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To be clear at the outset: this is not a good book. There are many reasons why Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel, his first in four years, fails, but perhaps the most depressing is how stale his premise feels. A vapid Nineteen Eighty-Four for the Snapchat generation, mixed with a ghoulish touch of The Purge, the often incoherent and confused narrative revolves around the much-ballyhooed “Adjustment Day” itself, a massacre of the educated in society by the uneducated, and the resulting new order that arises.
Eschewing a central character, Palahniuk, best known for his debut, Fight Club, introduces the reader to a series of figures of varying interest and narrative importance. There is a Big Brother-esque oracle, Talbott Reynolds, who offers gnomic but essentially fascist wisdom such as: “First make yourself despicable, then indispensable”.
There is a corrupt senator seeking to reduce the population of young, underemployed millennial men by sending them all off to conflict in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where, by mutual consent, they and their enemies will all be vaporised by an atomic bomb. There are numerous keen young Nietzscheans hunting down various public figures on a hate list, “America’s Least Wanted” – proof of their deaths, one severed ear – and there is a badly bullied boy whose father burns down his school, plus a few others to cover his tracks. Then, nearly halfway through, the much-anticipated slaughter occurs and Palahniuk can get to his point.
Which, it transpires, is barely worth waiting for. In his post-apocalyptic US, with its “Declaration of Interdependence”, violence is the only true currency and members of society have to kill to be regarded as fully paid-up citizens. The remnants (who exclude the politicians, journalists and other members of the “metropolitan elites”) live in three separate states: Caucasia, an ersatz recreation of a traditional white haven; Blacktopia, where the predominantly African American inhabitants have access to futuristic technology (which bears an unfortunately close resemblance to the film Black Panther); and Gaysia, a boot camp where homosexuals are forcibly “converted”.
And then, with this grim dystopia established, the book sputters out, ending with a limp whimper.
Palahniuk has said in interviews that “Adjustment Day will be to Fight Club what Atlas Shrugged is to The Fountainhead”. Leaving aside unhappy associations with Ayn Rand, the suggestion is that, after a series of books that have failed to ignite popular culture the way his debut novel did, he has returned to the high-octane satirical form that excited a generation.
Yet, like so many other writers, success and fame have blunted his anger. While his descriptions of Project Mayhem in Fight Club suggested a real nihilistic rage, there is little more here than tired shock tactics. At a time when parents and children are being forcibly separated at US border control and imprisoned, there is hardly a need for this oddly dated polemic.
There are a few upsides: the description of Gaysia carries conviction. Here Palahniuk’s writing finally comes alive. Also effective is his strangely upbeat scenario in which viable sperm is collected from all male citizens while women are forced into Handmaid’s Tale-style sex slavery.
More wit and subversion might have led to Adjustment Day being an entertainingly Swiftian provocation, but these shafts of enlightenment are marooned within acres of boredom and dull prose.
Towards the end, a character says: “A good book should get you high.” This depressing wallow has precisely the opposite effect.
• Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahnuik is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk review – all punched out | Chuck Palahniuk