Tyler Durden is on a bus. The advert pasted above the seats, for Gucci underwear, shows adamantine, muscle-bound bodies – Platonic forms for late 20th-century Western masculinity. This is Fight Club (1999), directed by David Fincher and based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel of the same name. ‘I felt sorry for all the guys packing into gyms,’ the narrator announces, while Durden laughs at the silvery Adonises in their tiny briefs. ‘Self-improvement is masturbation,’ he says. ‘Self-destruction is the answer.’
My Father’s Diet, the first novel by American translator and critic Adrian Nathan West, is set a few years later than Fight Club – in the early 2000s, in an unnamed Southern state. Like Fight Club, it asks what it takes to be a man in contemporary, narcissist-consumerist society at a time when many feel they have ‘no purpose or place … no Great War, no Great Depression’ (to quote Fight Club once more). As in Fight Club, the dual protagonists (a father and son) are in a malaise – disenfranchised, lethargic, depressed. But a narrative dealing with masculinity in the early 2020s was always going to play out pretty differently to one from the 1990s.