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The not-so-meek shall inherit – ‘Adjustment Day’

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America’s master of transgressive literary satire is back at it again.

Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel – his first in four years – is “Adjustment Day” (W.W. Norton & Company, $26.95), a bleak look at the potential future implied by the logical (and not-so-logical) endpoints of our society’s current extremities. Filled with off-puttingly fascinating imagery, Palahniuk combines a belief in the power of the individual man with a nihilistic lack of faith in the judgment of mankind. It’s an anti-Randian treatise born of an extrapolation of Randian viewpoints, a libertarian fever dream of a dystopia populated by easily led men fueled by hatred and ignorance.

“Adjustment Day” also features Palahniuk’s standard well-honed prose and pitch-black humor, along with at least a few moments that’ll turn your stomach even as they force you to consider the heretofore unthinkable.

It’s an undefined time in America’s near future. The global community is teetering on the brink of another world war – this one driven by elderly politicians eager to thin the herd of young men and maintain the status quo. The U.S. is on the verge of reinstituting the draft, leaving thousands upon thousands of young men frustrated, angry and afraid. The blue-collared masses dream of turning white collars red. Ivory tower academics spout little more than grim platitudes that offer neither satisfaction nor sympathy.

Into this tumult comes the List.

The List simply appears one day, a collection of names on the internet. An open-sourced invitation is expressed – add the names of anyone you might consider an enemy of society. From there, people vote. If a name doesn’t receive a certain number of votes within a set timeframe, it disappears from the List. But some names – politicians, academics, figures from old media and new alike – rapidly climb the ranks.

Simultaneously, a strange book begins making the rounds. Passed from hand to hand, the book espouses a particular and peculiar philosophy, one whose impassioned militancy captures the imaginations of a certain subset of the disaffected – people who perceive their place in the world to be far less than what they truly deserve. People whose whispers of what’s to come are passed between those so overwhelmed with lies that they’ve chosen to create their own truth by whatever means necessary.

People who will welcome the brutal reality of Adjustment Day … and what comes after.

What makes Chuck Palahniuk such an effective writer is his ability to strain the bonds of credulity without snapping them. He stretches and shapes the worlds he creates, piling relatively minor alterations atop one another until we’re suddenly existing in an insane place at which we arrived through a seemingly sane series of steps. He never pushes too hard, but he also never stops pushing – the result is a distended and divided dystopia, a nightmarish landscape that still offers a horrifying hint of plausibility.

The narrative is a bit disjointed; Palahniuk is unafraid to leap from perspective to perspective, illustrating both the lead-up to and aftermath of Adjustment Day through a wide spectrum of characters. The quick cuts between storylines could have been a distraction, but the shattered-glass quality of the structural choices only serve to mirror the fractures borne out in the society we see play out on the pages.

“Adjustment Day” would seem to be Palahniuk’s reaction to the radical alterations to our own societal structures in recent years; while he has always been transgressive in his attitudes, this book is different. Whereas in past works, there’s been a feeling of remove, an observational quality to the stories he tells, this one feels angrier and more personal. Occasionally, it seems that the heat undermines the narrative a bit. More often, however, that rage serves to elevate the proceedings, providing an immediacy and urgency that we haven’t seen from Palahniuk for some time.

(There’s also a metatextual quality to the book; Palahniuk uses this new work to reflect (and pass judgment) on his own previous creations. Most of the time, that reflection/judgment is inferred, but he occasionally gets REALLY overt about it, in ways that are both insightful and darkly funny. This seems to serve as almost a satiric whetstone, a way to hone the blade so that it might cut even deeper.)

“Adjustment Day” isn’t a complete success. The cast of characters runs a bit too big; they occasionally run together a bit. There are a couple of spots where Palahniuk might be trying a little too hard to shock, but that’s par for the course – the guy is unafraid to take big swings. And when you swing big, well … sometimes you miss.

What Palahniuk has created here is a chilling and unsettling vision of our future, an exaggerated Darkest Timeline rendering of where our society’s current path might lead. It is garish and gross, a nihilistic stomach-punch of a book fueled by anger and gallows hilarity. “Adjustment Day” is evocative and provocative in equal measure – a novel very much of its place and time.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 May 2018 16:50

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