II. Unreliable narratives as texts of crisis.
Since Bordwell says that “Accepting a historical basis for narrational norms requires recognizing that every mode of narration is tied to a mode of film production and reception” , then the emergence of this narrational mode during the 1990’s appears to be a reflection of the purported “crisis of masculinity” which Martin Fradley says “reached its zenith in the 1990’s” and certainly continues to this day as “one of the master narratives in post-1960’s American culture.”  The supposed crisis rose out of the “liberation era” of the 1960’s and 1970’s as a reaction against the displacement of white, heterosexual (middle-class) men in a culture in which feminism, civil rights, and gay liberation directly challenged the old order. To distance themselves from being seen as enemies in this culture increasingly hostile toward patriarchal power, men claimed that their own loss of a viable identity left them as victims. As Sally Robinson explains:
Like the dominant model of (male) sexual pleasure as based on building tension and the relief of discharge, so too do representations of crisis draw on the image of a pent-up force seeking relief through release. As this analogy suggests, the language of blockage and release (and the language of crisis and resolution) invokes a bodily economy and helps to explain, at least in part, the centrality of the white male body to explorations of crisis. But the release that men seek, and the release that might be found at the end of a crisis, are always deferred, and this is why we might say, following Gaylyn Studlar, that an aesthetic of masochism rules representations of dominant masculinity in crisis in the post-sixties era. 
Robinson finds a parallel between “the psychic economy of masochistic desire” and “the narrative economy of ‘crisis’ evident in individual texts and in the larger cultural landscape,” with masochism’s sense of a lost original plentitude corresponding in fictions of crisis to the same “illusory ‘true’ masculinity whose apparent decline motivates and fuels the crisis.”  As Fradley notes, these sorts of masochistic texts, representing a paranoid crisis of masculinity, have increasingly manifested themselves in contemporary Hollywood depictions of masculinity since the 1990’s, especially becoming a “key trope” in the traditionally male-oriented action genre (to which Fight Club belongs) . It is in this light that I wish to look at the unreliable narrational mode as a reflection of that crisis––a crisis that is not limited to mainstream Hollywood films, but rather, like narrational norms themselves, can be said to transcend genres, schools, movements, and entire national cinemas in this post-liberation era. The crisis is “supposed to have affected men in all parts of the Western world,” but is “usually seen as especially pertinent in the U.S. because of that country’s (supposed) historical investment in masculinist individualism.”  Just as unreliable narratives continue to proliferate in contemporary cinema, in both art-house and mainstream films, the crisis of masculinity has not ended, and presumably will not cease in the near future.
If it is true that a crisis of masculinity is indeed represented as an underlying structural element of this narrational mode, then following structural genre theory, it could be argued that these films act as processes through which a sense of threatened masculinity attempts to be resolved––but this resolution is of course impossible given the lack of complete narrative closure characteristic of this mode––and therefore unreliable narratives will continue to propagate throughout contemporary cinema as an echo of patriarchal anguish.  It is especially in this respect that unreliable narratives bear an important resemblance to film noir (e.g., a handful of them even make allusions to Vertigo, a noir predecessor to the mode). Despite the fact that film noirs reveal their plot secrets at the end, they only create a sense of narrative semi-closure because the fabula is often too convoluted for the (male) protagonist to have pieced together on his own and doubt still lingers; this unresolved anxiety allows for underlying generic processes to continue in subsequent film noirs. Though many unreliable narratives (e.g., Lynch’s films) share iconographic elements with film noir (the most important being the femme fatale), both film styles use highly subjective, self-conscious narration (often featuring flashbacks, memories, or dreams) to examine themes of investigation, paranoia, doubling, masochism, and amoral violence. While it has been argued that characteristic noir elements such as flashbacks and voice-over narration are generic conventions that distance spectators from the confusion of the protagonists , unreliable narrative films do not permit that distance because they inject a noir ish (in)sensibility into disparate (or mixed) genres in which fabula information is not traditionally suppressed by the syuzhet (as it is in film noir and crime films in general). My point here is that it seems more than mere coincidence that such notable similarities exist between film noir and unreliable narrative films in terms of syuzhet tactics, themes, and iconography. The unreliable narrational mode blossomed during the height of a crisis bemoaning the displacement of men and a threatened masculinity––just as film noir (in which threats to the male protagonist’s safety are often read as threats to his sexual authority) is widely understood as a reflection of an earlier crisis of masculinity following World War II. The influence of film noir as kindred texts of crisis is less surprising given what Fradley calls the current crisis’s “powerful nostalgia for a prelapsarian homosocial economy of white male centrality…accompanied by a mourning and/or longing for a ‘lost,’ mythic national wholeness and plentitude”  commonly associated with the 1940’s and 1950’s, the same period in which the masochistic narratives of film noir subtextually voiced their fears of male disempowerment.
