Warning: Fight Club Spoilers Within
We all know that Fight Club is the story of two men who turn out to really be just one man. The story of a nameless insomniac, referred to by fans as either “Jack” or “The Narrator,” and his friend Tyler Durden. Everyone knows that, in the film’s final act, we learn that “Jack” never really had a friend named Tyler. That Tyler Durden was the Narrator all along. That they are the same person.
What this theory suggests is simple: what if they weren’t the same person? What if Tyler Durden was a real, distinct, flesh-and-blood person?
When you watch Fight Club now, you notice all the small details. That the phone in the phone booth says “No Incoming Calls.” That when “Jack” asks “Could you wake up as a different person?” we see Tyler Durden for the first time, at the airport. That Tyler Durden lives on Paper Street, a supposedly non-existent road. That Tyler warned the Narrator never to talk to anyone about him. That Tyler and the Narrator have the same life story, a story of paternal abandonment, the inability to find happiness with a college degree and a job and no wife or family. And so on and so on.
Instead, consider this: The Narrator was a desperately lonely man at the beginning of Fight Club, as we already know. He went to support groups for diseases he did not have, he traveled extensively for business doing a job that drove him to misery, and he had no true friends. One day, he met a man who embodied everything he wanted to be. Handsome, confident, charming, and truly clever, Tyler Durden presented himself in The Narrator’s life and, in their brief interaction on the plane, The Narrator saw an opportunity for someone to be more than a single-serving friend. He lived in the same city as this other man, and could see himself becoming this man’s friend.
The Narrator returns home to discover that his apartment has been destroyed. Later in the film, as we know, Tyler confesses to blowing it up. Tyler is telling the truth, when he says this. How did Tyler know to do this? Because Tyler had been watching The Narrator for some time. Tyler had identified The Narrator as his target, the subject of his confidence game.
Tyler knew that The Narrator was a) extraordinarily lonely b) mentally unstable and c) moderately wealthy. The Narrator had a savings account, good credit, and resources that Tyler did not have. He had a job that required him to travel around the country, and a mental condition that caused him to drift off and lose track of himself.
Tyler began to make rules for the Narrator, about how he spend his time and who he spend it with. And as he recruited his Space Monkeys for Project Mayhem, he told them that The Narrator was really Tyler Durden. Tyler told them that he [Tyler] was a simple pawn, and that the real mastermind was his apparent best friend, his roommate, the basket case who had started Fight Club with him originally. He told everyone that anything he [Tyler] did, he did as an extension of The Narrator. Meanwhile, The Narrator’s behavior became more and more erratic, escalating into blackmail and more.
Tyler did all of this, making rules for everyone, so that he [Tyler] could disappear, leaving everyone with the knowledge that their actual boss and mastermind was The Narrator, who they knew was actually Tyler Durden.
Tyler had the same set of rules for Marla. He had the same rules for Bob, and the bartenders and waiters and office employees all over the country. Tyler even left instructions with police officers about how they would handle The Narrator when he had his breakdown and tried to turn everything in: they would castrate and arrest him, convincing him that he was actually Tyler. Everyone had to maintain that facade: that The Narrator was Tyler Durden. They not only had to convince any outside parties and all authorities, but if they convinced The Narrator himself, then Tyler and Project Mayhem would be safe.
When Tyler disappeared, it sent The Narrator into the exact mental breakdown that Tyler had knew would happen. And when everyone began telling The Narrator that he was Tyler Durden, he snapped. His mental illness came boiling to the surface, and he imagined that Tyler had reappeared in his life. He began fighting with a hallucinated, imaginary version of his former friend.
Consider what scene would follow the last scene of the film. The Narrator imagines that he has killed Tyler. He has shot himself through the side of the mouth, and he has watched skyscrapers blow up across the city. There is no possibility for him but to be arrested immediately after this. Would Tyler have planned to be castrated and imprisoned if he were truly a separate personality within The Narrator?
As for the details such as the “No Incoming Calls” in the phone booth, consider this: The Narrator is the one telling us the story. And if there is one thing we know about him, he is unreliable. Of course he inserts such details. Not because he is lying to us intentionally. No, the most important thing to know about The Narrator is that he believes his own lies. In trying to understand what happened to him, he had to piece things together, imagine details, fabricate scenarios.
All of this ultimately makes even more sense when you consider it in the context of the central theme of the film: Abandonment. Tyler encourages his followers to abandon their possessions, their jobs, their families, their responsibilities. Tyler dreams about “the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.” Tyler’s father abandoned him, just as The Narrator was abandoned by his father. The Narrator’s life has been nothing but one abandonment after another. Tyler was the straw that broke the camel’s proverbial pack. Tyler takes it a step farther, saying: “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”
Without this theory, there is no mystery to Fight Club. It is all laid out right in front of us. A man is lonely, a man invents an imaginary friend, the imaginary friend tries to destroy the world, the man destroys his imaginary friend. Or, a soap-peddling con artist tricks a lonely insomniac into taking the fall as the mastermind of a terrorist organization. Which do you prefer? To reference a different, similarly themed film: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Enjoy this post? Check out What Ever Happened to Bruce Wayne? or Bruce Wayne’s Privilege and the Realities of Batman Incorporated or The Snow Also Rises: Regarding Ned Stark, Jon Snow, and Jake Barnes.
Interested in reading more by this author? Check out Books by D. F. Lovett.