A significant question confronting scholarship that wishes to understand consumer culture is how contemporary subjects constitute themselves in terms of consumer culture. In this investigation, it is important not to forget that there are complicated intersections of identity formation between consumer culture and gender. Judith Butler asserts that It would be wrong to think that the discussion of identity ought to proceed prior to a discussion of gender identity for the simple reason that persons only become intelligible through becoming gendered in conformity with recognizable standards of gender intelligibility (Butler 22). Therefore, if one takes a discussion of gender to be always already a part of any discussion of identity formation, then it would be a mistake to think that one could approach the question of identity and consumer culture without at the same time considering gender. This essay gives insight into how the politics of gender identity affect, underlie and undermine the reactions to consumer culture articulated in two contemporary American novels, Chuck Palahniuks Fight Club and Bobbie Ann Masons In Country.
I want to argue that both novels provide reflection on gender in a time in which conceptions of gender are rapidly changing due to the influence of postmodern consumer culture. Many scholars have commented on consumer culture, perhaps most notably Frederic Jameson in his Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Throughout this work Jameson develops a conception of postmodern consumer culture as the ideology of post-industrial capitalism, and it is in this sense that I wish to use the term. Specifically, an issue at stake in these two novels is their protagonists' failure to find a unified sense of gender. In Fight Club, this question comes to light via the characters attempt to re-find masculinity via fight clubs. In Country presents the reader with the feminine coming-of-age-tale of its protagonist Samantha Hughes. Through the subversion of this narrative structure, Bobbie Ann Mason comments on and criticizes the negative role that consumer culture plays in the gender identity formation of young women. Furthermore, the essay suggests that both novels are postmodern and provide reflections on postmodernism, but do not celebrate it. Both narratives endeavor to render problematic poststructuralist conceptions of gender like that of Butler, in which gender is always elusive. This is not to say that the novels deal with the same issues, as there are certainly a great many differences between the two texts. In Country presents a more pragmatic response to consumer culture, while one could say that Fight Club presents a more nihilistic response. While one can say that both novels are postmodern in many respects, it is also worth saying that Fight Club is more self-consciously postmodern. This places In Country, despite its stylistic and thematic innovations, squarely in the American pragmatic literary tradition. Fight Club, on the other hand, is atypical of that tradition. However, what I am concerned with here are the similarities between the two novels.
To give a short synopsis, Fight Club presents an unnamed everyman middle-class narrator who is dissatisfied with his life. His dissatisfaction stems primarily from what he feels to be the empty offerings of contemporary culture and his non-descript, alienating job inspecting cars with the potential to be recalled. In order to give meaning to his life, he first goes to motivational groups for disorders and diseases he doesn't have. These make him cry, which gives him the fulfillment of emotional release. They also help him sleep, as he had been suffering from insomnia. The utility of these meetings, however, are jeopardized when Marla Singer begins to come to the meetings. Marla also has none of the problems for which the meetings are intended, thus calling attention to the narrator's artifice. The narrator then must look to other sources. On a plane flight, he meets Tyler Durden, who catches his attention by virtue of his anti-consumerist individuality and swagger. On returning home from the flight, he finds his apartment destroyed. He calls Tyler and the two go out for drinks, and later have their first fight, which gives both great pleasure. Some men also witness their fight and gain interest, and thus fight club is born. During this time, Tyler begins a fiery relationship with Marla. As fight club grows to the proportion of a national phenomenon, its mission begins to expand to various terrorist activities. The narrator begins to have reservations at this point. In his investigations, he finds out that he is Tyler. This is perhaps better said that Tyler is part of his mania, someone he can see and hear but is truly the narrator himself. Tyler is in a sense what he wishes he could be, an anti-consumerist libertine who is beautiful and eloquent. Tyler and the narrator have a final showdown at the top of a financial services office building which the terrorist operation Project Mayhem is about to destroy, in which the narrator "kills" Tyler by shooting himself. However, the narrator lives and the final chapter ends with him in an asylum, receiving letters from both Marla and fight club members.
