunderstanding Tyler is what keeps some unlucky members of the film’s audience from adhering to the rules of watching Fight Club. Keeps them from truly seeing Fight Club.

That misunderstanding is what prevents some from recognizing how much of Fight Club is designed to undercut Tyler’s Fight Club, to make expressly clear it’s a sick joke.

There’s a moment in which the Narrator and Tyler, both pursuing self-abuse and annihilation as a rebellion against a society that worships physical perfection, disdainfully critique a Gucci underwear ad featuring a zero-fat muscle-packed body in a loose-limbed sexy pose, and yet in the very next scene a shirtless Tyler stands in the exact same pose, advertising his godhood to his basement audience of puffed-nosed, black-eyed lost men. Later, in that same basement, Tyler bemoans how his is a lost generation of men who will never be millionaires or rock stars or movie gods, all in a film that features a millionaire rock star (Meat Loaf) and a millionaire movie god (Pitt) in its cast. It is a film touted as anti-materialist propaganda that cost $65 million to produce, and it features extensive product placements from Pepsi, Apple, Sony, BMW, Cadillac, Lincoln, Ford, Busch Beer, Budweiser, and Oliver Peoples.

Fight Club is not an all-out assault on the hypocrisies and horrors of society. It never was, and it never will be. Fight Club is a devastating satire about a man’s fear of rejection and reflection by a woman he can’t admit he is falling in love with. 

He is Jack’s fear of finally growing up.

And he is falling in love with her. Because he is always so close to understanding his problem before he averts his eyes from it, he can, on some subconscious level, sense a life of actual import and meaning with Marla. 

Because Marla’s is a love that means something in a world that doesn’t mean anything. 

Braided together, the film’s long-con dual twist—Tyler isn’t real, Marla’s love is—is what serves as the delivery system of Fight Club’s purpose and its warning: we must take responsibility for ourselves, because no one else will. 

Which, of course, makes Fight Club a kind of love story.

Because the first step in loving someone else is to love oneself.

And the first step in loving oneself is to take responsibility for oneself.

Chuck Palahniuk has noted that the inspiration for the book upon which the film is based stems from a real-life moment in his past, in which he was beaten bloody in a fight on a weekend camping trip. When he returned to his drab and dull day job the following Monday, no one would look at his face; no one would acknowledge the way some hilljack Picasso had rearranged his features.

We don’t want to look at the things that frighten us. Even if the thing that frightens us most is what’s in the mirror.

In the book (as well as the advertising for the film), there is a repeated mantra (or “chorus,” as Palahniuk likes to call them—short, punchy, aphoristic declarations that serve as repetitious anchors for the reader to return to again and again and again and again throughout the text): “May I never be complete. May I never be content. May I never be perfect.” 

And you could view that mantra as an advertisement for nihilistic self-destruction. You could view it in keeping with Tyler’s fascistic ethos that we’re all meat ready to be sacrificed for some greater good known only to him. That self-destruction is the only logical response to the corrupted world that made us, and that our only glee resides in rubbing that ugly self-annihilation into the eyes of a world that doesn’t want to see it.

But maybe it means something else entirely. 

Maybe it means that the perfection of the personas we adopt, the Tylers we hide behind, the films we cling to in lieu of actual personalities, the stories we tell to hide ourselves—maybe it means that kind of perfection just isn’t worth it.

But maybe taking responsibility is.

And so, a love story:

At the end of Fight Club, the Narrator realizes Project Mayhem’s goal is to not just to demolish the local skyscrapers owned by all the major financial companies, but to kill the one person whose existence threatens the perfection of Fight Club, of Project Mayhem, of Tyler Durden. The goal is also to kill Marla Singer, the woman whose face softened earlier that day into something beautiful for a few scant seconds when the exhausted Narrator let it slip that he actually cares about her. 

Horrified at the thought of something happening to Marla, the Narrator sees the gun he told us Tyler has been pointing at him during his entire narration, and he realizes it was in his own hand this whole time. 

He stops imagining an outside force is holding his life hostage, and recognizes that he himself is the reason he is in this room with a view of the whole goddamn world.

Just before the members of Project Mayhem bring Marla to Tyler, there on the top floor of an empty building with a perfect view of the upcoming theater of mass destruction, the Narrator puts the gun to he and Tyler’s shared head and kills him in an act—however ludicrous—of attempted self-sacrifice. And for once, he takes responsibility. 

My eyes are open.”

||

Movies.

It’s an easy thing to do, to build your whole little identity around your misunderstanding of what a movie is supposed to be, or supposed to mean. To hold it up to the world, your bruised and swollen-knuckle fists pushing the film down the throat of the whole rotten enterprise of existence. To feel so angry at a world that doesn’t need you, or make you feel important, or love you. For the blood in your veins to rage-pump like battery acid, for the bile to carbonate up your throat and sizzle the back of your tongue, for every muscle to tighten and every nerve to fray as your teeth grind to powder. For dull heat to flood your chest the way an oil spill slicks across the surface of the ocean, suffocating all life and light in its inky, abyssal black.

It’s easy to blame the whole goddamn world. 

For what?

For yourself.

Maybe you didn’t make the world. Maybe the world did make you. But now you’re in it. Fucking live with it, and move on. See yourself. Learn to love yourself. And maybe someone else will do the same.

As you are.

As I am.

And so, movies. 

To be reflected like one is—like a gun to the head—something just about everyone would do just about anything to avoid.  But maybe it’s worth it to watch. To really see. 

Wait. 

Let me wrap this up. 

Let’s talk about the end.

||

And so, a chorus, a mirror, a movie:

A dark room. Two bodies in the center, coming together against the aquamarine light of a city out past the massive plate-glass window. This gunshot man, this shocked woman.

The first rule of watching Fight Club is: the film is not misogyny-pumped propaganda for incels.

The skyscrapers that crowd and clump across the horizon begin to implode from the soap-based nitro charges wrapped around their foundations.

The second rule of watching Fight Club is: the film is NOT misogyny-pumped propaganda for incels.

The buildings accordion downward, and all the towering forces the man spent his entire life blaming fall away. And once they’re gone, all that’s left against that now-empty skyline is the ghostly reflection of two people standing side by side. All that’s left, all he sees when those towering excuses fall, is himself, and the woman he loves.

Third rule of watching Fight Club: it’s not an anti-capitalist tract; it’s not really a consumer critique.

This fighter’s hand finally stops making a fist, and it reaches out, and it becomes one half of a knot with hers.

Fourth rule: it’s not even an indictment of white collar workplace drudgery at the end of the 20th century.

May we never be complete.

Fifth rule: it’s not a movie in support of anarchism, fascism, terrorism, or of any other –ism.

May we never be content.

Sixth rule: of all things, it’s a film about taking responsibility.

May we never be perfect.

Seventh rule: it’s about a boy terrified of a girl, and of what she might mean for him. Mean to him.

Maybe, though, we don’t have to do that alone.

And the eighth and final rule of watching Fight Club: this is a fucking love story.