`Fight Club' Hits Hard At `Layoff Society'

----------------------------------------------------------------- "Fight Club" by Chuck Palahniuk Norton, $21 -----------------------------------------------------------------

Portland writer Chuck Palahniuk's first novel is an astonishing debut that effectively shatters any hungover 1980s delusions about the ease and comfort of corporate lifestyles. Rather, "Fight Club" is a dark, unsettling and nerve-chafing satire of white-collar society set in an uncomfortably near future.

With deadly seriousness, the novel insists on the possibility of an anarchic national nightmare. This upheaval emerges from a repressed and ugly violence that Palahniuk locates in the heart of corporate America.

"Fight Club" begins atop the tallest building in the world, with one character holding a gun barrel down the throat of the narrator, an ex-junior executive, as the skyscraper is about to be bombed into oblivion by terrorists.

In flashback, we learn how this unnamed narrator wound up in such a situation. Once a highly successful young executive, he walked away from that life after the mysterious bombing of his own luxury apartment. He met and found refuge with one Tyler Durden, a mysterious film projectionist who secretly splices a pornographic image into every movie he shows.

Durden agreed to take in the narrator, but only under one condition: "I want you to hit me as hard as you can." Fight Club was born.

Fight Club has rules. First, no one talks about it. Second, no one talks about it. Participants must strip off shoes and shirts; only pairs of men may fight. This weekly event takes hold of the nation's upwardly mobile executives; rising company men show up at staff meetings with black eyes and wired jaws, explaining they fell down.

Soon, because of Fight Club, something more than a subculture develops across the country. Secret perversities are performed on food served in restaurants for the rich, skyscrapers are bombed with homemade explosives, and urban terrorist activities are financed by sales of expensive soap made from the discarded fat of liposuction operations on the wealthy.

If this sounds disturbingly preposterous, it is - as disturbing as mass layoffs, enormous corporate mergers, and industrial disease. Palahniuk's novel is an investigation into the implications of "downsizing," yet his workers downsize their own personal existences into terrifyingly beautiful chaos, similar in many respects to decidedly non-corporate street gangs.

Palahniuk renders the logical extension of a "layoff society" in terse, deadpan prose. The result is an unravelling of the United States into groups of urban nomads who find more sense in violence than in profit.

In its grim insistence on the implications of our corporate ideology, for putting its finger on the pulse of the present and its possible impact on the future, "Fight Club" is on a par with J.G. Ballard's novel "Crash" and Sartre's play "Dirty Hands." But neither Ballard nor Sartre dealt with the possibility of homemade nitroglycerin in the hands of barbaric former executives.

Chuck Palahniuk has presented us with a tightly crafted, unpleasantly feasible prognosis for a future created by greed-inspired layoffs and corporate manipulation. We'd better listen: this is a future we might have to endure.

Greg Burkman is a Seattle writer and critic.