Central to a consideration of gender identity in Fight Club will be to answer the question of whether or not one can say that Fight Club offers a progressive redemption of masculine identity, or if it attempts to re-privilege the masculine at the expense of the feminine. A progressive redemption of masculinity is not in and of itself problematic; however, due to masculinitys long history of privilege, any attempt to revitalize it is potentially suspect. Butler espouses the view that attempts to render gender essential thinly veil attempts to privilege. According to Butler it is also possible that such an attempt is inevitably contrived. In turn, Butler states that indeterminacy is inevitable, and the task is how best to make it, what best way to be in it (Butler xxvii). However, in response Palahniuk hypothesizes that perhaps a redemptive masculinity that is not superior to femininity is not a bad thing. In a post-gender revolution, postmodern age some consideration of positive masculine gender roles is necessary. What is more, Fight Club clearly challenges out-dated, problematic masculine values. Alex Tuss notes that "while the traditional notions about masculinity and success persist in twentieth-century America, they are increasingly susceptible to the efforts of individuals who seek to recast the terms in subversive and reinterpreted forms [by works like Fight Club]" (94 my bracket). In his article "A Generation of Men without History: Fight Club, Masculinity, and the Historical Symptom," Krister Friday also recognizes the need to confront these issues that the novel fulfills. This is not to say that the novel presents no social and ideological problems. Henry Giroux has argued in his article "Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence" that the warrior ethic presented in the novel is an ideological extension of all that is wrong with late capitalist masculinity. However, I here wish to bracket Giroux's assertions and embark on my own investigation of the novel, primarily because Giroux's analysis deals more with what he sees as the cultural influence of the cult popularity of the film adaptation of the novel than with textual analysis of the novel itself. Fight Clubs confrontation of these provocative issues makes for significant discussion, whatever one's final judgment may be.
An excellent place to begin this discussion would be with Fight Clubs main female character, Marla Singer. While the novel on the surface seems to deal exclusively with men, Palahniuk goes to great care to develop Marlas character. Despite Marlas level of development, though, she is not is an individual agent in the novel. Rather, she plays two passive roles. The first of these lies in her sexual relationship with the narrator/Tyler Durden. Here, Marla is shown as a conquest. After having ingested enough anti-depressants to kill her, Marla calls the narrator/Tyler, who comes to her rescue. In order to keep her alive, Marla says, the narrator/Tyler will have to keep her up all night (Palahniuk 62). Marla is then kept alive as the narrator/Tyler keeps her up all night by use of his sexual prowess, alluding to the narrator/Tylers revitalized masculine sexual agency that has come as a result of his participation in fight club. Marlas sexuality is here a means to an end; it is a symbol of revitalized masculinity. This is not allusive to a cooperative relation between men and women in the novel, but suggests a re-privileging of the masculine in sexual matters.
The second aspect of Marlas role is less problematic, but even here she is not given individual agency. This aspect of her role is somewhat redemptive of the novels gender ideology, though. After the narrator realizes that he and Tyler are one and the same, and he tells Marla this, Marla asks him So, even if I did believe all this, what do you want from me? (Palahniuk 175). The narrator answers So Tyler cant take complete control, I need Marla to keep me awake. All the time. Full circle. The night Tyler saved her life, Marla asked him to keep her wake all night (174-175). Here, Marlas original role as conquest is negated. It is no longer she who is at the narrator/Tylers mercy; instead, the narrator is at her mercy. What is more, the narrator here finally rejects Tyler and fight club because he loves Marla and wishes to connect with her. He tells her Tyler I can take care of Tyler, and she responds Why should I believe any of this (197). The narrators response is I say, because I think I like you (197). It is this that Palahniuk seems to have had in mind when he said in an interview with Charles Russo for the San Francisco Bay Guardian that Its all about the narrators being able to connect to Marla. The climax of the story is his being able to say 'Hey, I like you.' Marlas final role is a positive one, diverting the narrator from Tylers violent model of masculinity, although it is still clear that her role is mainly to be seen in the service of the narrators development.
