I have a theory that some books must be read at certain times of your life. Not that you must read these books, but that you won’t enjoy them unless they are read at a certain age. When I was in second grade, I checked out Harriet the Spy from the library and then left it in the car all weekend while we were at my grandmother’s house. I didn’t know it then, but I missed a critical window of time. I returned the book to the school library the following week without ever having opened it. Some twenty-odd years later, while wandering through one of Durham’s best used book stores, Nice Price Books, I found Harriet the Spy by chance again. It just so happened to be the 40th anniversary of the book’s printing and so the book was on my mind already as I had coincidentally just read an article in The New Yorker about it. Thinking I had missed out on a classic, and having a continuing interest in what makes a good children’s book, I grabbed it and threw it on my growing stack of purchases, which had begun to take on Dagwood sandwich proportions…Seriously, the store owners actually laughed at me when they saw how many books I had picked out.
I sat down with Harriet a few days later and read about two chapters before putting it back down. It did nothing for me. I thought I liked reading kids books, but I guess what I really like to do is re-read kids books. Books that I had I read when I was a kid. I found Harriet tedious and pretentious. The artwork was not so good. The story was slow to start. By the time the characters visited the nanny’s mother in some far-out NYC borough, I was completely done. So why is Harriet the Spy a classic?
I’m not saying it’s a bad book. It’s just that I should have asked my mother to unlock the car way back in the second grade so I could have read Harriet the Spy that weekend. I missed my chance to identify with the intelligent Harriet who wanted to be a writer. So did I when I was eight. Still do. But as a 29-year-old woman, Harriet can’t start being my hero now. That would just be weird.
Fight Club has this same problem, but further complicated by its ubiquity in American culture. There’s no way to read it now without already being spoiled twenty times over. You don’t even need to read it to know the plot. It’s been ruined by one hell of a bombastic movie that seemed cool for about forty-eight hours before the magic evaporated.
And then there’s the issue of audience. It’s clearly meant to be read by 14-year-olds because aren’t the narrator’s problem’s really of the same variety? The powerlessness. The restless confusion. The violent, almost disgusting need for sex. The isolation and hopelessness. That’s fine. I think when I saw the movie I was 14-years-old and I remember it kind of blew my mind. It gave me a violent image of myself to momentarily inhabit. Someone much more powerful and much stronger that I ever was in real life (quiet, average athleticism, nerdy, bookish, awkwardly heavy in the face, etc.) When I was fourteen I wanted to kick the shit out of someone and have other people watch me to do it. To be observed as badass I think was really the point, because I was certainly viewed as anything but.
The writing…I don’t know. Can we say that Fight Club’s writing is good or bad? According to the author’s own Afterword (which FYI, Chuck…No, just don’t. That was so lame to spoil the writing process. Leave the reader a little mystery), the novel was criticized for being too violent. I don’t think violent is the right word. I just felt like the book was shouting at me the whole time. I think the clipped, staccato quality of the writing was used to masquerade the author’s own insecurity as a writer. It’s easier to sound angry than just about anything else, but I think it would have been even creepier to have an almost emotionless, empathy free narration to counter-balance the plot. On the other hand, the images were clear. And the characters were clear enough. So maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Maybe this is one I should have left to the boys. If I ever have a son, or a nephew or something, I’ll probably give this book to them when they’re twelve. Maybe I can catch them at an age when this book might speak to them, but before the Internet also totally spoils it with Brad Pitt gifs. Is twelve too young? They’ll know I guess!
I think it’s helpful to know that you’re not the only one feeling a certain way or thinking strange things. You want to be violent. Yeah, so does everyone else. I’d say that’s part of the human condition. But we’re just too polite to talk about it. Durden’s new-age male on male violence manifesto might tickle a twelve-year-old’s frontal lobe just right. If I hadn’t given myself a one-book at a time rule, I probably would have chuck-palahniuked this one. I blame the free Kindle sample for even getting me started in the first place. I got curious. It kind of hooked me. But then it just became way more fourteen-year-old bullshit than I was really willing to listen to. At least it was short.
To summarize, I saw the movie at the just the right age and then read the book when I was twice as old, and it meant nothing to me anymore. I don’t feel powerless now. I live in my own house. I make my own money. I have a dog. Of course I’m not going to identify with Fight Club in any way. I’m not a disenfranchised child posing as an adult. But that still doesn’t mean the book was very good. At the very least, I think we can say it’s not timeless, because it absolutely depends on being read in a very specific timeline. And I wonder if kids even read it anymore (if they ever did) now that Fight Club has Snap Chat in competition. Boy, wouldn’t you love to hear Tyler Durden go off on the internet? Chuck, I smell a sequel…
Ok, so I know there have got to be some Chuck Palahniuk fans out there. Why did you like it? What age did you first read it? Do you think that made a difference? Help a girl out, here. I want to know.