Now I would like to turn to Fight Club specifically, a film that Fradley says is (alongside Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down [US, 1993]) “probably the most explicit cinematic take on the much-vaunted ‘crisis of masculinity’ in post-industrial American culture.”  It takes the ideological stance that, in a post-liberation culture opposed to male empowerment or rites of manhood, men must still exert hegemonic power within a patriarchal system, using as little real outward violence as possible, but without losing their traditionally masculine attributes or a male-oriented vision of the future. With this conservative viewpoint, Fight Club raises its anxieties from the subtext and puts them on full display with masochism as its overt subject matter. No surprise then, when Robinson claims that “Masochistic narratives, structured so as to defer closure or resolution, often feature white men displaying their wounds as evidence of disempowerment, and finding pleasure in explorations of pain.”  The Narrator in Fight Club is a single middle-class white man who, in the absence of a strong father figure, was never initiated into the ways of traditional phallic manhood. During his adult years, he fails to find self-fulfillment in vainly surrounding himself with the superficial material possessions prescribed by American consumer culture; this lack of fulfillment, springing from the film’s equating of consumerism with femininity, results in his chronic insomnia. He discovers that by visiting support groups in search of a collective sense of pain, he can find an emotional release that allows him to sleep again. However, because this pain is not grounded in a recuperation of a traditional (even primal) masculinity, and with his sense of reality already affected by the bouts of insomnia, he develops a split personality that manifests itself as Tyler Durden, the hypermasculine, anarchistic id to the Narrator’s feminized, consumerist ego. Under the film’s logic, society as superego may still be a patriarchal system, but it is a patriarchy that since the liberation era has replaced its masculine attributes with feminine ones, creating a disempowered “generation of men raised by women,” a generation that has no Great War or Great Depression in which to prove one’s manhood (unlike the romanticized males of the 1940’s and 1950’s). As Alexandra Juhasz says, “In this late-1990’s dystopia, having a penis does not insure masculinity or even what masculinity used to shore up: power.”  In order to counter the effects of feminization by consumerism, the Narrator (believing that Tyler is a separate combatant) begins beating himself up and eventually creates Fight Club so that his fellow “slaves with white collars” will be able to experience the liberating power of their own masculine violence. But even when the Narrator is fighting others, he is still beating himself in the sense that they are all Everymen with a common drive for remasculinization—an image driven home later in the film when the nameless combatants shave their heads to become identical troops in Tyler’s private army, “Project Mayhem.” Fighting becomes a (self-destructive) method of self-discovery that frees men from the feminine vanity of self-improvement in gyms. This is a world in which emasculation is a fate worse than death––as the film makes evident through numerous references to castration as the worst possible loss, such as the support group for testicular cancer survivors (“Remaining Men Together”) at which the Narrator first discovers an intimate emotional release in exploring the pains of feminization––but even the emasculated Bob with “bitch-tits” (Meat Loaf Aday) is able to reaffirm his masculinity through the violence of Fight Club.