Perhaps more importantly, though, one must come to a conclusion regarding how to interpret the role of Tyler Durden. At one time, Tyler provides an eloquent voice of discontent. His statements reveal his generations anger. He tells his citys police commissioner as he threatens to castrate him We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that well be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we wont. And were just learning this fact, Tyler said (Palahniuk 166). This expresses the dissatisfaction of the men in the novel. Whereas American culture promised these men many things, raising them to believe that they had futures, the dialectic of history has forgotten them and left them as the slaves of the past. A large part of the anger felt by the men of Fight Club stems from the feeling that the previous generation reaped the benefits of American culture, whereas Tyler and his friends are left with the dregs, a cultural and economic wasteland in which America has been partitioned off culturally and economically by the older generations and nothing is left for the younger generations.
At the same time, though, his answer to this discontent is destructive. What is more, his gender ideology privileges the masculine, as was revealed in the above analysis. His views on gender are even more deplorable. Considering that Tylers formulation of masculinity is the only formulation available in the novel, it can be said that Fight Club offers no acceptable redemptive masculinity. However, it would be a mistake to conflate the views that Fight Club presents with those of Tyler Durden. The narrator ultimately rejects Tylers worldview. Of course, he chooses no other and the novel ends with the narrator in an asylum and a worse state than he was in at the novel's inception. So, while Fight Club offers no positive redemption of masculinity, it offers no negative version either. On final analysis, it serves as an investigation of masculinity at the close of the 20th century rather than as a champion of a new masculinity.
Concerning Masons In Country, I will again deal with the ways in which consumer culture impinges upon gender. In Country tells the story of Samantha Hughes and her uncle Emmett, who live together in the small Kentucky town of Hopewell. Samantha, a senior in high school, is a girl who exhibits many of the common traits of her age. Most importantly, she is quite unsure of herself and her identity, a fact that is compounded by her complex familial relationships. Her father died in the Vietnam War while she was an infant, and she has a tense relationship with her mother, who has been trying for many years to make sense of a daughter from a man she was only married to very briefly and who spent most of their short marriage in Vietnam. Her relationship with her mother is particularly strained at the initiation of the narrative, as her mother has not long ago remarried and moved to Lexington with her new husband, leaving Samantha with Emmett. Samantha spends most her time at the inception of the narrative either at school, working at a local burger stand or with her boyfriend. However, her life begins to change as she embarks on a quest to learn more about her father, whom she knows almost nothing about. This quest challenges her in turn to learn about herself and primarily about herself as a woman, as the attempt to learn about Vietnam is hindered by the fact that she, as a young woman, has little to do with Vietnam in the eyes of most who were involved in it. Samantha tries a number of things, as diverse as building a stronger relationship with her father's parents and having an affair of sorts with the Vietnam veteran Tom. The culmination of her journey to know her father and herself culminates in her overnight stay at Cawood Pond, where her uncle Emmett breaks down and Samantha is forced to realize the impossibility of her mission, yet paradoxically comes to terms with it on some level. The novel concludes with Samantha having a change of heart about college and planning to move to Lexington to attend the University of Kentucky and live with her mother, and with the emotional scene with her uncle and grandmother at the Vietnam memorial.
Mark Graybill asserts that In Country as a Bildungsroman, with its feminine Huck Finn Samantha Hughes, is constructed in order to map the feminine identity formation of a young woman of ambiguous sexual identity (243). Samantha is in the throngs of identity formation and deeply desirous of closure. As Harriet Pollack says, "This is where Mason's women stand--on the verge of being able to say what will make them happy" (97). Graybill also points out that Mason infuses this narrative structure with a commentary on what Jean Baudrillard terms the simulacra of consumer culture in his Simulation and Simulacra. This is the presence of what Graybill calls the dense but depthless network of 1980s America, the endless presence of K-Mart, MTV, and McDonalds which pervades Sams life (243). Masons use of minimalism and refusal of the modernist penchant for dense psychological reflection reflect postmodernitys ubiquitous depthless surface (Graybill 243). Although the novel is more accepting of consumer culture than Fight Club, the use and subversion of the coming-of-age tale narrative structure betrays a wish to eulogize a proverbial golden age of fixed identity. Mason herself notes in The Girl Sleuth that she has long been preoccupied by the confusing power of consumer culture's mandate to choose between so many things (45). Mason writes this confusion into Samantha, who sees fixed identity all around her, and longs to make it her own (Pollack 97).
