The First Rule of Fight Club

…is that you don’t talk about fight club or at least the narrative twists in Fight Club. I’ve been teaching Fight Club this week in my cultural studies and composition course, and in teaching the novel (in some sense, alongside the film), I’ve been confronted with an interesting “disciplinary” dilemma. On the one hand, I feel obligated to discuss certain narrative details about Fight Club, namely that Tyler and the narrator are the “same person.” On the other, when I discuss a text such as Fight Club, I catch myself falling into the disciplinary practice of a filmgoer who quickly learns that he or she is not supposed to reveal important plot twists in order not to spoil the shock effect for others.

This conflict between two very different institutional organizations (the classroom and film audiences) became remarkably clear last spring when a student group completed project called “Twisted Celluloid” that focused on films (Usual Suspects, Memento, Sixth Sense) with narrative twists designed to revise our knowledge of everything that happened in the film until that point.

My thoughts here are following two unrelated lines right now:

  1. In general, I’m intrigued by what these films are doing, what they offer to viewers. The effect is obviously something that many viewers find pleasurable, given the popularity of this type of effect. Of course the idea of the secret itself seems like an important part of the successful marketing of these films (The Crying Game would seem to be the best example here), but the narrative shock effect offers a pleasurable disorientation or destabilization that seems important. In a recent essay, Linda Williams compares this feeling to the shock effect offered by roller coaster rides, an observation that I find promising.
  2. How do you talk about these texts in class? When teaching the novel, especially, I wanted to be careful not to reveal the “secret” too soon for readers who were unfamiliar with the text. Again, at some point, you have to assume the students have read far enough into the book, but I constantly find myself questioning how and when to reveal this kind of information, a hesitation that I think is primarily based on my desire to remain complicit with the expectations of movie audiences not to give away the ending.

4 Comments »

  1. JBJ Said,

    January 22, 2004 @ 10:34 pm

    This is a tough question, even just in fiction. I basically handle this pragmatically, and ask that people not discuss material beyond what’s been assigned. (So, don’t talk about the ending if the assigned reading is chapters 1-3.)

    The problem, though, is that you are sometimes left with a ton of retroactive interpretation at the end of the novel.

    And the one exception to this practice has been Hardy’s Tess, which I always explain will not end happily. The first time I taught that novel, my students almost rioted, because they’d never imagined that Hardy would withhold, or, more precisely, withdraw, the apparently longed-for Tess/Angel reunion.

  2. chuck Said,

    January 22, 2004 @ 11:29 pm

    In some ways, the problem may actually be less common when teaching film, especially when a movie can be consumed in 2-3 hours at most.

    I think the case of “Fight Club” simply complicates things because so many of my students were familiar with the story…

  3. stephen mccamman Said,

    February 22, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

    I’m investigating the possibility of using Fight Club in my intro to poli sci class ( power, social identity, fear, and corporate power are the themes I interested in discussing). Two questions:

    generally, what is the ‘cool’ factor of using such a book – do students take an additional interest because you are using a book/film they are familiar with?

    what other themes emerge from the book that may be applicable to a poli sci class? I’ll take my comments off the air :)

  4. Chuck Said,

    February 22, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

    I liked the experience of teaching Fight Club, both novel and film. One issue that may not have come across clearly in the entry is obviously the issue of gender as it pertains to corporate power–the members of FC are, of course, all men, and they are the ones who seem most displaced by the economic shifts associated with corporate power–at least according to the logic of the movie and novel (i.e., men are emasculated by globalization).

    I haven’t taught FC in a while, but as I recall, there were also quite a few references to movies and television that opened up a discussion of media representations of masculinity that might be worth discussing. Students were certainly receptive and most seemed to read the novel in addition to watching the movie.

    Good luck with the course!

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