This male-on-male violence reflects the implicit homosexuality in the “Ozzie and Harriet” relationship between Tyler and the Narrator. As Stacy Thompson observes, “for gay sexuality, framed as a form of intimacy, violence is substituted, with each fight cathected for its participants and concluding with an embrace. In a conventional Hollywood homophobic staging of homosocial and homoerotic desire, men can touch each other intimately only with their fists.”  According to Henry A. Giroux and Imre Szeman, “The libidinal economy of repression…rearticulates the male body away from the visceral experiences of pain, coercion, and violence to the more ‘feminized’ notions of empathy, compassion, and trust”—and thus the film’s vision of masochism-as-liberation must celebrate the brutality of masculinity by misogynistically opposing femininity/consumerism.  Returning to my Studlar-influenced analysis of the film, the move toward homophobia and misogyny remarked upon by these critics seems regrettably necessary under the film’s logic in order to avoid a contradiction between a) the film’s political position toward remasculinization (taking masculinity as the lost plenitude), and b) the bisexual identification associated with masochism (wherein the child identifies with the feminine oral mother by taking her as the lost plentitude), which is manifested as homoeroticism in the film. We are told from the start that Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), the femme fatale described by Tyler as “a predator posing as a house pet,” has something to do with Project Mayhem’s planned revolution––the fabula thus revolving around an enigmatic woman in true noir fashion––and we learn that her interference in the Narrator’s tour of support groups is what inspires his Tyler persona to create Fight Club in the first place (since her presence as a fellow “tourist” at the groups spoils the emotional release required by the Narrator to curb his insomnia). As Thompson points out, Marla functions in the film as “a narrative necessity to satisfy the Hollywood aesthetic: the creation of a heterosexual couple,” first with Tyler, then with the Narrator at the end. For most of the film the Narrator would rather die than fuck Marla, only “sport fucking” her as Tyler, an act that Thompson considers a parodic portrayal of heterosexuality.  However, despite Tyler’s use of Marla as a sexual object, I would argue that, consistent with her role as femme fatale, she retains control and awareness of how she is being used.  In both implications, the Narrator is considered weaker than either Tyler or Marla, since throughout most of the film, Marla appears as a stronger character than the Narrator, able to control nearly any situation that he presents her with. As Studlar says of masochistic texts, the femme fatale acts to control and humiliate the superego role that is assumed by the male protagonist in order to reject phallic sexuality ; just as the Narrator, accustomed to superego-defined norms of heterosexual romance (e.g., love as a prerequisite for sex), cannot understand the parody of heterosexuality in Marla’s relationship with Tyler (representing the traditionally phallic qualities of the femme fatale), his own understood relationship with her is entirely nonsexual. It is important to note that, in masochism, bad mother traits (e.g., the phallic or intrauterine mother) are projected onto the oral mother and idealized, so phallic qualities of the femme fatale (e.g., emphasized by Marla’s possession of a dildo, or disembodied phallus) can be present within a masochistic text.  Likewise, says Studlar, fantasies from other developmental stages are often present in masochistic texts because adult experience reworks infantile desires, but these other fantasies are always undergirded by the primary oral fantasy for reunion with the mother as plentitude ; meanwhile, the superego’s attempt to spoil the masochistic fantasy accounts for the aggressive return of the father in Oedipal fantasies within masochistic texts.  This allows for the existence of the primal scene (e.g., the Narrator peeking at Tyler and Marla having sex), Oedipal triangles (e.g., the Narrator’s negative Oedipal complex toward Tyler, and positive Oedipal trajectory with Marla), and the rampant castration anxiety throughout Fight Club. Furthermore, because characters in fantasies are subject to dreamwork processes, the presence of fantasies from different developmental periods helps to facilitate the shifting of character identities —which, I would argue, can be seen in Fight Club and other unreliable narratives involving multiple identities within a single protagonist.