Samantha's ambiguous gender identity reveals itself in her masculine self-characterization. First of all, she goes by the masculine nickname Sam instead of her full name Samantha (Graybill 243, Pollack 97). She also has a distaste for maternity (Graybill 244). This distaste is revealed by her reflection on her friend Dawns pregnancy:
Lonnie used to pick her up after work and they would drive around. It all seemed innocent then, but what it amounted to, Sam thought now, was having babies It made her feel sick. It was tragic that Dawn hadnt taken the pill. Sam thought about how it used to be that getting pregnant when you werent married ruined your life because of the disgrace; now it just ruined your life, and nobody cared enough for it to be a disgrace. (Mason 103)
In another moment, Tom, her would-be lover, tells her, Sam, Ive never seen muscles on a girl like youve got (129). This further characterizes Sam as masculine (Graybill 244). However, while these are examples of the ways in which Sam identifies herself as masculine, there is no reason to connect them to consumer culture.
More significantly, Sam casts herself as a soldier. This is a strong example of her identifying with the stereotypically masculine under the definite influence of consumer culture. For example, while she is pursuing Tom, she thinks that she felt she was doing something intensely daring, like following the soldier on point (Mason 124). This thought frame culminates in her climactic overnight excursion at Cawood pond, in which she attempts to ascertain how a soldier felt in Vietnam in the only way she can, staying overnight on a dirty marsh. These episodes allude to the role of consumer culture in Sams identity formation, as Sams conceptions of Vietnam are formed most strongly by televised media. Mason emphasizes, for example, Sam's viewing of M*A*S*H (which was ostensibly about the Korean War but implicitly about the Vietnam War) and TV movies about the conflict. Barbara Ryan notes that "Television and popular culture offer scenarios, such as the camaraderie of 'M*A*S*H' and the surreal dreams of MTV, which inform Sam's sense of herself" (201). In the text, for example, Sam reflects on Vietnam in this manner:
On the evening news, a report from Vietnamit was during the fall of Saigon, in 1975, she thoughtshowed some people walking along a road with bundles on their back. Some were carrying babies in their arms Army jeeps chugged along the road. The landscape was believablea hill in the distance, a paved road with narrow dirt shoulders, a field with something green planted in rows. The road resembled the old Hopewell road that twisted through the bottomland toward Paducah. For the first time Vietnam was an actual place. (Mason 51)
Vietnam is here reified through a television report. Sam admits this to herself during the Cawood pond episode near the end of the novel: They probably didnt have these trees over there. Rice paddies werent real to her. She thought of tanks knocking down the jungle and tigers sitting under bushes. Her notions came from the movies (210).
One finds another hint in Sam's reflection on her deceased father Dwaynes identity. As she looks at his picture, she realizes that The soldier boy in the picture never changed. In a way that made him dependable (Mason 66). On a literal level, this is because he has been dead for many years. However, Mason is implicitly calling attention to the notion that Dwayne ostensibly has, compared to Sam, a simple, fixed identity, and that this is in some sense a good thing, because it is dependable. A little further along in the text, Mason hints as to why this is the case: Her father never knew things like command module and LEM she thought, despairing at the idea of explaining to someone the history of the world since 1966 (66). The statement the history of the world since 1966, contains an allusion to the fact that he has missed the full blossoming of contemporary media culture. Sam makes this clear when she notes that one of the things that Dwayne has missed is the Beatles, saying You missed this [Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band] too (Mason 67 my brackets).
