336 pgs. | $15.95 paperback
The biggest problem in the world is an excess of directionless young males. And the most surefire way to ensure you don’t have an excess of young males is a war. So goes the thinking of governments throughout the history of human civilization (supposedly), and specifically a group of American senators readying a resolution to kickstart World War III and tip back the balance caused by the latest “youth bulge.” But a cryptic revolutionary named Talbott Reynolds has been secretly spreading a manifesto throughout these disenchanted youths, encouraging a rebellion based on nationalism and separatism. These two philosophies are going to come to a head in a big way on one single big day: Adjustment Day.
Adjustment Day is author Chuck Palahniuk’s fifteenth novel, although his first since 2014. (In the intervening years, the notoriously prolific author has penned a short story collection, two novellas/coloring books, and two sequels to Fight Club in graphic novel form, so he’s hardly been dormant.) The novel (first published by W.W. Norton last year in hardcover, and recently released in paperback) sees Palahniuk engaging with the new acceptance of fascism in the age of Trump and pondering what that extremism would really look like when taken to its logical conclusion.
Adjustment Day does not have chapters per se, but is instead broken up into very brief sections, anywhere from half a page to six or eight pages, changing perspectives with each one. The format allows Palahniuk to cover every nook and cranny of this new world. In the early going, this format plays to the story’s strengths, ping-ponging between a number of wasted youths, the senator leading the charge to war, and the conspiracy building around the words of Talbott Reynolds. It’s easy to imagine a cult forming around the enigmatic Reynolds, who pontificates in the same kind of clipped, instantly memorable soundbites as Tyler Durden. “The first casualty of any war is God.” “The weak want you to forgo your destiny just as they’ve shirked theirs.” “Hoard food and it rots. Hoard money and you rot. Hoard power and the nation rots.”
Another Talbott Reynolds truism: “The joy of fiction is that it only needs to smell true.” So much of the early going in Adjustment Day smells true enough, starting from the way the Adjustment Day hitlist is crafted (via internet voting, of course) and through to the gruesome severed ear collections of the Adjustment Day soldiers. But after Adjustment Day is complete, the book’s reality starts to smell fishy. Palahniuk spends the rest of the book in a series of thought experiments of what this separatist’s paradise would really look like in practice, with an America that has been split into three nations: Caucasia, Gaysia, and Blacktopia. In contrast to the narrative drive and overwhelming weight of impending doom that hung over the book’s early sections, the latter half of the book feels directionless by comparison, a collection of vignettes that don’t build to any particular endgame.
The scenarios that Palahniuk imagines vary wildly in their level of interestingness, the lesser stories (and extensive passages defining the rules of these new nations) bogging down the book’s momentum. In Blacktopia, for example, Palahniuk centers in on the more-than-just-a-little-bit-racist notion that African-American society as we know it is mostly performative and that Blacktopia is a science- and magic-fueled wonderland once blacks don’t have to pretend in front of whites anymore. Yet much more compelling is the story of Jamal, a black Adjustment Day soldier rewarded with a spacious plantation, and Miss Josephine, the elderly white former owner of that plantation who is squirreled away in the attic trying to hide her presence. Much ink is shed explaining the convoluted rules by which population comes into or out of the reproductively hampered nation of Gaytopia; the personal element of an interracial couple pretending to be gay so they can stay together as long as they don’t get caught is much more intriguing, though less so with Palahniuk’s constant diversions into narration that leers like an omniscient porn addict.
Without an endgame to build to, these stories feel arbitrary, even more so as the holes in Palahniuk’s scenario (what happened to all of the people who aren’t black, white, or gay, for example?) are either ignored or hand-waved away a little too easily in order to concentrate on the side stories Palahniuk wants to explore. All of this veering back and forth might work if all of these story threads were heading in the same direction, but unfortunately that unidirectional drive that makes the first half of the book work so well is lacking in the book’s second half, resulting in a thought-provoking but ultimately disappointing read overall. | Jason Green
Click here for an excerpt from Adjustment Day, courtesy of ChuckPalahniuk.com.