A man name Tyler Durden sticks a gun down the throat of an unnamed Narrator. The narrator contemplates the correct ways of making a silencer or mixing explosives, thinking, “I know this because Tyler knows this.” Tyler whispers, “This isn’t really death.”
The story begins “en medias res,” which means “in the middle of the action.” The first things we learn about the Narrator are that he knows a lot about weapons, and seems to have a strange, almost telepathic connection with Tyler (in spite of the fact that they seem to be enemies)—the line, “I know this because Tyler knows this” repeats throughout the book. Tyler’s first line, “This isn’t really death,” suggests that he loves flirting with death and danger (it’s not yet clear if Tyler, the Narrator, or both are intended to die).
The narrator and Tyler are sitting on the 192nd floor of a skyscraper, and the narrator thinks about what “Project Mayhem” is doing down below. Time is running out, the narrator insists—only ten minutes left. Soon, thanks to Project Mayhem’s explosives, the skyscraper will be nothing but rubble. Tyler whispers, “This is our world.”
Palahniuk doesn’t tell us what Project Mayhem is yet, but he establishes suspense immediately: the clock is, quite literally, ticking. Although the Narrator seems frightened, Tyler is eerily calm, again suggesting that he celebrates death and danger. Tyler’s mentions of “our world” might imply that he has ambitions of changing the world with the help of his followers (in Project Mayhem).
The Narrator thinks back on everything that’s happened between Tyler and himself. It occurs to him that the destruction of the skyscraper is “really about” a woman named Marla Singer, who was involved in a strange “triangle” with Tyler and the narrator. With three minutes to destruction, the narrator begins to “remember everything.”
The novel is told almost entirely in flashbacks (reminiscent of the way, according to some, “your whole life flashes before your eyes before you die”). The Narrator’s thoughts of Marla Singer establish a romantic triangle between the Narrator, Marla, and Tyler. In essence, the novel’s “project” is to explain how, exactly, the Narrator comes from point A to point B—from meeting a woman named Marla Singer to sitting in the building with Tyler and a gun in his mouth.