Reviewed by Rob Spence
I began reading this book just as the outcry over the Trump regime’s treatment of migrants was gathering pace. It seemed an appropriate time to enter Chuck Palahniuk’s dystopian vision of a very-near future in which a bunch of young misfits engineer – almost by accident – a bloody coup in the USA, which leads in turn to the establishment of three separate states, organised according to ethnicity and sexuality. This feels like a nod to the three powers in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but we are a long way from Orwell’s post-war wasteland. This is the world of the incel, the meme, the troll, alternative facts and fake news, where a mass movement can arise on the back of a viral social media post.
Palahniuk prefaces his narrative with John Adams’s dictum:“Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.” It’s a chillingly apt opening to a tale which takes current trends, and extrapolates them into a horrifically believable scenario. The blurb for this book describes it as “an ingeniously comic work” and there are certainly some comic moments, but I think anyone reading this with an eye on contemporary events in America, Italy, Hungary, Turkey or Russia will certainly see the humour as very dark indeed.
The Adjustment Day of the title is the moment when the Establishment in America is replaced by an uprising of young men, angry at the prospect of mass conscription for a war which will certainly result in their deaths. The energising force behind the movement is the mysterious Talbott Reynolds, whose cracker-barrel philosophy is set out in a book which, Mao-style, adherents must carry at all times. Of course, as the narrative unfolds, we discover that nothing is as it seems, and it is in that gap between perception and reality that Palahniuk has his fun.
Well, fun up to a point. The revolution begins with the mass execution of politicians, professors, and people of influence, who are dumped into quicklime-lined mass graves, already dug for the purpose. One grotesque detail is that the victims have an ear removed by their killers, in order to claim a bounty. This detail gives rise to the striking cover illustration, a red disembodied ear with a tag. Palahniuk’s descriptions of the bloody events of Adjustment Day are visceral in their detail, so over-the-top in fact that the reader wonders if this is supposed to be funny in a kind of schlocky horror-film way. The instigators of the plot then rapidly become feudal lords, and set about fulfilling the dictates of their sacred book by establishing the separate states of Caucasia, Blacktopia and Gaysia: no, this humour is not subtle.
After the shock of the opening, the novel settles into a pattern whereby representative characters from the three states are seen pursuing their destiny. A separate narrative (the “Before Times”) describes the bizarre set of circumstances which led to the writing and publication of the Talbott Reynolds book. In Caucasia, life resembles a renaissance faire crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale, where erstwhile misfits now lord it, speaking cod Shakespearean while wearing codpieces and impregnating any available female. In Blacktopia, the leaders are able to revive the mystic knowledge of the ancient Egyptians to achieve fantastic scientific advances. In Gaysia, mixed-race heterosexual couples pretend to be gay, since the other states will not accept them. The plot switches between an eclectic set of characters, some of whom are brought together as the novel approaches its climax.
Palahniuk’s style is, generally, casually demotic. The effect is of being buttonholed by the kind of conspiracy theorist that the novel satirises. It also gives rise to some truly odd passages, such as this one, where Walter has kidnapped the man who will turn out to be Talbott Reynolds, and is talking to him from the driving seat of his car while Reynolds is trussed up in the boot:
Through the closed trunk lid, Walter had said he was sorry about what went on, about the Holocaust and all, but this wasn’t going to be like that. Walter wasn’t prejudiced since he’d made a diorama about the Final Solution in middle school. It had been his rebuttal to hateful online Holocaust deniers, complete with incense smoke rising ominously from the Lego building-block chimneys. Sandalwood incense because it was all his Wal-Mart carried.
As I mentioned, the humour is dark.
There are some lighter moments, and some playful postmodernist self-reflection: at one point characters discuss Fight Club, and whether the novel (by Palahniuk himself, of course) is better than the film. The writer is dismissed contemptuously. Palahniuk has some fun at the expense of liberal arts professors, too, with one survivor of an attack which has claimed the lives of all her colleagues vowing to stay alive so that she can promote radical feminist philosophy in the post-Adjustment Day wasteland: “People should read bell hooks!”
Palahniuk presents a nightmare world, fuelled by the power of our interconnected systems to build huge edifices of fakery and con the masses into the most absurd positions and beliefs. In a sense, though, he has the same problem that satirical websites such as “The Onion” have: when the real news looks like a ridiculous Swiftian invention, what’s left to satirise?
Rob Spence’s home on the web is at robspence.org.uk You can find him on Twitter @spencro
Chuck Palahniuk, Adjustment Day (Jonathan Cape, 2018). 978-1787330955, 316pp., hardback
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