How Chuck Palahniuk Became the Darling of the Alt-Right and Antifa
The ‘Fight Club’ author talks art, politics, and what happens when people you hate love your work
Almost 20 years ago, Chuck Palahniuk published Fight Club, the book that launched his career, coined the term “snowflake,” and wormed its way so deeply into the culture that it’s been embraced as much by Antifa as by Andrew Anglin, editor of the influential white supremacist website the Daily Stormer, who says the novel’s film adaptation “is, and always will be, the greatest movie ever made.”
But in the intervening years, reality has inched ever closer to the twisted scenarios in Palahniuk’s early work. It was into this overheated climate that the author released his latest novel, Adjustment Day, a spiritual successor to Fight Club, if not a literal one. (The story of Tyler Durden and Marla Singer continues in the Fight Club series of graphic novels, the most recent of which comes out January 30.) The result of years spent hanging out with separatists on all sides of the political spectrum, Adjustment Day is Palahniuk’s vision of what might happen if each of those groups got its way. An armed insurrection of young men assassinates the liberal elite — journalists, academics, and politicians — and carves the country into the ethnostates of Blacktopia and Caucasia, while California becomes Gaysia, no straights allowed. It’s either a savage satire of ethnonationalism or a winking endorsement of it, depending which reviews you read.
Does all this make Palahniuk, who notoriously avoids talking politics but admits to reading the Daily Stormer because it cracks him up, the world’s most masterful troll? He talks with Medium about art, hate, masculinity, and South Park.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Medium: Since this is for our Love/Hate issue, what are some things that you loved about being Chuck Palahniuk in 2018?
Chuck Palahniuk: I love that people let me bring my dog into restaurants and cook it food off the children’s menu.
What was not so great about being you this year?
The embezzlement—losing so much money this year was a big downer. The agency that represented me going bankrupt and having to find new representation. My father-in-law died. It’s just been a terrible year.
You had a new book come out in 2018. A lot of the scenarios you put forth are exaggerated, but real life today can feel pretty surreal. How does that impact your work?
It doesn’t really impact my work at all, because my work always starts from a very, very personal place. In a way, maybe culture is just getting as crazy as my writing has been.
“If you’re just going to shut people down and condemn them, I don’t think that’s the best, most effective way of stopping them from doing something more extreme.”
How do you feel about your growing alt-right fan base?
I’m not sure I have a very big alt-right fan base. My fan base is also the left. My fan base is also transgender. My fan base is all over. I’m glad people are reading. If you start condemning people, you’re never going to connect with them in a way that they’re going to feel heard or that they might be brought around to a different way of thinking or be tempered in their way of thinking. If you’re just going to shut people down and condemn them, I don’t think that’s the best, most effective way of uniting people and stopping them from doing something more extreme. When you start alienating people, they start to escalate.
A review on a white nationalist website praised ‘Adjustment Day’ for parodying feminism and political correctness while including an argument for the white ethnostate. The author notes, “‘Adjustment Day’ [is] thoroughly grounded in the politics of the New Right… [but] Palahniuk’s own perspective on all this is hard to pin down.”
How refreshing, because Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance gave it a shitty review and Andrew Anglin’s Daily Stormer gave it a really shitty review. So I guess I’m just happy to be reviewed. It’s just about getting people to read again; other than that, I don’t really have an objective. Also, people project their own meaning on texts. How many assassins in my generation went out and did the deed with The Catcher in the Rye under their arm? How many people have done the deed with the Bible or the Koran? The German social scientist I quote in Adjustment Day [Gunnar Heinsohn] talks about how every movement has its own text, whether it’s Mein Kampf, or the Bible, or Chairman Mao’s Quotations, that legitimizes what they do. And it’s a text that is reproduced so much that it becomes essentially worthless. Adjustment Day was meant to be — not a parody, but an example of that kind of text that could be read and carried into battle by people, on which they could justify their own actions.
Do you have any conflicted feelings about some of your more extreme fans using your books to justify their actions?
Well, the Antifa really likes my books too. When they started their college fight clubs to learn how to punch Nazis, they cited my books. Can you tell one group, “Don’t read this book,” and tell another group, “Do read this book”?