If the first part of the film is transgressive in its opposition to consumerism, the second part of the film (after Project Mayhem begins and the Narrator learns that Tyler is part of his imagination) moves in a much more reactionary direction. Although virtually all critics psychoanalyzing Fight Club have correctly observed that Tyler represents the Narrator’s id, some consider the Narrator as ego and others as superego. In his position between adherence to society and loyalty to Tyler, I view the Narrator as ego—but Tyler’s role as id is complicated by something that critics have not remarked upon. As personified id, Tyler’s rebellion against a society/superego that no longer represents his masculine drives evolves into the threat of Tyler himself forming a primitive new society in which men would occupy their “natural” roles in a hunter-gatherer economy. But just as Tyler is repeatedly associated with the Narrator’s absent father, Tyler’s leadership of the subtly fascistic Project Mayhem (formerly Fight Club) makes him less representative of the Narrator’s id, and more a sort of rival superego with a new set of norms (albeit the same contradictory norms shared by the film, celebrating both phallic masculinity and bisexuality). Because Tyler is a large part of the Narrator’s psychic identity that becomes increasingly controlling as the film continues (quite against the Narrator’s will once this fact is discovered), the Narrator is torn between dueling superegos: that of a feminizing society already in existence and that of Tyler’s fascistic movement toward a naively utopian vision. It is not until Tyler assumes this rival superego function, with the advent of Project Mayhem, that the Narrator tries to uphold society’s superego order by stopping Tyler’s plans for “controlled demolition.” The “homework assignments” doled out to members of Fight Club by Tyler only amount to destructive pranks, but Project Mayhem poses a real threat to the structure of society; consequently, instead of embracing Tyler’s plan for chaos, the Narrator would rather save a society/superego that keeps him feeling disempowered and feminized (and thus in a masochistic role). Slavoj Žižek’s discussion of the film provides a possible motivation for the Narrator’s continued masochism: “When we are subjected to a power mechanism, the subjection is always and by definition sustained by some libidinal investment,” manifested in the performative act of masochistically “hitting back at oneself,” thus rebelling against the dominating society by making its domination seem superfluous now that the masochist assumes its power to cause pain and subjection (albeit by causing pain and domination to him/herself). However liberating this adoption of power may seem, true liberation can never be achieved because the pleasure in feeling disempowered always outweighs the potential for actual empowerment since “the only true awareness of our subjection is the awareness of the obscene excessive pleasure (surplus enjoyment) we get from it.”  Žižek’s comments would seem to support my argument (not just because they share the same work by Deleuze upon which Studlar based her theories), for the Narrator continues in a masochistic role, no matter which superego (society or Tyler) he is rebelling again, because the superego can never be fully expelled (except in death) from the mind of the masochist, who must defer satisfaction indefinitely.
It is because the film’s tone is so subversive in its first part that so much of its text-specific viewing pleasure is created; consumerism, traditional heterosexual relationships, and pervasive cultural ideologies are all attacked temporarily, but then the film moves into the more reactionary mode as the Narrator learns of his psychosis and attempts to stop Tyler (whose actions have likewise shifted from transgressive acts toward more authoritarian goals). As Bulent Diken and Carsten Bagge Lausten correctly note, “Rather than a political act, Fight Club thus seems to be a trancelike experience, a kind of pseudo-Bakhtinian carnivalesque activity in which the rhythm of everyday life is only temporarily suspended.”  The film becomes a sort of cautionary tale about the dangers of unleashing repressed anti-social desires, and because of the film’s carnivalesque approach, its view of gender and sexuality lose their transgressive qualities as well. “Only a psychotic break––[the Narrator’s] internal bifurcation––can free nonindividuated desires from the repression necessary to keep them dormant,” says Thompson. “This logic further demonizes homosexuality and social aims in favor of individuated, personal goals by situating the former in the domain of [the Narrator’s] psychosis.”  Thus, the Narrator’s move toward saving society corresponds with a move away from the homosexuality implicit earlier in the film, which, as I mentioned earlier, is regrettably necessary to avoid the contradiction between masculinity as lost plentitude and the powerful oral mother as lost plentitude (since psychic processes would place the masochist in the traditionally “feminine” role of the disempowered). “Even after the establishment of Fight Club,” which restores an awareness of traditional phallic masculinity, the Narrator “continues to disregard Marla as a sexual object,” Juhasz says ; however, I must add that it is only after discovering that Tyler is part of his own mind (a discovery resulting in fainting, a traditionally “feminine” symptom of hysteria) that the Narrator begins to build a traditional heterosexual relationship with her, first by taking responsibility for how he treated her as Tyler. This sort of guilty reappropriation of responsibility is the Narrator’s driving force during the latter part of the film, whether in his relationship with Marla or with society in general.
