Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk – Dystopian satire with a stark warning for US

Fiction: Adjustment Day, Chuck Palahniuk, Jonathan Cape, hardback, 336 pages, €18

Stranger than fiction: Chuck Palahniuk's life has had several twists and turns
Stranger than fiction: Chuck Palahniuk’s life has had several twists and turns
Fight Club
Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk

The ‘Fight Club’ author returns to form with this novel about an America fractured along the lines of identity politics

It might seem difficult to comprehend at this far remove, but there was a time when Chuck Palahniuk wasn’t just seen as one of America’s brightest novelists, he was its most dangerous.

The release of his debut – and still bestselling – novel Fight Club in 1996 garnered plenty of critical praise and picked up a few obscure literary awards, but its impact was minor until the 1999 release of the movie adaptation.

Starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in what was his best-ever screen performance, Fight Club the movie brought Fight Club the book to millions of people – and it both terrified and enraged America’s moral guardians.

In an era where people care less about authors, it’s easy to forget this more romantic time when a little-known writer from the Pacific North West could cause such a moral panic.

When you look back at the whole premise of that astonishing, disturbing debut, it could read as a template for today’s alt-right movement.

The anti-hero of the book, Tyler Durden, was representative of the last age of pre-9/11 innocence. This was a time after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, when academics blathered about the ‘end of history’ and it looked as if all the big questions had been solved.

Empty consumerism and existential ennui were the order of the day for the so-called Generation X authors like Douglas Coupland and, on this side of the water, Irvine Welsh, whose sarcastic intro to Trainspotting (‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career…’) could have been written by Durden himself. Of course, it’s hardly a spoiler at this stage to point out that where Renton and Sick Boy from Trainspotting were dedicated to destroying themselves through drugs, the profoundly disturbed Durden had more grandiose plans afoot.

Forming what used to be known as a straight-edge gang, Durden’s followers in the titular fight club were a modern-day band of ascetic warrior monks, dedicated to destroying society instead – a greater ambition than the more personalised nihilism of what was then known as the slacker movement.

In many ways, Fight Club was the last really important book of the 20th century – a masterful rejection of the pointless drone-life of the modern consumer and an angry call to arms for disaffected young men, predominantly but not exclusively white, who just wanted to tear everything down and start again from scratch.

If the book was strange and unsettling, the author’s life has, in many ways, been even stranger.

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His father was murdered by the vengeful ex of a woman he had met online in a crime so sordid it could have been plucked from the pages of one of his son’s books, and the cult of Palahniuk seemed unstoppable. During his public readings of the short story ‘Guts’ when he was promoting the brilliant Haunted, people fainted or vomited. At that point, it seemed he had become his own creation, leading his followers like a caustic, hipsterised Pied Piper of Portland. Subsequent books came and went with varying degrees of critical and commercial success and it became clear, particularly with 2009’s Godawful Pygmy, that here was a man in desperate need of a strong editor.

As we discovered a few months ago, and just prior to the release of his best book in years, Adjustment Day, he also needed a proper financial advisor.

Palahniuk was financially wiped out by his publisher’s accountant, who is now in custody awaiting trial for stealing millions of dollars from the author’s account.

Some of his critics have seized upon this news as evidence that he must have just cranked out Adjustment Day to pay some legal bills, but there is a lot more to it – and is often the case with this consistently perplexing writer, a lot less – than meets the eye.

Mashing up the current febrile mood in America and the destructive impulses of Fight Club, Adjustment Day is what would happen if Tyler Durden’s kids decided that enough was enough.

In a series of opening vignettes, we see the preparations for the coming revolution – a list of ‘America’s Least Wanted’ (academics, politicians, and, of course, journalists) is prepared, and to join this new order, you have to kill at least one person on the list and present their left ear as bounty.

Meanwhile, America has reintroduced the draft and, alongside a dozen other countries, is about to send all its superfluous young men to the Middle East, where combatants on all sides will be eradicated in a pre-planned nuclear strike as a form of genocidal pest control.

Having tried to sedate its young men with online gaming and pornography, states one character, they were now waking up to their own mortality and this so called ‘youth bulge’ had to be destroyed before millions of disaffected young men turn the United States into another Rwanda.

The country splits asunder into new states – Caucasia for the whites, Blacktopia for the blacks and Gaysia for the gays and this is where some of the more intriguing ideas begin to fall apart.

Adjustment Day has received a kicking from some quarters, and no doubt the author will get a sense of grim satisfaction that he can still provoke a strong reaction. But he skewers every tribe in the identity politics rainbow; although the brush strokes are so broad that nobody ever evolves past the point of caricature.

But as ever with Palahniuk, you come for the ideas and his warning that ‘America’s version of the Arab Spring was just around the corner’ doesn’t sound quite as far-fetched as we may wish.

Welcome back, Chuck.

Indo Review

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