the first rule

Fight ClubSpoke to Me

Twenty-five years later, a novel that shouldn’t have resonated still does.

Photo: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

A few months ago, a friend and I were hanging out beside an abandoned baseball field reflecting on the hypermasculine activities we loved before we came out. I, for instance, loved — “loved” — paintball and Maglites and Anna Nicole Smith, and I continue to fawn over unhinged action movies, those of the Cruise and Cage variety. I obsessed over these things partly to hide my ongoing doubt about my assigned gender identity. My strategy was simple: Like something masculine coded, convince everyone I was a boy, including myself. As a teenager, I loved the novels of Chuck Palahniuk, especially Fight Club, the essential book about the nihilistic rage of aimless men. That made perfect sense to my friend but not for the reasons I expected. “I knew so many so many trans people who loved Fight Club before they came out,” she said, so nonchalant I felt as if I should have already known. After a few weeks’ obsessing over her comment, I bought a new copy of the novel. I had donated my original a decade ago.

Perhaps there’s a simple explanation for trans people loving Fight Club: A lot of people loved Fight Club. But I’m convinced there’s a deeper, less immediate reason. Transformation plays a vital role in the novel. The men who join Fight Club seek to eradicate everything superficially male about their lives — albeit through hypermasculine tactics — and the person you see in Fight Club, the narrator states, “is not who they are in the real world.” Fight Club does two things very well. It captures the colicky malaise of men, and it pursues a truth that is hard to confront: We would like to be someone else. Before I came out as trans, this was not a truth I could avoid.

It has been 25 years since the publication of Fight Club, and its impact remains easy to spot: Fight Club chapters have sprouted up across the world over that time, academics have debated the novel at conferences and performed interpretive dances, and you’ve probably heard someone say “The First Rule of [blank] is don’t talk about [blank]” more times than you care to remember. Only eight months ago, the U.S. faced an attack on the Capitol building led mostly by angry white men looking to reappoint their leader to office. Derailing the democratic process is a fitting task for Project Mayhem, the cult that evolves out of Fight Club.

I first came to Fight Club the way many people did: through the movie. The summer I turned 12, my older cousins named all their video-game characters Tyler Durden. I was eager to get the reference — they refused to explain it to me — so I ordered the film through my mom’s satellite subscription. It did not instill in me a desire to fight or become a Real Man. The literal physics of the final gunshot confused me. How could someone kill his persona by shooting himself in the mouth? I looked to my cousins for answers. They insisted the movie was merely too smart for me.

Fight Club reentered my life in high school when I enrolled in a class called “Filming the Novel” — it was the hottest (easiest) course in school. The semester consisted of reading novels, then watching the adaptations before taking quizzes noting the differences between the films and the books.

In high school, I spent my afternoons at Borders listening to sample tracks from indie bands and splurging on Wes Anderson DVDs. The literature section, however, seemed like a threateningly feminine space — my best friend was a girl, and she read all the time — but Fight Club gave me an excuse to drift among the book aisles, flipping through the opening chapters of Palahniuk’s Choke and Survivor before testing out other books that had been adapted into movies: Alex Garland’s The Beach, Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho. In Palahniuk’s books, nothing ever went unsaid. Every purile and wretched idea seemed to make it onto the page. As a teenager fenced in by curfews and homework and groundings, I was enamored of anything that flouted social conventions, and as a pretentious teenager, I loved finding these ideas in novels. You might expect me to say I was drawn to Invisible Monsters, Palahniuk’s novel about trans fashion models; after reading the flap copy, though, I avoided the book. I feared what reading it might say about me. Just the sight of it made my stomach tighten with shame.

In college, I decided to become a Serious Writer and abandoned Palahniuk. As I fell for the work of Mavis Gallant and Deborah Eisenberg and James Baldwin and others, my love for novels like Fight Club embarrassed me. How could something so pulpy and corny spur my love of reading? But I’ve come to accept that we rarely get to choose what speaks to us on a subcutaneous, languageless level and that hiding my love for the novel meant hiding something essential about me. Since childhood, I had been adept at hiding essential parts of myself, fearing friends and family and partners would abandon me if they knew who I was. And who was I? A writer who loved pulpy Palahniuk novels. A Ph.D. student who skipped class to watch basketball games. A nonbinary person pretending I was a man.

While writing my novel, The Atmospherians, I began to accept that I could no longer hide. Over the first few drafts, I was living in Houston, married and assumed cis, but on the rare weekends I spent on my own, I would toss on dresses while revising scenes in “an attempt to understand” Sasha, the female narrator of the book. At least, that’s what I would have told my wife if she came home or if a neighbor spied me through the windows. But I knew why I was wearing the dresses. I didn’t want to understand Sasha. I wanted to be myself.

My novel is about a pair of friends, Sasha and Dyson, who create a cult to reform problematic men. When I started the book, I set out to imagine a less destructive form of masculinity, to turn Fight Club on its head. Palahniuk’s vision of masculinity suggests that an authentic man — the true man underneath the bourgeois facade — can emerge through violence and self-sacrifice. I wanted to believe in the opposite, that, through writing, I could create a version of masculinity a man would want to inhabit. But my problem was never my style of manhood or that I hadn’t yet become the right type of man; it was that people assumed I was male and that I encouraged this out of convenience and fear. As I revised my novel, I became less interested in reimagining masculinity than in dropping my performance of manhood. My excuse — that I dressed femme to understand Sasha — became too taxing to harbor. Seven months before I finished the book, I came out to my partner and loved ones as trans.

I did not set out to write a trans novel, and many readers would say that I haven’t. My book does not center trans characters — though some have read Dyson’s childhood as that of a closeted trans woman — and in terms of representation, it has little in common with novels like Detransition, Baby and Summer Fun and Confessions of the Fox and Future Feeling. But the novel unconsciously expresses my desire to escape the gender binary. In The Atmospherians, characters suffer because people in their lives have imposed strict gender expectations upon them. That gender is a violent performance is hardly an original concept. See: Butler, Judith. But as Jeanne Thornton, author of Summer Fun, told me recently, it was obvious to her that the book was “fucking trans” only a few chapters in. Another trans reader described the novel as “ooz[ing] dysphoria.”

Fight Club also oozes dysphoria. The hypermasculine aspects of the novel haven’t vanished since I read it at 17. There remains something unnervingly fratty in both the tone and the plot. Men raised by women who are tired of discussing their feelings come together through violence and terrorism. Palahniuk’s instructions for building bombs and rendering soap and deflecting class-action lawsuits all give off — I’m sorry — a mansplain-y vibe. The members of Project Mayhem are encouraged to buy guns. Nothing says “man” like a gun.

However, as I reread Fight Club this summer, the narrator’s longing for a more authentic life spoke to my lifelong gender dysphoria. I too harbored a secret; I presided over a club of one that I refused to ever discuss. Who I was when I wore dresses was not the person who entered the world to teach or grab drinks.

Twenty-five years after the novel’s publication, we continue breaking the first rule of Fight Club. That’s not because the book expertly captures the nihilistic resentment of being a man or because it is cryptically trans. Fight Club takes for granted an inexhaustible fear of modern life: We are not who we present to the world. In the book, this fear draws the narrator toward gruesome extremes from which he cannot recover. In my own life, this fear helped me embrace the person I wished to become. Over the past year, I have, gradually, found a Durden-esque confidence wearing the types of dresses the narrator’s love interest, Marla Singer, might steal from a laundromat. For the first time in my life, who I am for the world aligns with the person I once refused to discuss.

Fight Club Spoke to Me