25 July 2013

Prose vs Pictures #2 | Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club vs David Fincher's Fight Club

You’re here because someone broke the rules. Somebody told you about fight club, showed you Fight Club, or maybe even let you read Fight Club. So right now, you’re either thinking, “OK – the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club,” or, more likely, “There’s a book?”

I wish that I could lay claim to being of the twenty-seven people who’d heard of Fight Club before its movie adaptation became the most controversial box office hit of ’99, let alone one of the fourteen who’d actually read it, but, like most of the English-speaking world, my first experience of Chuck Palahniuk’s apostolic tale of “Tyler the great, who was perfect for one moment” was on the silver screen, where Seven director David Fincher used acting talent the calibre of Brad Pitt; Edward Norton; Helena Bonham Carter; and even a 90lb-moobs-sporting Meat Loaf to disprove the book’s assertion that “a moment is the most you could ever expect from perfection”. According to my Blu-ray player, Fincher successfully stretched out that fragile instant to one hour thirty-nine. It wasn’t until a few years after I’d worn out my Fight Club VHS, though, that I stumbled across a tie-in reissue of Palahniuk’s paperback, and found myself uttering that widespread, befuddled utterance: “There’s a book?”

Well tonight I’m not only gonna break fight club’s first and second rules and talk about Fight Club, I’m gonna go one better and make both of its iterations slog it out in the basement to find out, once and for all, which is the strongest.

Fight Club
was originally conceived as a written work. The story goes that Chuck was sitting bored at his desk at work, nursing a black eye that not one of his colleagues had dared to enquire about, when he decided to slack off work and try a little literary experiment. He tasked himself with crafting a seven-page piece that would somehow tell a complete story, but only through exploring its central conceits. He was looking for a new mode of storytelling; new “rules”, as he later described it. The story itself - the fight club, the fighting, even the nascent Jekyll and Hyde backbone - “was arbitrary”. Of course, his experiment turned out to be far more fruitful than he could ever have anticipated, as his completed Fight Club story was swiftly snapped up by a small anthology for just fifty bucks, and the novel that it blossomed into, of which that original story formed its sixth chapter, sold soon afterwards for only a little more. Fast-forward three more years, though, and Fox’s Fight Club movie had made fight club’s rules renowned worldwide – but sadly not Palahniuk’s.

Yet it is these rules, this unique style, that makes Fight Club what it is in both its forms – it’s more monologue than movie or novel, and a tortuous monologue at that. The engineered, experimental style of storytelling that Palahniuk first played with on that torrid Tuesday follows the trains of thought of a nameless protagonist (whose on-screen aliases include Cornelius, Rupert and Travis) who’s seduced by the freedom offered to him by a man who sells soap for a living. And projects movies. And pees in soup. And is “full of useful information”, arcane knowledge and dazzling dogma that allows Palahniuk’s one-man narrative to leap from one defining moment to another. “Baggage handlers can ignore a ticking suitcase…” launches the reader into the tale of the narrator’s condo exploding; “To make soap, first we have to render fat…” prompts scenes of mutilation and homemade explosive manufacture, not to mention Robin Hood-like musings on the redistribution of surgically-removed excess body fat. It certainly beats the old he said / she said, particularly when almost every line is laced with a bizarre, diabolical doctrine that reads as being far more persuasive than it should be.

Indeed, if you look at the book as written, there is a dearth of dialogue in the traditional sense – what the book presents are ideas and asides, often second-hand, woven into surprisingly eloquent and philosophical anecdotes. Since books became digitised, it’s become quite easy to gauge how impressed I am with a text – I simply look at how many highlights I’ve made in the iBooks app. With most top-tier novels, I generally highlight forty to fifty quotes or passages, but with Fight Club, which is a far shorter text than most (in print it would be 224 pages), I’ve made over three hundred. You’d end up looking more like the Brad Pitt of Snatch than the Brad Pitt of Fight Club if you were to tattoo even just the most memorable of the Fight Club quotations that I found worthy of highlight onto your body. This makes for an extraordinary reading experience as the book has all the power and purpose of a clenched fist; not a word is wasted on exposition or plot-driving discourse. Instead, almost every word serves as an indictment of the ugly compromise and veiled slavery of modern life, where wants and needs are imposed by a brainwashing advertisement culture rather than being something intrinsic.

To his credit though, screenwriter Jim Uhls’ script seems to flow naturally from what’s written in the book, as it often repurposes narration as dialogue and bridges the gaps in conversation with equally-heavy, perfectly-attuned sentences that sound like pure Palahniuk. The “Cut the foreplay and just ask!” and “We’ve got the same briefcase” skits, and lines such as “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”; “Is that what a man looks like?”; “…a house full of condiments and no food…”; and especially Marla’s vitriolic “I have more of a right to be here [at a testicular cancer sufferers’ support group] than you – you still have your balls!” sit so well that the novel’s author must have been kicking himself when he saw the movie for the first time.