Maybe you don’t tell them not to read it, but are those people missing something in their reading of those texts?
Boy, you know, ever since Barthes, it’s been acknowledged that people take whatever they want from books. That the reader actually completes the book. So I can’t really be responsible for or dictate a person’s perspective or where the person comes from as they read a book. I’d be like one of those people forming a religion, saying that this is what the Bible means. It would preclude a person’s own participation in the work.
The book treats gender studies professors and white nationalists as equally deserving targets. Is Antifa really the same thing as the alt-right?
I see it as the South Park defense: If you’re gonna treat one group really poorly, you have to treat all groups really poorly. You can’t soft-pedal any groups. So, yeah, I tried to be as distorted and satirical with all the groups.
A bit farther down in that review, the author writes, “Given how many of us on the Right were inspired by ‘Fight Club’ and how we interpreted it, Palahniuk has got to be aware of exactly how this novel will be received by many, and the thoughts (and, indeed, the actions) it will inspire.” Were you?
No. [Laughs.] Boy. I thought the book was kind of goofy, and I felt a little sorry for the white nationalist character.
He literally gets his dick cut off in the book.
Exactly right. Of all the characters who are treated cruelly, I tend to treat white male characters the most cruelly, because they’re the only ones I feel like I have any comfort around treating badly.
There was a dustup last year over a photo you took with Jack Donovan.
Jack Donovan was one of many people I talked to while putting Adjustment Day together. All these guys from his gym came in and asked to be put in choke holds for pictures. I did this with him and a dozen other guys, not realizing that he has this collection of antique flash tattoo art on the wall behind him, and that one of these small tattoo-art things was a swastika that I had no idea was sitting there, kind of floating behind us. The Daily Beast picked up this picture and tried to sort of imply that I was a Nazi.
“A white supremacist killed my father in 1999… I’ve never been on that side.”
And you said that you felt a little panicked because you didn’t want to get linked in the public’s mind with white supremacy.
Because a white supremacist killed my father in 1999, and was convicted, and eventually his death sentence overturned on a technicality in the sentencing phase. I’ve never been on that side, even before my father was killed by a white supremacist. But I just wanted to point out the absurdity that someone would try to make that link after what I’ve been through.
You talk a lot about Joseph Campbell’s idea of the second father, a figure who helps someone finish growing up. What do you make of the idea that the disaffected white men who flocked to ‘Fight Club’ may be finding that second father in a character like Tyler Durden, and, by extension, in you? What would you want to teach them?
No, I would only say that in terms of my own workshop. Like I did with Tom Spanbauer, I was an apprentice; I was looking for somebody who could tolerate me long enough for me to learn how to master a skill. My workshop is half male and half female, and I think both genders are looking for that kind of a secondary father. I really only serve that purpose among the students I teach, because otherwise I’m just not present. The books are there, but I’m just not that present as a public figure like somebody like Jordan Peterson, who has assumed that public role of teaching people or guiding people.
Maybe it’s not your intention, but I think there are a lot of guys who have grown up reading ‘Fight Club’ and taking from it lessons on what it is to be a man.
And I think there are a lot of women who have read it and taken lessons on what it is to be a human being, which is the larger message. I have a sofa pillow that a young woman knit for me that says, “The things you own end up owning you.” It sits in the middle of my sofa. And it wasn’t made by a man.
You’ve also written a lot about masculinity. What do you make of a term like “toxic masculinity”?
Boy, I think it depends on who’s saying it. It’s kind of like sexual addiction: It really depends on what some person considers self-destructive behavior. It’s already becoming one of those terms, like “significant other,” it’s becoming so of a time, so dated, that there’s something kind of camp about it. [But] one way in which people achieve power is by taking a stand, even if it’s an arbitrary stand, as a form of protest and acting out in this kind of public theater. That’s a venue in which people can kind of emerge as leaders and discover their own power. Sometimes the cause itself is arbitrary, but the ultimate result of the cause is the next generation of political leaders, community leaders. I sound like Jordan Peterson somehow.