On Style vs. Substance

And with a title like that, it’s going to be hard not to convince you that I don’t like the book at hand.  So, instead, I’ll just admit that I don’t like the book at hand, said book being Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.

Take for granted that I’ve not read anything else by Mr. Palahniuk.

Take for granted that I haven’t seen the movie.

Take for granted that many people are surprised that I haven’t seen the movie, not the least of which reasons why are that my writing often plays with ideas of dream vs. reality and questions of identity and what we know and how we know and “Tuned to a Dead Channel” is a play that (SPOILER ALERT!) has many similarities to Fight Club, both the movie (which I still haven’t seen yet) and the book (which I just finished reading).

Fight Club

Sorry about the size on that one – the copy I read is a first edition and this is the only cover I could find online.  The copy I read was lent to me by Andy (who is not also-me), one of the actors in “Tuned” who also happens to like Palahniuk and, like many before him, saw some similarities rising through our works straining to reach each other like the tentacles of lovesick octopi in nearby, but separate, pools of briny water, all the saltier for our tears.

So, Ree, it’s hard for me to say exactly what I would think of reading Fight Club if the movie hadn’t so thoroughly made the concept a part of the cultural consciousness.  I knew going in (SPOILER ALERT?) that the main character (nameless in the book) and Tyler Durden are the same person.  Because I knew this before reading the first word, I could see all the groundwork that Palahniuk was laying down for the BIG REVEAL at the end which, while I was reading it, seemed very heavy-handed and obvious.  If you didn’t know the premise going in, these ground-laying statements would probably come off as confusing and, as the text of the book encourages you to do, you would ignore them, figuring that you’d understand the strangeness of statements like, “I know this because Tyler knows this.” later, as you get on further with the book, just as A Clockwork Orange makes sense as you read it because you became inoculated to the language it inhabits.

Okay, okay, I know you know all this (especially about the octopuses), but what I want to talk about today is Style vs. Substance.

What I want to talk about is the fact that Style can be Substance but that, in Fight Club’s case (I make no claims about Palahniuk as a whole) that style does not equal out to substantive improvement.  Enjoyment.  Illumination.  Etc.  Etc.

If Fight Club is any indication, Palahniuk’s books are verbal tours de force.  In this novel, voice is all.  Not-Tyler-Durden is palpable, is climbing off the page, is creeping out of the book to snuggle up with you as you read, is whispering in your ear, and the fact that he’s a pretty messed up guy to begin with means that you’re probably not very comfortable right now.  Make any excuse to get out of the house, on your own, and don’t come back until you know that the creep is gone.

And I’d like to admit here, spurred on here by my more honest self, that I’m biased against the book because I find none of the characters likeable.  I don’t care about them, which is not a book-killer in my book, but the fact that I find the situation that the characters find themselves in uninteresting is.  Granted, I finished the book, but it’s relatively short.  And there’s no shortage of action – verbal, if not otherwise.

But, no, it’s not the creep of a narrator or the whinge of a love interest or the brute of an antagonist that hurts the novel for me.  It’s not the low-rent rebellious nature of the characters’ doings, nor the played out call to revolution against the capitalist structure that creates my annoyance with the book.

What, in fact, made Fight Club more a chore to read than otherwise was that very voice that seems the hallmark of Palahniuk’s style (using Megan here as a source, since she’s read a number of his books – not including Fight Club – and claims an aggressive voice/style as his trademark).  Most markedly (mark mark mark, mark mark.  Mark?) that style involves repetition and lists and repetition and overt attempts to shock and repetition.  It reads as though it was a first draft by someone who believes that first drafts are the be all end all of everything ever.

Which is a bit harsh.  Or a lot harsh.  Really, who cares.  Tons of people love Palahniuk and he likes what he does and I don’t, end run around the defensive line, no touchdown ‘cause we’re heading the wrong way.

I guess all I’m saying, reader-wise slipped into writer-wise, is I would never want to write like him.

Of course, according to some people who’ve read my stuff, I’ve already done so.

My bad.

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One Response to On Style vs. Substance

  1. Chantelle says:

    Hmm, interesting. I have to say I didn’t know you were referring to the book. I knew you hadn’t seen the movie based off of comments during our play, and I thought Andy…leant?…the movie to you. Either way, interesting perspective.

    Speaking of clues that seem really obvious leading up to a big reveal, I once started writing a book, like before high school, that I thought was really really interesting. I still have the beginnings of it, you might be humored by it if I can get it online sometime.

    It was basically about these murders that keep occurring, and there’s always “clear” evidence on the scene (like blood) but in the end the people who are convicted off of the evidence are innocent and it’s angry paranormal entities getting revenge on people or something like that by stealing DNA-linked data from them when they are unsuspecting. Trust me, I know how stupid this sounds now, but I think with the right person’s mind it could turn into a good idea. I think I stopped because I realized there was no way I could get to the end of a coherent story, let alone book, about the subject without thoroughly confusing myself, lol. Anyway…

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