Occasionally there will be books that make me think my veins are made of glass. I get this cold wash when they’re over, someone gravedancing, refractions and slipstreams. These stories make me aware, with sudden and dangerous clarity, how truly fragile I am. Fight Club made me want to die. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want to die like suicide, but like something brutal and majestic. The sacrifice of a young explosive body to a future where that body would be scarred and know things. I didn’t want to die so much as I wanted to be reborn.
As a teenager I didn’t even read Fight Club, or watch it, until years later, but already fragments had pervaded my life and those around me. We were in year eleven, and Palahniuk was the sole instigator for us starting our own fight club at school (although maybe he was helped along by pent up adolescent angst). I am Rafael’s friendless resentment.
One of Chuck’s many complaints about the aftermath of his book is that people always come up to him surreptitiously (or not so) and ask if he knows of the local fight club chapter in their area.
These are normal people too, businessmen, students, waiters, the kinds of people he writes about and didn’t quite believe would exist. But it turns out they do. And they’re pretty pissed off when he tries to tell them it’s fiction.
My classmates weren’t concerned with the complex delineations of truth and fiction as much as they were with finding the most unobtrusively brutal way to beat each other up.
‘Take him down!’ hissed James.
‘Come on fatty! Fuck him up!’ whispered Harry. We had to be quiet, but that didn’t make it any less intense. It was lunchtime. We were at the back of the school in a kind of rock garden, which provided the only smooth semi-enclosed space with enough trees to obscure us from view. Of course it also meant the teachers would be obscured too, but unless we were overly loud or someone cried out in pain, they would have no reason to come around. The majority of the fights were just dusty circling, breath hissing through teeth. I am Rafael’s roaring adrenaline. I watched quietly, my fists clenched.
The first fight in Fight Club is fairly innocuous, at least compared to the rest of the perverse vigilantism (which thankfully my classmates didn’t take to with quite the same fervour). Tyler and the narrator are standing outside a bar.
‘I want you to hit me, as hard as you can.’
And they take it in turns to beat each other. This may seem like totally pointless machismo to some, but I understood it then in a way that I can only articulate now. It is a test of the self in two ways, both knowing how much suffering you can take, and how much you can inflict. The search to find out how much your body can stand is one that I’ve gone through, my father has gone through, and I imagine many others. It is at the same time self-destructive and life-affirming. The extension of ‘What doesn’t kill me,’ to ‘Be strong, saith my heart; I am a soldier; I have seen worse sights than this.’
My first Fight Club fight was against a year twelve. I was a wiry fragile English nerd, but already trying to dress myself in the warpaint of unjustified self-confidence; essentially a perfect sacrifice to the boys a year older than us who had taken an interest in our little rite of passage.
‘His head pinched between the concrete floor and the knee of a two-hundred-pound stock boy who kept slamming a fist into the bridge of the waiter’s nose again and again in flat hard packing sounds you could hear over all the yelling until the waiter caught enough breath and sprayed blood to say, stop.’
My fight was thankfully nothing like it. He swung ponderously and I spent most of my time jumping and weaving like a dog on a trampoline. I am Rafael’s total ignorance about hand-to-hand combat. Occasionally we managed to hit each other, and the adrenaline I felt from this was entirely new. The feeling of connecting my fist on someone. It hurt, more than I’d expected. My wrist bent. Compressed. I’d never been able to crack my knuckles before that day, but after then and still now, I can pop them all. Little jabs at my body.
The book itself, in rereading it years later, is still good, but it isn’t as amazing as it was when I first read it. I’ve internalised some lessons and dismissed others. The shock value of pissing into soup or splicing porn into a movie seems immature now, only a little more rebellious as writing the word fuck in wet concrete. But I remember loving it when I did. Back when I didn’t yet have the malaise, but I had the angst. I wasn’t old enough to spell ennui, but I was as jaded and world-weary as only an adolescent could be. It became my favourite book as quickly as a collapsing building. And its impression on me, the adrenaline awareness of fragility and dying, is one that I still feel.
There are other truths in the book that have only started to hold meaning since I’ve got older, been in real fights. ‘After a night in fight club, everything in the real world gets the volume turned down. Nothing can piss you off.’ – you work through your anger, and at the same time know how to hold yourself, know that you can hold yourself. While a lot of the book is about those with nothing to lose, it also shows that the truly strong have nothing to prove.
For a book that made me want to die, it’s taught me a lot about how to live.
Rafael S.W writes short stories and poetry and is a founding member of ‘Dead Poets’ Fight Club’. He’s been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Voiceworks, and Award Winning Australian Writing. A regular contributor to Going Down Swinging online, he also enjoys poetry slams and giant-sized chess games. www.rafaelsw.com
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.