Marla Singer might just be the biggest mystery of Fight Club. In a book filled with this much macho testosterone, it's no surprise that the sole female character (okay, there are a whopping two in the novel, but one of them doesn't live past chapter four) is a huge enigma shrouded in cigarette smoke.
The most accurate description of Marla comes from Marla herself, except that she's talking about herself in the third person as though she's someone else. Hmmm, separating yourself from your actual identity seems to be a running theme in this book, doesn't it?
Anyway, when paramedics respond to a 9-1-1 call for a girl in apartment 8G (that's Marla), Marla tells them a bit about that girl:
"The girl is infectious human waste, and she's confused and afraid to commit to the wrong thing so she won't commit to anything. […] The girl in 8G has no faith in herself [...] and she's worried that as she grows older, she'll have fewer and fewer options." (7.61-7.62)
This kind of honesty about oneself is rare in Fight Club, and it sure makes us want to get to know the lady a little better. One thing we do see is that everything she does stems from a desire to just feel more alive:
• She used to work in a funeral home "to feel good about [her]self, just the fact that [she] was breathing" (4.69).
• She goes to the support groups to watch people coping with imminent death.
• She even feels guilty about not dying, thinking that all the people she's watched die over the years try to call her and hang up when she answers. At least they're not playing ding-dong ditch.
We never figure out why Marla feels so hopeless, just that she does. And what do you think: how effective is her coping strategy?
Our narrator calls Marla a "big tourist" (2.96) because he can't cry when she's around in the support groups: "Marla's lie reflects my lie, and all I can see are lies" (2.91). The real problem our narrator has with Marla, though, is that she's so honest in her lie. Don't worry, it'll make sense. Just stick with us.
Once she's confronted, Marla is pretty up front about why she attends the support groups. She knows she's going to die, and the support groups make her feel alive. She says, "I embrace my own festering diseased corruption" (8.26). Unlike our narrator, she doesn't need to split her personality in two to cope with things; she just deals with them head on. Maybe not in the most constructive manner, but she's dealing nonetheless.
Our narrator, on the other hand, is all about deceiving himself, and Marla forces him to confront this. She seeps into every aspect of his life, even his guided meditation. Remember when he says, "my power animal is Marla" (4.18)? He says it like it's a bad thing, but it's truer than he realizes. Without Marla, our narrator would be nothing more than a delusional corporate drone.
Our guy might be feeling a little guilty about his own lie, but there's something he doesn't know: Marla might actually have cancer. Yep. She's found two lumps in her breast, but doesn't have the money or the health insurance to do anything about it. But since nothing brings people together like cancer, Marla reaches out to our narrator and they bond over her crisis. It's not until this point that our narrator—not the Tyler part of his personality—starts to appreciate Marla for who she really is.
The question is this: why isn't Marla in a breast cancer support group? She attends groups for brain parasites and testicular cancer, among others. One of those we can assume she doesn't have, and the other she most definitely does not.
Maybe she's not as honest with herself as we thought.