By the end of the film, the Narrator has fallen into the classical narrative formula of trying to save both the girl and society. Marla is brought by Tyler’s troops into the same building as the Narrator, as a means of “tying up loose ends.” In order to save Marla and society from his split personality, the Narrator shoots himself, symbolically killing the Tyler persona. Though it means legitimating society-as-superego, this is perhaps the supreme masochistic act since its proximity to death (the mystical solution to masochistic desire) would seem to expel Tyler-as-rival-superego and secure his reunion with both Marla (the femme fatale/oral mother figure) and a feminizing society (which always defers the plentitude of a lost masculinity), ensuring that his masochistic desire will never be fulfilled, except in actual death. Just as the Narrator’s comment that “everything’s going to be fine” is humorously undercut by the subsequent explosion of buildings, the ending of the film denies complete narrative closure. He and Marla join hands as they watch the buildings fall, implying the resolved Oedipal trajectory of a classical narrative, but their future together is highly dubious. The actual lasting effects of Project Mayhem’s “controlled demolition” are never explained, except as a step toward Tyler’s utopian goals, so it is unclear how that action will affect the Narrator’s life with Marla, just as his acceptance of responsibility could easily entail another surrender to authorities––but this is all conjecture, an attempt to construct future fabula events without the cues to do so. With the Narrator/Marla union, the apparent exorcism of the Tyler persona, and the completion of Project Mayhem’s specific goal, Fight Club ends on a note of semi-closure characteristic of major-studio unreliable narratives. In this sense, the conclusion also resembles in many ways a conventional noir ending: a death or loss (especially of the “buddy” character), a sense that the femme fatale has been domesticated into a traditional familial role, an exorcism of the past, and an unresolved anxiety within the protagonist’s mind about how the resolution has been reached.  A specific element of Fight Club’s visual style––metacinematic references to the medium of film itself (e.g., visible spindles, “cigarette burns,” etc.)—interrupts the convenient Narrator/Marla union, casting the film’s move toward classical closure into doubt. This element is in the form of a “nice big cock”––the image of a phallus representing Tyler––spliced into the film’s final frames, just as Tyler had spliced it into the classical narratives of family films. As Thompson notes, this image implies that Tyler (and the anti-social, homoerotic desires he champions) can never be completely banished back into the Narrator’s id —though I would argue that it also implies how the superego (i.e., a rival superego with contradictory norms, in this case) can never be completely expelled in the masochistic scenario.
I have already posited that unreliable narratives like Fight Club produce a masochistic pleasure on both a spectatorial and diegetic level, but what does that mean for spectators of various genders? It is my contention that spectators of either gender may experience a masochistic spectatorial pleasure created by the formal narrative strategies of these films (since spectatorial pleasure does not rely on identification with a character), but male spectators may have a more vested interest in the masochistic narratives being played out on the diegetic level. Because unreliable narratives tend to focus on male protagonists with threatened masculinities and unstable identities, male spectators may identify more strongly with these specific protagonists than female spectators. As Studlar says of masochistic texts, “If the male spectator identifies with the masochistic male character, he aligns himself with a position usually assigned to the female.” If this position is not acceptable to the spectator, identifying with either the strong female or an androgynous male character become the only alternatives––in any case, identifying with something associated with the feminine.  This is not to say that female spectators cannot identify as strongly with the male protagonists, especially if those protagonists occupy a traditionally feminine position, but my argument rests upon the link between a shared crisis of masculinity felt by male spectators in contemporary society and by the male protagonists reflecting that crisis on the movie screen. The masochistic spectatorial pleasures afforded to female spectators by the form of unreliable narratives may in effect help to sugar the bitter taste that might otherwise result from the male-centered concerns operating within the diegesis itself. Studlar notes that if cinematic fantasies come closer to the spectator’s own fantasies (or, in my argument, the male spectator’s own life), then the enjoyment of the masochistic fantasy is all the more perversely (un)pleasurable.  Since a large part of masochism’s appeal relies on its temporary dissolution of ego boundaries (which allows shifting identifications that transgress patriarchal norms), I believe that unreliable narratives especially serve to accomplish that wish for dramatically similar fantasies. Studlar writes that, because the end of any film restores ego boundaries, the spectator’s ego cannot be threatened by the apparatus to the extent that psychosis results and he/she begins living the cinematic fantasy after the film concludes.  However, Studlar later admits that a failure to fully separate from the dream screen at film’s end can result in a clouding of one’s waking vision.  Therefore I would like to contend that unreliable narratives come closer to creating a psychosis, a clouding of one’s vision, than any other type of film, due to their especially marked use of unstable identities and unclosed narratives. Since the masochistic experiences of the films’ protagonists tend to overlap so significantly with the experiences of contemporary male spectators in regard to a threatened sense of masculinity, the possibility for these films to influence the waking vision of their male spectators is made even greater. 
