Lost in A Postmodernist Dystopia


Portraits of Consumer Society: Brave New World and Fight Club

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Although written sixty-four years apart and occupying different genres, employing very different styles, the two novels share a great deal of common ground.   Both stories provide depictions of societies in which commerce, capitalism and consumption dominate the accepted values system.  In Brave New World, Ford is worshipped as a god, the cross replaced in religious iconography by the sign of the ‘T’, in deference to the Model T automobile.  In Fight Club, people measure their own and each other’s success and status on the basis of material acquisition.   Huxley describes nursery-aged children being conditioned for the purposes of ‘adapting future demand to future industrial supply’ with mantras such as: ‘I do love flying, I do love having new clothes…’, ‘Ending is better than mending,’ and ‘the more stitches, the less riches’.  Palahniuk’s narrator observes of his own world: “The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with the Ikea furniture catalogue.”

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Brave New World tells of a ‘society… [that] has abandoned even the inadequate spiritual and intellectual goals of the twentieth century for a mess of synthetic happiness’ , just as in Fight Club, ‘Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need.’

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While the content may tread similar ground, the narrative style of the two books is vastly different, as is only to be expected from two novels written more than sixty years apart.   The style of Brave New World’s prose is distinctive in itself, in that it is conspicuously unadorned, informative rather than elegant.   There is something functional and subjective about Huxley’s penmanship on this novel, mirroring the emotional flatline of the society it describes, and suggesting that here is a story too important to require – or perhaps even allow – a lavish prose style.   For example, in Chapter X, Huxley writes: ‘On all eleven floors of Nurseries, it was feeding time. From eighteen hundred bottles eighteen hundred carefully labelled infants were simultaneously sucking down their pint of pasturized external secretions.’   The writing is proficient and without technical fault; the statement is thorough and provides the reader with all the relevant information.  However, there is no contrived sophistication or elegance in the way it has been written.   George Woodcock observes: ‘… in Brave New World the form is less emphatic [than in Huxley’s other writing] because it is deliberately less elaborated.   Huxley has a lesson he is anxious to teach, and he is willing to sacrifice something of elegance, something of pattern, to make sure that his homily does not go unheard.’   First and foremost, this novel was didactic. By contrast, Palahniuk has a style that encompasses blunt and gritty realism along with a certain elegance that is sophisticatedly jaded.   This narrative form makes sense, considering the kind of protagonists he tends to create: flawed and dysfunctional and dissatisfied, but intelligent, well-travelled, urbane.  In Fight Club, the narrative seeps middle-class ennui: ‘… when I came home angry and knowing that my life wasn’t toeing my five year plan, I could clean my condominium or detail my car.  Some day I’d be dead without a scar and there would be a really nice condo and car.’  The prose style is carefully considered, incorporating free-flowing stream-of-consciousness, but with a sparseness to it that makes for greater impact, and provides such soundbites as ’On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone will drop to zero’.

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In spite of differences in style, the tone and intent of the two novels are not entirely dissimilar. While the didactic nature of Brave New World may have favoured clarity of insight over literary flair, Fight Club’s narrative incorporated its own imparted message.   The Noble Savage is the mouthpiece for Huxley’s meaning, as he states that ‘others should live in freedom, and the world be made beautiful’.  In Fight Club, it is Tyler Durden, or Tyler’s influence, that voices Palahniuk’s commentary on modern living. In the first chapter (beginning with the novel’s climax) the protagonist asks Tyler ‘Where would Jesus be if no one had written the gospels?’, going on to say ‘you want to be a legend, Tyler, man, I’ll make you a legend.  I’ve been here from the beginning.   I remember everything.’  What follows from this point is, in many respects, the Scriptures of Tyler Durden.  This idea is perpetuated through Tyler’s proselytisation of America, as his ‘disciples’ increase in number and fight club spreads virally across the country.   Tyler’s mantra-like, nihilistic dogma, repeated by the Project Mayhem initiates, also adds to this effect: ‘You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are part of the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost heap.’  Tyler, however, offers only the more realistic promise: ‘Believe in me and you shall die, forever.’

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The most defining difference between the dystopias set out by the two authors is that Huxley’s vision was intended as one possibility for the future of the world, told through the medium of science fiction, should mankind continue to pursue its preoccupation with materialism. The story is set ‘in this year of stability, A.F. 632’ (late 25th Century).   In Fight Club, on the other hand, the dystopian society described is our own.   Palahniuk was not describing some far-flung possibility hundreds of years down the line, but the reality we inhabit today.   This makes the similarities between the two novels very disconcerting: the fact that we are already living in a world not so different to the one that Huxley wanted to warn us about, in the hope that we may avoid it.