As said, In Country as a feminine identity Bildungsroman proposes to chart Sams growth from this ambiguous gender identity to that of a more truly feminine identity. A strict coming of age tale reading of the novel might note Sams greater affinity for her mother and her mother's children at the end of the novel as evidence. However, Graybill astutely notes that Sams feminine self-identification is still tenuous:
Although Sams warmer response to Irenes baby after the swamp episode illustrates that she has balanced her masculine proclivities with a feminine sensibility, her admission [while watching Irenes husband and the child] that it makes her feel strange to see a grown man playing with a baby, indicates that Sam is still thinking in stereotypical terms where gender roles are concerned. (246)
So, although Sam develops a more feminine point of view, she still retains an ambiguous identity. What is important here, as Graybill points out in the previous citation, is that Sams conceptions of gender are very stereotypical, even at a relatively mature point in her identity formation. Perhaps by casting Sam as someone who has stereotypical gender conceptions, Mason again wishes to make another commentary on the effects of consumer culture. It is a standard trope to associate consumer culture with the stereotypical. The influence of consumer culture in developing a stereotypical gender consciousness is apparent, for example, in her thoughts after she leaves Tom after buying his car. She is distraught at her situation with him and that he will not return her affection. When trying to think about a way by which to get his attention, she pictures herself suddenly famous. He would see her on TV and realize he loved her (Mason 175). Instead of considering a practical solution to her problem, she gives herself recourse to an imaginative fiction offered to her by popular discourse.
Despite Sams failure to attain a truly solidified, unstereotypical gender identity and conception of gender, it would be a mistake to say that Mason allows her protagonist no room for growth. For example, despite the lingering conception of Vietnam formed through the influence of television, Sam does come to terms with Vietnam in the course of the novel. She forms her understanding of Vietnam through the tropes of a discourse in which the thing itself is always elusive. Perhaps, even if Mason interrogates postmodern culture for making gender so complicated, Sam is still impressive, in that she is able to wrest something for herself out of the swamp of consumer culture. This is the end of the subverted Bildungsroman. Emmett tells Sam that You cant learn from the past. The one thing you learn from history is that you cant learn from history, and she accepts what he says, understanding by history the convoluted popular narratives she sees everyday (Mason 226). Her only option is to confront her situation pragmatically and begin to learn that what she must begin to be able to do is comprehend the fragmented self as it comes in terms of the packagings of consumer culture. Stephen DoCarmo has commented on Sam's uncanny ability to actually appropriate consumer culture for her advantage (589). While his analysis underemphasizes the negative role of consumer culture that the novel presents, at the end of the coming of age tale it is Sams pragmatism that finally is one of the most poignant facets of In Country. Price also makes light of this facet of Sam, saying that "Despite the homogeneity of these stores [K-Mart, etc.], Sam is able to use their products to express her own individuality," and that Sam appropriates the Born in the USA image of Bruce Springsteen as a questioning reader of American culture to aid her own questioning process (78-79 my brackets).
This is certainly true when one compares Sam to the narrator of Fight Club, who is strikingly unpragmatic, and in the end unable to cope because he sees the world in absolutes. We find him in an asylum at the end of the novel, unable to take it anymore, so to speak. Sam, on the other hand, plans to move to Lexington in order to form a relationship with her mother and to attend the university. She is able to deal with her situation in constructive ways. In conclusion, then, this essay raises a significant question. That is, how do such seemingly disparate texts come to approach such a similar issue that of the role of consumer culture and, for lack of a better phrase, gender panic? The answer is largely historical and ideological. The global movement in the last 50 years into the late capitalist mode of production is one that has largely changed the face of cultural relations in our period. New Historicism points to the evidence of such a break between the feudal and the early modern modes of production in early modern literature. By analogy to this essay, Louis Montroses seminal work on Shakespeare in "A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture" points out gender panic in A Midsummer Nights Dream as evidence of this ideological shift. I believe a shift with structural similarities to that pointed out by Montrose is evident in Fight Club and In Country. This problematic transcends the apparent differences in the novels. These differences are numerous, including but not limited to the difference in the gender of the authors, the gender of the protagonists and the narrative styles. Still, the issue of gender panic and consumer culture makes itself present despite these differences.
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---; The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide to Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and their Sisters. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995.
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