The Basic Eight, Fight Club, and Perceptions of Violence

by dhaaruni

I’m on a plane home right now from Los Angeles, and the main question in my mind is what was wrong with me that a guy I dated for two and a half years is now a cross dressing anti-feminist LBGT activist. He was obsessed with masculinity when we were dating, and it was actually a major reason we broke up. He told me that I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup because he wanted a naturally beautiful girlfriend, and that feminists couldn’t wear dresses, and wouldn’t even wear a scarf because he thought it would make him gay, because obviously the scarf has the ability to change people’s sexualities. His whole family even called me a good investment despite not being white just to hit the racist checkmark as well. But anyway, I was just thinking: he’s the sort of guy that would really love Fight Club.

I like Fight Club, don’t get me wrong; I think it’s well written, intelligent and funny and real talk: Brad Pitt was never more attractive than as Tyler Durden. But David Fincher is a gay white man who meant Fight Club as a critique of hypermasculinity, with the blatant violence in the form of the literal fight club as well as the effect it has on its participants. But somewhere along the line, Fincher’s thesis got lost, and heterosexual white men ended up over-identifying with Fight Club using it to justify their misogyny and inclinations towards physical violence because “it’s intellectual you see.” I’m inclined to claim Death of the Author at this point and reuse the statement I made on Charles Bukowski again: “love Fight Club all you want but mistrust any men that love it on principle” and apparently Fincher agrees with me. I don’t have an issue with terrible people and terrible situations being depicted in media because they’re just as real as plucky heroines or saintly warriors, but the voyeuristic quality of the violence shouldn’t be present, which is what Fight Club and other projects like Dollhouse (heralded by Joss Whedon who’s the actual worst) epically fail at.

But I’m not here to review Fight Club, not really, because let’s be real, every guy goes through the “I’m cool, alternative and am into casual misygony and David Fincher” phase and almost every “smart” girl goes through the “I’m not like other girls because I consume BOY media and girl things are dumb” phase and so, Fight Club isn’t exactly obscure literature at this point in time. I want to draw your attention to Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, and his first novel The Basic Eight. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I’ll say this much: The Basic Eight is Fight Club with more tongue in cheek humor and a greater awareness of the moral depravity of its subject which renders the work leaving not as bitter a taste when one considers it a while after initial exposure to it.

To put it simply, the protagonist of The Basic Eight is a work of art. Flannery Culp: brilliant, artistic, slightly socially awkward, and on trial for murdering a boy she loved. Wait what? Handler wrote A Series of Unfortunate Events, which on retrospect is artistically and stylistically far superior to Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or really any other children’s book series because he managed to write to his audience without talking down to them, and this practice is just as strong in his earlier work. His protagonists are young, whimsical and jaded on intervals like most teenagers are, carrying with them the naiveté and nonchalance that comes with youth but at the same time are given by the narrative the ethical range and the moral ambiguity rarely granted even to adults, especially to young women. Flannery Culp’s name is Chekov’s Gun, her best friend Natasha is an enigma that Flan herself is almost in love with (or so it seems anyway), and Adam himself, the Laura Palmer figuratively speaking, is what I’d like to call an asshole victim of epic proportions.

The structure of the novel is Flan’s diary of the first semester of her senior year of high school, interspersed with end of chapter reading questions reminiscent of those horrid active reading quizzes that were the bane of our existence once upon a time. Apparently, the high school is directly based on Handler’s own high school in the Bay Area, right down the biology teacher who sexually harassed his assistants and students. Okay then. The key thing to remember while reading is that Flannery Culp is not a reliable narrator. I read the book keeping this point in mind and yet I was still blindsided by the ending. There’s an element of the novel that recalls the place between real life and dreamland, where we cannot reach the truth of the matter no matter how hard we try because the answer just doesn’t exist. Nothing makes sense when reading, and you think it’s because Flan is trying to keep up the suspense, but the fact is actually she’s slowly becoming so deranged she doesn’t know the truth of the matter either, and she experienced it.

The book is a coming of age novel, a madness narrative in a similar vein to Euripedes’ Medea, intermittently humorous and morbid, strangely sexy even and I just can’t recommend it enough. I’m trying to be honest about the books on the list, but the problem might be that I can’t finish books I don’t like or at least tolerate let alone write reasonably long critiques on them. Ergo, most of these entries are explicitly complimentary, perhaps excessively so but YMMV. Either way, I would recommend both of these books, for comparison reasons if nothing else, and as a study in the different ways our society perceives male and female violence and its long standing impact on the treatment of its perpetrators.