He is just as surreal as Palahniuk's Tyler Durden, and yet he is not freeing any hero from consumerist enslavement but -- on the other hand -- burying the reader behind a false and deluded masculine mythology -- namely, that a masculine hero is virile not because he "knows himself" and seeks virtue but because he knows how to drive fast cars, win at cards, be physically fit and agile, and out-step evil doers. Bond does not embody the traditional masculine role or even the Romantic hero that Palahniuk's hero represents, but rather the kind of self-centered, egomaniacal machismo fantasy that springs out of the head of Hemingway in the early 20th century, like Athena out of the head of Zeus. Bond is not truly antagonistic to homosexuality because he fails to secure for himself a feminine mate: even though he offers to marry Vesper, she is pursued by something outside of his ken and cannot reciprocate the offer. His romantic pursuits are foiled by her apparent suicide. His masculine urge to regenerate is foiled by her death. Bond, who has seemed like the most masculine of men, is, in the end, disappointed in his desire for erotic fulfillment.
The Heterosexual Male and His Female Romantic Interest
To a certain extent, both the hero of Fight Club and the hero of Casino Royale may be understood in the light of their respective love interests. If masculinity is to regenerate, it depends upon femininity -- and so the female character of each narrative gives a compelling perspective of the masculinity of the respective hero.
Fleming's Vesper is to Bond like an oasis -- a lover who is passionate and able to make love sweetly. She is almost too good to be true, and, of course, she is. Bond's love interest and potential life partner is taken from him right when he thinks he was finally won her. She kills herself.
Yet, it is a mixture of self-sacrifice and despair that prompts Vesper to suicide: as she reveals in her intimate letter to Bond, she meant only to save him from her controllers who were using her to get to him. By taking herself out of the equation, she spares him -- even though she admits, "You might save my life, but I couldn't bear the look in your dear eyes" (Fleming 2009:92). She is haunted by her own guilt, and thus denies Bond the matrimonial bliss he might have known.
Instead, Bond is forced to resume his hard-boiled posturing: when he phones headquarters, he can only assert that his former love was a double-agent and insist that "was" is the correct word because, as he states, "The bitch is dead now" (Fleming 2009:94). It is the last line of the novel and a harsh note to end on -- but its bluntness is precisely what makes Bond who he is: an inhuman, machine-like spy, whose fantastic life forbids him from any normal relationship in which masculinity can truly thrive through regeneration. Were Bond to settle down and have children, he would cease to be Bond: the fantastical world would collapse -- the adult fantasy would disintegrate.
Thus Bond is drawn back into an imaginary world where the heterosexual role is reduced to gambling, spying, driving fast cars, foiling enemy plots, drinking martinis and seducing women. There is no substance in any of it, and James Bond becomes another step in degeneration. It is, in other words, Bond's world that Palahniuk's hero must break out of: a world of disinterested participation, whose role is merely to provide meaningless entertainment and diversion from the fact that real regeneration is being stymied and that real masculinity is being ignored. Bond is, in the end, a homosexual fantasy. Fight Club (the book) is, in the end, a Romance. Fight Club (the film) is, in the end, a return to hetero-normativity.
The book, of course, also is. As Marla states, referring to her masturbatory device, which she assures the hero is no threat to him, "Don't be afraid" (Palahniuk 1996:61). If Marla is the woman counterpart that the hero is seeking, she is -- unlike Bond's Vesper -- ready to take a chance on heterosexual love. Masturbation, she assures us, has no future in it -- and the orgasm stimulated by the dildo is not what she is seeking. Pleasure of self is no answer for Marla -- nor is it any real solution to the modern tension for Palahniuk. His books are romances -- and in that sense they are concerned with integration into real community, even if that integration is idealistic.
Yet, Marla is also a contradiction that some critics view as a cover. "Palahniuk's sexuality is not important," Jesse Kavadlo reminds us (Kavadlo 2005:5). What is important is that "Palahniuk's particular, one might say queer, morality" is to a certain extent buried in the narrative and only "subsequently" revealed (Kavadlo 2005:5). Fight Club, in other words, "ultimately proposes that what [its] characters, and all of us, need is -- love" (Kavadlo 2005:5). Marla fits into that proposal, of course. Yet in the book, her role in the fulfillment of the hero is less obvious than in the film. Marla, in the book, wants to "have Tyler's abortion" (Palahniuk 1996:59) -- but the censors of the film found the phrase too alarming and had it replaced. Marla's morbidity is thus replaced by a more traditional femininity -- even if it is lurid and lewd. Of course, Marla is also seen as a satirical commentary on modern femininity, which has no desire to conceive. Here, again, is the problem at the heart of Fight Club -- even in heterosexual love, the masculine impulse is stunted by feminine counterparts who refuse to allow the seed to fertilize the egg. Abortion is preferred to life. Regeneration is denied. The film abandons the idealism and settles for a fantastic kind of realism, the underpinnings of which are hetero-normative. Marla and the nameless narrator hold hands as they embark on a new adventure in a new world that is open to them for the first time -- and the image of the nameless narrator, whose pants are still missing (from an earlier altercation), suggests that he is already half-primed to begin the process.
As Peter Matthews states, Palahniuk "peppers the novel with religious motifs" (Matthews 2005:91) -- and the religious devotion that the hero has to Tyler's message is part of what allows him to begin his search for his lost masculinity. Religion is as much a part of the old world as the ideals of truth and beauty -- but the god has changed. Jesus Christ -- the most masculine of men in the old world -- is exchanged for Tyler Durden, the Byronic hero, the James Bond of the 1990s. If the religious god of the old world is too worn out for the modern world, Palahniuk at least feels comfortable referencing the old world means of attaining peace of mind and soul -- prayer. The hero of Fight Club prays -- but it is an ironic prayer to the Romantic revolutionary Tyler Durden. Bond is a man of action -- not of prayer. As Davadlo states, it is Fight Club's "masculine emobidemnt…[and] existentialist exterior that conceals the sentimentalism in the closet" (Kavadlo 2005:7). If the relationship between Marla and the nameless narrator is real, however, there is no need to insist that it is sentimental. Sentiment is the correct word -- and sentiment is what drives the hero to reclaim his masculinity in Fight Club. Society (at least in the film) is leveled (or at least everyone's debt is reduced to zero), and the two lovers, now cognizant for the first time in their lives it seems, provide the viewer with a hint of the regeneration which their love implies. Society, it appears, will continue and rebuild.
In conclusion, Palahniuk's Fight Club and Fleming's Casino Royale both tackle the issue of masculinity but in different ways. Fleming's Bond is a fantasy -- a man whose masculinity tends not toward regeneration of life (Fleming does not allow it) but rather toward regeneration of the fantasy, allowing the Bond adventure cycle to continue. Bond is, then, more homosexual in his masculinity than Palahniuk's nameless narrator, who actually ends the tale with a woman, who has stated that she wishes to have his child (if only so she can abort it -- but we are under no compulsion to take this wish literally). If masculinity is antagonistic to homosexuality and therefore to masturbatory love, then it is the nameless narrator of Fight Club who truly discovers his masculinity in the end -- not Bond.
Fight Club DVD Special Edition, 2000, motion picture, 20th Century Fox, USA
Fleming, I 2009, Casino Royale, Penguin, NY
Kavadlo, J 2005, 'The Fiction of Self-destruction: Chuck Palahniuk, Closet Moralist,'