The film also handles Fight Club’s stylistics very well, using a blend of sharp cuts, rollercoaster prepositional segues, and other clever devices to maintain the book’s a-linear, sense-not-sequence presentation. Fincher even goes a step further in some instances, using his own inspired ideas to translate the feel of the book onto the screen, achieving the same end result through a totally different means. Just look at the apartment shots’ IKEA catalogue overlay, for instance; the mid-air collision fantasy; the Dust Brothers’ post-modern score; or even the amazing title sequence that begins inside the narrator’s brain and concludes with a pan straight through his skull.

Both incarnations of Fight Club share a sense of playfulness and mischief that belies the nihilistic terrors and truths that the story lays bare. Indeed, both on screen and in print, it possesses a slightly skewed, cartoonish quality that keeps it just outside the jaws of utter despair. Its ceaseless procession of soundbites that should leave you feeling like a Dalek on the receiving end of a Sylvester McCoy soliloquy are tempered by their muted, brown and green-graded “insomnia distance”. In print, even as Chloe writhes around in agony, her cancer eating away at her moribund body as the narrator counts down to her demise, “Prepare to evacuate soul in ten, in eight…”, you witness it through the cold apathy of a man who’s far more concerned with acquiring Swedish furniture and “near-life experiences” than he is the rueful fate of “post-consumer human butt wipe” who just wanted one last shag before slipping into the abyss.

But there is one aspect of the novel that, by all rights, shouldn’t work on screen at all. It shouldn’t really even work in prose at all, but when the reader’s divorced from the visuals, it at least has a fighting chance. Now before you read any further, I should issue a spoiler warning in the form of a question. Do you know about Tyler Durden? For years, everywhere you go, everybody’s probably been asking you, “Do you know about Tyler Durden?” If you’ve seen the movie, I’m guessing that you do, but I figured that I should ask at this point, because it could ruin one of those Sixth Sense things if not. Well, kinda.

Part of the book’s genius is that, even though it’s obvious (or even if you already know, having come to the novel after watching the film, as I did), your mind erroneously infers things from the text almost involuntarily - it’s like one of those magic eye things. “I know this because Tyler knows this,” you read, your mind inventing the imparting of information from Tyler to Cornelius / Rupert / Travis. “Sometimes, Tyler speaks for me,” the book’s narrator says, and so your mind’s eye conjures Pitt standing in front of Norton, doing all the talking for him; not even the parroting depicted in the film’s hospital scene. “Tyler’s words coming out of my mouth” means exactly what it says; it’s the reader who presumes a verbal transference of dogma from one man to another; the reader who infers a disparity that’s not there. When the narrator dreams of humping Marla, who’s being nailed by the dynamic Mr Durden as he dozes, we think that they’re just dreams conjured by a sleeping mind processing her well-seen-to screams emanating from the room next-door. Even when the nameless protagonist throws a punch at Tyler and ends up connecting with the side of Tyler’s neck, you put it down to first-fight feebleness.

Tyler’s euphoric “This is the greatest moment of our life” (my emphasis) is harder to get out of. Our life? Singular? Shared. When it finally comes, “We both use the same body, but at different times… I am Tyler Durden,” tells readers nothing that hasn’t already crystallised by that point. It’s less of a twist, more of a gradual dawning.

And so the problem that Fincher and Uhls faced when adapting the novel for cinema was that the audience had to see Tyler Durden right from his first appearance. Had he been presented as a more mischievous-looking Edward Norton, the Fight Club movie would have been a totally different – and, in my view, much tamer – animal. Instead, the movie embraces the conceit that Tyler Durden is a completely different and independent character to the man who narrates the tale, casting an (initially) lithe and chic version of Brad Pitt as the nocturnal id incarnate. This instantly gives the film not only a boost in terms of its mainstream appeal, but also its tone. Even as written, Fight Club is not the schizoid man writ large or a scientific study of dissociated personality disorders and psychogenic fugues. It’s closer to science fiction or fantasy in its cleanness, its high concept; the author even throws in a joke about the movie Sybil. One personality sleeps, the other comes to life. The first personality wakes up, the second recedes. It’s a ploy, a gimmick - a rule. And Fincher plays with it on screen every bit as much as Palahniuk does on the page, saturating his movie with visual cues as fleeting but decisive as one of Tyler’s cock-spliced family film reels, and even subtly altering lines and situations to raise an unreasonable doubt. “This is the greatest moment of your life…”

