Sleepless in Seattle… or Wherever This Is Set
Our main character, played by Edward Norton, is a man with no name. He attends support groups for diseases he doesn't have—sickle-cell anemia, brain parasites—wearing name tags displaying names that aren't his—Cornelius, Rupert, Travis.
He does this because he has insomnia. "For six months I couldn't sleep," he says. But for some reason, the fake support groups help him sleep. They give him an emotional release he doesn't normally get in his waking life, working a soulless corporate job in compliance and liability for a major automobile company.
Here's the kind of heartless work he does for a living:
NARRATOR: Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply it by the probable rate of failure, B, then multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C—equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.
What he's doing is turning human life into a commodity. He's putting a price on it (a low one) and doing so not only cheapens the lives of others, but his own. Maybe that's why he can't sleep; he feels worthless. So he's desperate to find some meaning.
Liable to Hurt Someone
We ended that last segment on such a happy note. Ah, meaning! But his meaning turns out to be meaningless. It's all just stuff he's acquired, from his furniture to the support groups. It's all fake and disposable, and it takes the appearance of Marla Singer (another "tourist") to reflect it back to him…and he doesn't like what he sees.
The realization of how meaningless his life is, coupled with the delusions brought on by insomnia, cause him to create Tyler Durden, the version of himself that he wants to be. When he says things like, "Tyler's words coming out of my mouth. I used to be such a nice guy," he's displacing his true identity on to this imaginary person.
Of course, he doesn't know any of this until the very end of the movie. Until then, Tyler is his role model. Tyler is the one setting up fight clubs across the country, not him. Tyler is the one creating Project Mayhem, not him. Tyler is the one trying to reset society to zero because he believes that men need to live a primal existence in order to find meaning, not him.
Also, to our narrator, Tyler is the one having sex with Marla, not him. He seems to be jealous of her (because of the homoerotic tension between our narrator and his own alter ego), and he accuses her of latching on to a stronger person. "Why does a weaker person need to latch onto a strong person?" he asks, unaware that he's talking about himself. He's latching onto a stronger person, even if that person happens to be, well, himself.
One Billion Knockouts Served
Our narrator's disassociation from reality is just…impressive. As Tyler, he sets up chapters of fight club and Project Mayhem across the country and somehow doesn't remember any of it: "Tyler had been busy. Setting up franchises all over the country."
However, once Project Mayhem starts and terrorist acts happen, our narrator tries to stop it. The consumer part of his personality battles the anarchist side, and capitalism wins. Of course, the only way to defeat a person who is basically all your violent tendencies personified is through violence, so our narrator shoots himself in the head, and somehow this wipes Tyler out. Tyler always told him he needed to hit rock bottom, and you can't get much more rock bottom (rock bottomiest?) than intentionally putting a hole in your head.
With that the movie ends. Where will our not-so-trusty narrator go from here? Back to the IKEA catalog? Start a family with Marla? Keep running amok, but in a slightly less devastating way? Whatever happens to dear ol' Tyler, we know that Marla will be holding his hand through it all.