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Palahniuk’s indictment of postmodernist society and the moral and spiritual bankruptcy it has created has further parallels in Huxley’s book.  In both stories, sexual relationships have been trivialised and reduced to recreational activities needed to satisfy biological urges.  In Brave New World, a young woman is advised ‘you ought to be a little more promiscuous’, in keeping with the new acceptable rules of sexual engagement which decree, axiomatically, that ‘everyone belongs to everyone else’.   Monogamy or long-term involvement with any one partner is considered dangerous and undesirable.   In Fight Club, there are no formal rules in this regard, but no more value is attached to couplings.   Marla comments that ‘the condom is the glass slipper of our generation. You slip it on when you meet a stranger.  You dance all night, then you throw it away.”  She clarifies: ‘The condom, I mean.  Not the stranger,’ although by the new paradigm, partners are similarly expendable.   Similarly devoid of romance is Chloe’s mission to have sex again before she dies, her sales pitch to potential partners impersonal, her emphasis on the accessories she can offer, rather than the act itself or the people involved.   The narrator relates: ‘so close to death that her life insurance policy had paid off with seventy-five thousand bucks, and all Chloe wanted was to get laid for the last time.   Not intimacy, sex.’   She mentions that she ‘had pornographic movies, if I was interested. Amyl Nitrate. Lubricants… had strapless underwear at home… had oils and handcuffs.’

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Both books also feature an emphasis on the breakdown of the family unit. In Brave New World, this has been an enforced transition.   With the abolition of ‘family’, new citizens are carefully created ex-utero, engineered according to the caste they will occupy.   The concepts of parenthood and birth have come to evoke horror, disgust and embarrassment.   The Controller’s description of now-obsolete lifestyles – ‘What suffocating intimacies, what dangerous, insane obscene relationships between the members of the family group’ – is sufficient, with its emphatic language, to revolt a member of his audience: ‘one of the boys… turned pale… and was on the point of being sick’.  By contrast, Fight Club depicts the disintegration of the family as a gradual, sociological process.   The narrator recounts from his own childhood: “I knew my dad for about six years, but I don’t remember anything… he starts a new family in a new town about every six years.’  He observes: ‘This isn’t so much like a family as it’s like he sets up a franchise.’   The franchise reference reinforces the idea of commercialism being the new paradigm, and creates a sense of emotional detachment: a wife and child seen in terms of a failed business venture; something you walk away from and start again.  Absent fathers are a recurring motif in Fight Club, and a connection is suggested between this and the decline in monotheistic religious belief: ‘If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for god.’  Tyler poses the question, ‘… if you never know your father… what do you believe about God?’  The attendees of Fight Club are ‘a generation of men raised by women’.   It is implied that, without male role models, these men grow up directionless, looking to the media to learn how to be men, ‘as if being a man means looking the way a sculptor or an art director says’, implying that the new standards of masculinity are based in superficiality, style prioritised over substance.  Bob has lost both of his testicles to cancer, is bankrupt, divorced by his wife and estranged from his children, but the narrator comments: ‘Would you just look at his sculpted hair’.  In both novels, people are manufactured – whether through bioengineering as in Huxley’s vision, or through social conditioning as in Fight Club – to be commercially productive and to consume.  Tyler Durden observes: ‘Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need.’

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In both cultures, people look to pharmaceuticals to solve emotional and mental problems. In Brave New World, the drug of choice is ‘Soma’, its useful effects promoted with snappy soundbites: ‘One cubic centimetre cures ten gloomy sentiments’; ‘a gramme is better than a damn’.   Palahniuk’s protagonist, suffering from insomnia, longs for ‘little blue Amytal Sodium capsules, 200-miligram-sized… red and blue Tuinal bullet capsules, lipstick-red Seconals’.   The colourful descriptions make the pills sound like confectionary, brightly tempting assorted sweets, like pick-and-mix for the ‘thirty-year-old boy’ he has become.  Huxley’s ‘Soma’ – ‘All the advantages of Christianity; none of the defects’ – is evocative of Marx’ observation ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’, inverted here so that opiates have become the modern age’s only route to spiritual transcendence.  The concept of a spiritual void pervades both books.  There is an inevitable need to fill this void with some form of religious surrogate.   The fight club meetings take on mystical significance for its participants; the protagonist relates that ‘There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.’   As well as these Christian inferences, the protagonist draws on Buddhist ideas, in describing the illuminated perspective that fight club allows him: ‘I’d become this totally centred Zen Master and nobody had noticed.’   He continues, ‘I am so ZEN.  This is BLOOD.   This is NOTHING…  Everything is nothing, and it’s cool to be ENLIGHTENED like me.’   There is a sense of superiority in the way he regards the unenlightened, for whom the height of spirituality would involve the purchase of ‘clever Njurunda coffee tables in the shape of a lime green yin and an orange yang that fit together to make a circle.’