Of course, it helps that Pitt and Norton are not only two of the finest actors of their generation, but were so committed to the Fight Club project that they each altered their bodies during filming to highlight Tyler’s growing dominance over whatshisname as the film progresses. Pitt hit the weights, piling on the muscle, and got a tan while Norton starved himself and wasted away. However, for every such gain, there’s a loss. On screen, the ‘relationship’ between these two aspects of spirit is far more complicated than it is in print, as Fincher’s film is underscored by a sense of homoeroticism that I didn’t get from the book. When the characters bathe together (which of course they would, if you think about it), the dialogue is played in such a way as to suggest a rejection of their heterosexuality, which clearly isn’t the case. Worse still, Pitt’s own revisions to the script move Tyler away from his original purpose and steer him towards something much grander, but disappointingly general in nature.

Indeed, the key difference between the written Fight Club and its motion picture counterpart is why; why does the narrator’s Tyler Durden personality present when it does? There could a neurological reason, I suppose, but there’s little drama in that, and so thankfully neither version looks for one. The film instead paints a picture of man so desperate to escape the constraints of his humdrum, vacuous little existence that he creates an alter ego for himself who is the man that he wants to be – free, in every sense. But the novel goes beyond that, revealing that it was actually an external stimulus that caused its protagonist’s psyche to split clean in two like a cartoon broken heart, and when it is revealed in the novel’s final furlong it casts everything from the story’s first parking lot brawl to Project Mayhem’s terrorism in a totally different light. Below this next picture is the real spoiler; the real Sixth Sense thing.

The force powerful enough to fracture our anonymous storyteller’s mind in two is love. Love that he, as himself, had no outlet for. His affections were wasted on lamps, chairs, rugs and dishes; the empty comforts of consumerism. And so he created a man who, to paraphrase the screenplay, looked like he wanted to look and fucked like he wanted to fuck. He created a personality that would appeal to a woman who pours her love into “the things that people love intensely and then dump an hour or a day after”; a woman whose glass slipper is a prophylactic sheath; a twisted, lump-breasted soul who fully appreciates that she could die at any moment, but whose tragedy is that she doesn’t. Tyler Durden was born to love Marla Singer, and everything else – the fight clubs, the Paper Street Soap Company, the space monkeys, Project Mayhem and all the other trappings of the liberating double life for which he isn’t culpable – is just an elaborate distraction from the amorous fear festering in our divided hero’s soul.

Almost by extension, the film omits the novel’s final chapter and epilogue, which whilst not as fundamental a departure as Tyler’s raison d’ĂȘtre, further skews one’s perception of our narrator’s world. The movie is pretty emphatic in its portrayal of Tyler’s defeat and the surviving Marla and thingy’s almost-by-default instant Hollywood love, but in print Palahniuk leaves us with more than a reasonable doubt as to our heroes’ implicitly explosive fates, as the afterlife described – with its white walls, regular meds and, apparently, decent postal service – sounds suspiciously clinical in nature to me. The Pixies ask “Where is My Mind?” as the buildings fall in the film, but it’s only in the book that the question still burns afterwards.

It’s 2-0 to prose, I’m afraid, moviegoers.

Fincher’s Fight Club is the ultimate dick flick, a masterpiece that ranks amongst my favourite films, but despite its fairly faithful preservation of the book’s meandering monologues and train-of-thought storyline, it lacks the superlatively-twisted romance and unyielding, hole-in-the-cheek bleakness of the novel. In both versions, Tyler Durden and Project Mayhem represent the freedom and anarchy that the weary narrator so craves, but the book goes much further than the film in highlighting the pleasures and pitfalls of that freedom - it’s a question of emphasis and extent; the difference between threatening to cut off someone’s cojones and actually doing it. On the page, the castrating effect of society is fought on a fire with fire’ basis, Project Mayhem’s scare tactics in the film having their roots in the actually-severed testicles bagged and tagged in Tyler Durden’s literary freezer, and Palahniuk returns to the incredibly powerful metaphor of the puppy pound time and again, “Where even if someone loves you enough to save your life, they still castrate you.” Such sentiments encapsulate it all.

On a final note, you know that a book is really something special when even its afterword contains phrases as  potent as “Margaret Thatcher has eaten my cum.” If you’ve only seen the film, what you’re feeling is premature enlightenment.

Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club novel is currently available in paperback (best price online today: £3.00 at Books etc) and digital formats (£3.79 from Amazon's Kindle Store or £3.99 from iTunes). Yesterday, the news broke that Palahniuk is working on a graphic novel sequel.

David Fincher's Fight Club
movie is available from iTunes in 1080p HD for just £8.99, albeit without any extras. If you’re after bonus material too, a 10th Anniversary Blu-ray is available (best price online today: £7.00 on Amazon).