The paranoid aspect of narratives functioning under the logic of a crisis of masculinity is explained by Fradley:
If we posit that power and paranoia are little more than noirish mirrorings of each other, delusions of persecution thus structure the identity of the male subject: paranoid counter-narratives make connections and (re-)order their universe, anxiously re-cohering the world, quite literally, around it self. As such, the grandiose narcissism of the paranoiac can be seen as a form of (over-) compensation for displaced feelings of (personal, cultural, and/or socio-economic) worthlessness and inadequacy. Paranoia thus works in a cyclical double-bind, staging various masochistic fantasies in order to master them. 
This paranoia is also attributed in part to “the abjection of the postmodern condition” ––fears about losing control in a postmodern world that denies any sort of stable identity formation, but especially frightening for males accustomed to their place of privilege in a patriarchal society. If we apply this logic to unreliable narratives, paranoia then operates in order to focus the narrative toward a desired recuperation of masculine identity. Through the loss of identity/ego boundaries as created by the apparatus and intensified by unreliable narrative strategies, and through identification with the suffering male protagonist, the male spectator temporarily experiences a pleasurably transgressive loss of power. “The sadomasochistic allure of male powerlessness is not subversive of the paternal law of the masculine symbolic,” Fradley continues, “but a mythic, ritualized, and recuperative strategy based on the double-bind of disavowal: the hero knows he will get his ball(s) back, but chooses to believe, albeit briefly, that the lost object is irretrievable. […] Thus, the narrative drive toward remasculinization is structured on a prior feminization.”  However, I must specify that unreliable narratives do not provide that remasculinization within the constructs of classical narrative closure like other contemporary depictions of masculinity. Instead, unreliable narratives require that the male spectator take a more active role in the recuperation of his identity. The pleasures of ego fragmentation depend upon the resolidification of a newer, more coherent ego identity, says Studlar , and this is achieved in unreliable narratives by the spectator’s active reconstruction of the fragmented fabula after the film’s end. Though this act of reconstruction may be a pleasurable activity for spectators of either gender, for the male spectator it is especially crucial; as a reaction against the crisis of masculinity reflected in the film, he must piece together a sense of ego stable enough to allow proper exercise of his hegemonic duties in a society that is still a patriarchal system, despite the best efforts of the liberation era. It is precisely because white, heterosexual, middle-class men––a demographic, I should point out, comprising both the combatants in Fight Club and a large share of the audience of unreliable narratives––are already so secure in their real hegemonic power that they can find pleasure in fantasies that so radically (and temporarily) destabilize that power, says Fradley.  Fabula reconstruction notwithstanding, the lack of resolution inherent in these films serves to perpetuate male anxieties indefinitely, ensuring the continuance of a narrational mode that reflects an ongoing reactionary masculinist zeitgeist destined to pop up again and again from a collective male cultural subconscious with all the thrust of a spliced-in phallus.
I must acknowledge the gracious help of Douglas Park, Martin Fradley, Gaylyn Studlar, and Steven Shaviro in the research and writing of this essay. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 2005 National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University.
Narrator: Why does a weaker person need to latch onto a stronger person? What is that? [implying that Marla is latching onto “Tyler”]
Marla: What do you get out of it? [implying that the Narrator is weaker and latching onto her, the femme fatale]
Narrator: No…it’s not the same thing at all. I mean, it’s totally different with us. [“us” meaning him and Tyler, as he misinterprets that she is accusing him of latching onto Tyler, despite her being unaware of the Narrator’s two distinct personas]
Marla: Us? What do you mean by “us”? [unaware of the relationship between the Narrator’s split personalities, since he primarily interacts with her as the “Tyler” persona]
David Church is a Ph.D. student at Indiana University, and the editor of Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, 2009). He has also contributed to Disability Studies Quarterly, Senses of Cinema and several other publications.