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In the same novel, Tyler Durden preaches to his acolytes of their era’s ‘spiritual depression’.   He tells them, ‘We are God’s middle children… with no special place in history and no special attention.’ God is portrayed as a disinterested patriarch, the members of Project Mayhem as his disaffected sons: ‘What you have to consider… is the possibility that God doesn’t like you.  Could be, God hates us.’   In Huxley’s dystopia, every measure is taken to ensure that citizens have too many distractions in their life to dwell on the spiritual or philosophical.  Instead, thanks to ‘progress’, their lives are spent ‘safe on the solid ground of daily labour and distraction’, with ‘no leisure from pleasure’.   The Controller speaks fearfully of ‘the bad old days’, when old men would ‘renounce, retire, take to religion, spend their time reading, thinking – thinking!’  The vehemence and repetition add to the sense of how undesirable such lifestyles are considered.   Instead citizens are now able to spend their time ‘scampering from feely to feely, from girl to pneumatic girl, from Electromagnetic Golf Course to…’, everything safe and frivolous.   In the society described in Fight Club, established religion seems to have been brushed aside, in favour of different paradigms.   The Narrator seeks salvation week in, week out, at First Eucharist and Trinity Episcopal Church, but not through Christ.   Instead, he finds his redemption in the shared tragedy of strangers at cancer and parasitic disease support groups.  ‘Every evening, I died,’ he relates, ‘and every evening, I was born… Resurrected.’  The spiritual ethos of the groups is grounded more in New Age faith than the dogma of organised religion.   Its emphasis is on ‘guided meditation’, with ideas such as ‘the garden of serenity’ and ‘the palace of seven doors’, of ‘power animals’ and ‘chakras opening’, espousing the benefits of ‘therapeutic physical contact’.   The diction is carefully selected to elicit a calming, positive response, reflected also in the optimistic names of the groups: ‘’Free and Clear’, with its implied promise of a normal life and clean bill of health to the blood parasite sufferers who attend; ‘Above and Beyond; suggests that its members will, if not recover from their brain parasite syndromes, then at least find a tranquil acceptance; the affirmatively-named ‘Remaining Men Together’ invites men who have lost their testes to cancer to find solace and solidarity in the company of others who’ve survived the same ordeal.   The names carefully make no mention of the diseases that unite their members, or of the indignity and suffering that most of them will have to endure, as if hoping that positive brainwashing might cure them.     In many ways, this concept is similar to the ‘hypnopaedic wisdom’ and axioms of Brave New World.   In this instance, through repetition, sleep-conditioning and the sing-song nature of many of the sayings, people have come to accept these pervasive proverbs as irrefutable fact (e.g. ‘Ending is better than mending,’ ‘A gramme is better than a damn,’).   Bernard reflects on the technology of sleep-teaching, that it takes ‘Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions [to] make one truth’, regardless of the veracity of the content.

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Both societies certainly encourage passivity in their citizens, by ensuring they are perpetually comfortable and satisfied, if only in superficial or physical ways.   Intense emotion is considered dangerous in Huxley’s dystopia: ‘No wonder those poor pre-moderns were mad and wicked and miserable… they were forced to feel strongly… how could they be stable?’  In Fight Club, seriously ill people use guided meditation to distance themselves from the pain they are in.   ‘Don’t even think the word pain,’ the protagonist narrates during the chemical burn scene, as he tries using the same technique, thinking ‘Guided meditation can work for cancer, it can work for this.’

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Just as John is appalled by the world’s emotional detachment in Brave New World, seeking to engage people’s atrophied emotions by introducing them to poetry and plays, Tyler Durden would have you experience pain fully to better know yourself.   In the aforementioned chemical burn scene, Tyler repeatedly instructs the narrator to ‘Come back to the pain’, to ‘hit bottom’ and ‘give up’.   ‘Don’t shut this out,’ he urges, because ‘This is the greatest moment of your life and you’re off somewhere missing it.’   In the same way that the Noble Savage uses Romeo and Juliet to illustrate that pain can be productive and beautiful, Tyler cites the unsung heroes of civilisation: burnt human sacrifices, whose ashes made the first soap; ‘animals used in product testing’; ‘monkeys shot into space’.  He concludes: ‘Without their death, their pain, without their sacrifice… we would have nothing.’   For both, the moral is that the greatest of human endeavour is born in suffering, and that, contrary to the teachings of society which claim that ‘Pain is a delusion’, it is not to be denied.  This is mirrored in the Savage’s self-flagellation scene: ‘Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer… Maybe self-destruction is the answer’.

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To conclude, there are many striking parallels between two books which were written over half a century apart, for very different reasons and occupying different genres. What is most striking, however, is that while Brave New World warns of the superficial, spiritually barren, consumption-driven society we might inherit if we, as a race, make the wrong decisions, Fight Club is an indictment of the world we have chosen for ourselves, no deeper, no more meaningful and no less dystopian than the one Huxley had hoped we might avoid.

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