The scene is called “I Am Jack’s Smirking Revenge”. Somewhere near the early third of David Fincher’s screen adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1999) we find ourselves with Edward Norton (“The Narrator”) in his boss’ office. Norton is in the throes of quitting then blackmailing his boss into keeping him on the payroll as “an outside consultant”. Trouble is, the boss – who Norton blames for repressing him day in, day out, in a life that he loathes – isn’t buying it: “Who the fuck do you think you are, you crazy little shit?”
As the boss stands to call security and have Norton ejected from the premises, our narrator clenches his fist and decides to channel the person he so desperately wishes he was (spoiler: that’s Tyler Durden, Norton’s imaginary, hunky, self-made avatar, played by Brad Pitt), promptly setting about beating himself up and throwing himself around like Joshua verses Ruiz Jr. The result? The boss – presumably soon to be framed for violently assaulting an employee – is quite rightly utterly flabbergasted. Norton, as Tyler, gets his way and we, and cinema, get one of the most iconic quitting scenes ever filmed.
Presumably, Theresa May forgot to watch Fight Club before standing in front of the world’s press on 24 May to announce she would be quitting as prime minister on 7 June 2019. (“Mayxit means Mayxit!”) Some sympathisers say the fact that May’s voice made the same deep warble that pop star Brian Harvey made when he ran himself over with his own car after one too many baked potatoes back in 2005 proved that the Maybot did indeed have a beating human heart – albeit a black one – after all. Perhaps so. Though one suspects she’ll look back at her one moment of visible humanity more with regret than pride – a chink in the iron-clad armour of her stoic, mindless, slogan-filled, dead-eyed non-career.
It must be said, however, that May’s little weep (tears she sobbed, let’s not forget, for herself and her career, rather than Grenfell, Windrush, Brexit, cuts to state-school funding, the disintegration of the NHS or anything important ever…) was a damn sight less punishable (read: punchable) than the way David Cameron quit the top job three years previously.
With the referendum votes cast the day before, in the cold light of the results (24 June 2016) Cameron stood before us and announced that we would indeed be leaving the EU. Swiftly afterwards, he announced he too would be quitting – leaving everyone else to clear up his godforsaken mess. On his way back into Number Ten, however, the world was shocked to hear… What was that? Surely not? Yes, he whistled. He whistled a chirpy little ditty, as one might do while taking the bins out on a Sunday night. Cameron: the George Formby of the Chipping Norton set, no less.
Whatever happened to the lost art of quitting well? With aplomb? With panache?
Whatever happened to the lost art of not just quitting – any old worker bee can quit – but quitting well? Quitting with aplomb? With panache? Quitting with a flick of the double Vs to the boss/the Man/the universe? It’s what some call a fuck-you resignation, the history of which was superbly chronicled by Matt Potter in his book F**k You And Goodbye. These are the moments when the art of quitting isn’t just a rite of passage one must exercise on the way to a new career, the signifiers of a life decision well made, but something that feels more like revenge… more like vengeance.
“This sense of almost shamanic ecstasy is one of the deeper mysteries of the fuck-you resignation,” writes Potter. “Written and delivered more hurriedly, and often with less thought than any other species of resignation, they are nevertheless the most lyrical, most perfectly expressed of all forms.”
We’ve all daydreamed about pulling our own “Smirking Revenge” scenes or writing our own mic-dropping leaving letters. We’ve all had those heady visions of striding into the office one last time to deliver a sizzling riposte to a sallow-skinned line manager. A riposte that is part presidential inaugural address (Obama or JFK rather than current era, thank you), part Seth Rogen-penned best man’s speech and part Dave Chappelle super burn: funny, but with enough oratory fireworks to ensure the gasping audience (your colleagues) understands the intellect it’s dealing with (and losing).
Still, who actually quits with such fiery élan nowadays? Sure, we might do it within the safety of our own minds on the way out from a particularly bad client meeting or on the way to work the day after a bank holiday, but we all know we’re not made of such combustible stuff. Is anyone?