18 July 2013

Book Review | Glue by Irvine Welsh

Anyone who read my lengthy celebration of Trainspotting in its two most famous forms was probably half-dreading my inevitable, interminable musings on the super-heavyweight of a tome with which it shares a sequel. But for all its heartbreaking depth and crippling charm, there is far less to say about Irvine Welsh’s Glue than there is its principal forerunner. Trainspotting was an episodic melting pot that dragged its readers from tale to tale at breakneck speed, whereas Glue is much more structured and specific. It maintains the snapshot-styled structure of Welsh’s first novel, but instead of a 36-exposure film of disposable camera six by fours, Glue’s four snapshots are huge, panoramic vistas; each set a decade or so apart, and each offering its four focal characters’ different perspectives on a formative event - or its aftermath.

The first time that I read Glue, I was surprised to discover that its title wasn’t an allusion to tales of substance abuse therein, but rather the metaphorical ties that bind a motley crew of Edinburgh lads from their shared working class background to destinies summed up by either fame, fortune, fornication or fatalism. Whilst still laden with the phonetic Scots dialogue common to almost all of Welsh’s works, the novel is characterised by glorious and evocative prose that occasionally threatens to undermine the characters’ independence. You can feel the omniscience creeping in as protagonists note “the dramas of future despair in pre-production” and ruminate upon anthropomorphised time “ripping the guts out of people, then setting them in stone and just slowly chipping away at them”. Indeed, the latter quote effectively sums up Glue’s mission statement as Welsh takes four boys, four families, and slowly melts them - all so that the reader may draw in their intoxicating fumes.

Rather than make a number of profound points through sharp machete moralising, Glue offers a ceaseless succession of astute and pointed ones; many trivial, others far from being such. I love the blend of the two; love how Welsh uses roughly the same number of words to convey one character’s paltry realisation that he’s just on the wrong side of a paradigm shift in male grooming, much to the detriment of his status in the middle-aged meat market, as he does another’s that he’s thrown his whole life away in a fleeting lapse of juvenile reason; the unthinking, spur-of-the-moment loan of a knife.  The touching, old-age death of one of the first characters that we meet in the book sits sandwiched between Terry’s patented “shag, shit, shave, shower” hangover cure recital and ginger-pube medical fantasy. Lives are saved by beer guts; psychos turned into Daleks with crossbows. And all the while, Glue remains resplendently true to life; true to the wacky adventures borne of friendships and the peculiar protocols that they engender.

And due to the level of exposure that Glue affords them, its four focal characters - Andrew Galloway, Billy ‘Business’ Birrell, Carl ‘N-Sign’ Ewart, and ‘Juice’ Terry Lawson - become just as familiar to the reader as those that headlined Trainspotting and would be revisited in Porno, Skagboys, and, in a few fleeting cameos, this book too. Birrell’s a likeable, stand-up guy; a boxer with the skill to be champion of the world, but not the constitution. Carl’s the pale and pasty ‘Milky Bar Kid’ destined to deejay despite falling foul of the press in an incident from which, in ‘Juice’ Terry-inspired defiance, he’d take his stage name. And then there’s perr wee Gally, whose tragedies follow each other in a domino-like cascade.

The novel’s superlative superstar though is the outmoded aerated water salesman who is, and probably forever will be, my favourite Welsh character. With his fierce arsenal of misogynistic quips that’d make Gene Hunt blush (“...a bird’s bush in your hand is worth two wi thir clathes oan...” / “A souvenir ay Blackpool…? Yir better ridin birds than trams, better lickin fannies thin sticks ay rock...”) and the brash confidence of a man whose erection is reputed to be “like one tin ay Irn-Bru stuck oan top ay another”, the corkscrew-heided tea-leaf is more outstanding than Franco Begbie. He’s even got a cunning that, to his delight and often-milked advantage, few people can see - until it’s too late. Every passage that he features in is sheer delight to read, suffused with guilty pleasure and begrudging admiration. Every passage, I should say, but one.

On both occasions that I’ve read this book, despite having comparatively little to say about it (without utterly ruining its plot, anyway), I’ve been left with the nagging sense that this turn-of-the-millennium rollercoaster Scots epic is, perhaps, Welsh’s finest work. Though it’s often ugly, as grim cause and harrowing effect are more pivotal players than the protagonists whose lives we are sucked into, it sensationally showcases “the spice ay life”; the passions and prejudices of a small pond’s big fish that ultimately prove alluring enough to inspire and ignite even an anorexic American songstress who’s lost her lust for life.

Irvine Welsh’s Glue is currently available in paperback (best price online today: £5.44 from AbeBooks) and digital formats (£5.98 from Amazon's Kindle Store or £6.49 from iTunes).