I Know This Because Talbott Knows This: Chuck Palahniuk's 'Adjustment Day'
Adjustment Day may not be peak Palahniuk, but it is nonetheless entertaining and twistedly educational, providing abundantly peculiar and original paths within one of his most astute and necessary social commentaries to date.
W. W. Norton & Company
May 2019 (reprint)Other
For nearly 25 years, Chuck Palahniuk has been at the forefront of modern transgressive fiction. Be it his iconic and eternally resonant debut novel, Fight Club (W. W. Norton & Company, 1996) his earliest gems (like Invisible Monsters, (W. W. Norton & Company, 1999) and Lullaby, (Doubleday, 2002)); or even his latest observations (like Doomed (Jonathan Cape, 2013) and Beautiful You (Anchor, 2014)), Palahniuk rarely fails to infuse his work with memorably off-kilter yet relatable characters, edgy yet gratifying situations, inventive plot structures, and biting real life commentaries. Unsurprisingly, his latest book, Adjustment Day (published in hardback last year and recently released in paperback), maintains those trademarks. That said, it actually leans a bit too far in some of those areas, resulting in a characteristically compelling, shocking, amusing, and insightful journey that, at times, also seems too disjointed, preachy, and inconsequential.
As expected, the plot of Adjustment Day is inherently provocative, imaginative, and multifaceted. Justly promoted as a "timely satire ... [that] takes America beyond our darkest dreams", the interlocking tale touches upon roughly a dozen central characters as they contend with how "a mysterious book ... that contains dark directives ... guide[s] its readers during Adjustment Day—a day of reckoning targeting names on an online list." More specifically, but without spoiling too much, the titular text is the manifesto of Talbott Reynolds (whose name is also on the novel's spine in yet another subtle instance of Palahniuk meta detail), a prophetic leader who, alongside his devotees, aims to shake up the status quo in America by restructuring public hierarchies and geographical boundaries to create a new world order.
In the official W.W. Norton press release, Palahniuk compares his latest opus to his first: "[It] is to Fight Club what Atlas Shrugged is to The Fountainhead—a bigger package of bold characters and norm-bashing ideas." Clearly, Palahniuk still embraces being associated most with his introductory outing (he's currently penning Fight Club 3) and there are several blatantly overt parallels between the duo embedded within Adjustment Day's chronicle and commentary. For one thing, the aforementioned revolution—itself a parallel to cult leader Tyler Durden's grand scheme — arises as a response to a prearranged World War III (passed by "the National War Resolution") whose purpose is to counteract the "surplus males of a generation". As Palahniuk explains:
Recent politics had effectively branded young men as an internal enemy—perpetrators of rape culture, school shooters, and neo-Nazis—and media-frightened Americans were glad to see these bad apples culled. The mass media had done its state-instructed job to demonize draft-age men, greasing the skids for their induction. ... For generations, popular culture has been promoting the idea that all men will eventually attain high-status positions in society. Globally, today's young males have been raised to feel entitled to power and admiration as a birthright.
Clearly, those concepts are ripe with communal relevancy and ties to Durden's dogma (not to mention the white supremacist mindset explored in essays like Michael Kimmel's "Gender, Class and Terrorism", The Chronicle of Higher Education 8 Feb 2002). Beyond that, Talbott is seen as a prophet and "a legend" (as Fight Club's narrator would put it) who dispenses advice and assignments onto his flock. For example, the following decree comes over the radio one day: "When they run, hunt them. Find the stragglers where they shelter. The shame they feel comes from squandering the authority built up for them by generations of fathers." Of course, the text is filled with similar pronouncements, as well as other allusions to Palahniuk's full-length literary entrance, but those are best left discovered for yourself.
Another highpoint of Adjustment Day comes from its characters, as just about every one of them is distinctly fleshed out and convincing. Aside from Talbott himself, the most intriguing and important is likely Walter, an encouraged yet deranged teenager whose ambitions and fantasies—all of which are unified toward an ultimate goal of making his engagingly seductive and superficial girlfriend, Shasta, happy—echo those of pop culture brethren like Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1951), Cody ("The End of Firpo in the World", George Saunders, The New Yorker, 10 May 1988), and the eponymous Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001). Elsewhere, players such as the misguided and violent Jamal, the smug Dr. Brolly, the antiquated Miss Josephine Peabody, and the conflicted Garret Dawson provide shocking arcs and consistent appeal.
Palahniuk's usual knack for arresting detail and dialogue is in full force here, and while the novel is filled with idiosyncratic style in terms of conversations, inner thoughts, and scene setting, it's the desensitized violence of Adjustment Day that stuns most. Sure, he's ventured into overwhelmingly visceral and askew descriptions before (just read "Guts" from 2005's Haunted for proof), but there are still a few passages that are surprisingly stomach-churning. In addition to thorough accounts of ears being sliced off (in accordance with Talbott's previously mentioned assignments) and mass shootings, there are smaller bits of torture ("Slicing him to strips of bait ... as the razorblades had to trench and explore across the man's scalp and down his back") that will surely unsettle readers unfamiliar with his style. Then again, it's precisely this unfiltered edge that makes Palahniuk such a laudable craftsman, so it's up to readers to know what they're getting into beforehand.
However, not everything about the writing is successful. Primarily, the gimmick of jumping from person-to-person in brief sections is, to an extent, quite clever and gripping (frequently building suspense for their developments and resolutions); however, it simultaneously prevents some set-ups from landing because their placements are so fragmented and brief. In fact, it's commonly difficult to remember who's who and what's happened last with them, because the narrative is so jumbled (leading to a few final outcomes failing to feel significant and conclusive—if even comprehensible—as well). Along those lines, a couple of characters are lost entirely in the shuffle (so it's not clear why they were introduced in the first place), and the story itself becomes less coherent, grounded, and impactful as it goes (so its final third or so is a bit of a shallow and meandering slog).
Adjustment Day may not be peak Palahniuk, but that's really more of a testament to the greats before it than it is a denouncement of the book itself. At its best, it's entertaining and, in his usual twisted way, educational in equal measure, providing abundantly peculiar and original paths amid lending one of his most astute and necessary critical lenses to the world around us. As always, then, Adjustment Day does what all great satire should do: offer an exaggerated yet troublingly poignant reflection on the society that inspired it. In that respect, Palahniuk has scribed another success worth talking about.