Take a good look around you. Take a look at your zombified colleagues, gazing into their PCs, their faces ashen with screen burn. Are they going to pour super unleaded petrol over their boss’ solid-gold Newton’s cradle and then quit by base-jumping off the company HQ while wearing a T-shirt that lists all the Spice Girls they’ve ever slept with? Doubtful. No, social and moral constraints demand that you write a thoughtful, gracious resignation letter, one that shows gratitude and humility, and slip it under your boss’ door before quietly going back to your desk and writing meticulous handover notes for whichever young gun is due to step into your empty human husk.
What if May had quit not by being hanged by her party, but by simply losing it and doing ‘a Gallagher’?
Well, perhaps it’s time to pull the ripcord on being overly dutiful. Maybe we all need to get a little taste of “Jack’s Smirking Revenge”. What, for example, if Theresa May had quit not by being hanged, drawn and quartered by her own cabinet/party/nation, but by trying to pull back a little honour, a little dignity, a little self-respect?
Rather than weep on the junkyard of political power, to be judged by those who neither respect her nor care, what if the Maybot simply lost it and did in the quitting game what is commonly known as “a Gallagher”? Have the mother of all arguments, smash something up – Michael Gove’s spectacles, Boris’ push bike, Jeremy Corbyn’s allotment – and strut out the back of the stadium (Number Ten) in a Pretty Green parka, forever blaming someone else, preferably a family member. (Sorry, Philip.)
And what about Sir Quit-A-Lot himself, HRH Prince Harry? Two years ago, the tabloids reported that the future Mr Markle once considered jacking it all in. All the castles, the butlers, the endless tiresome dinners with grinning sycophants: “There was a time I felt I wanted out,” he allegedly told the Mail On Sunday. “But then I decided to stay in [The Firm] and work out a role for myself.”
I mean, I am happy for the new royal father, although part of me would also have loved to see Harry throw a massive flounce, quit and end up in Las Vegas, occupying the top two floors of Caesars Palace. There he would live the life he’s always not-so-secretly wanted, one suspects: part Liberace, part Mike Tyson as he appeared in The Hangover. He’d have a pet white tiger called George and Lil Pump-style face tattoos.
The trick, if you want to be remembered, is not to go too quietly into the night
Andy Murray is another high-profile somebody who doesn’t want to return to being a nobody. He must stare at his tennis rackets, quietly whispering to himself, “I wish I could quit you…” Sure, he’s got the problem with his hip, but having more or less announced his last match – cue: endless video montages – this year he was back at Queen’s Club playing as a doubles partner. What happened to leaving a heroic legacy, Andy? What school children grow up wanting to be someone’s doubles partner? It’s like growing up wanting to be the drone who reads the maps in the passenger seat of a rally car. Or Richard Hammond. Murray needs to put some TNT under his quitting aesthetic. He needs to leave the world of professional tennis with momentum. Go win something else, Andy. Love Island? Or become a nun. He’s certainly got the chat for the latter.
The trick, if you want to be remembered, is not to go too quietly into the night. Social media can help with this, of course, and Jay Fielden, the ex-editor-in-chief of US Esquire, recently announced his new-found detachment from the masthead with a Jack Nicholson-inspired post on Instagram. Fielden’s resignation letter – at least his public one – was posted on social media. I kind of dug it.
For some, however, this highlighted Fielden’s narcissistic tendencies, his new-/old-fashioned way of doing things – bespoke suits, crocodile-skin single monks, monogrammed everything – but for me, it showed a man taking control of his own quit. By God, he was going to make the quit work for him.
So off Fielden waltzed, like an old peacock looking for a new conquest. For me, it was oddly commendable; utterly self-referential and a touch too po-faced, but then isn’t that sort of the point? He lived for “the quit” as he had in life: out there at the front, with hair so lush it should have its own L’Oréal commercial. Enough to make you weep, right, Theresa?