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On 'Adjustment Day,' A Quick, Horrifying Descent Into Madness

You remember Fight Club, right? It was Chuck Palahniuk's first novel — a kind of anti-Generation X that just happened to hit (no pun intended) at the perfect moment in time (1996), skewering the perfect targets to the perfect depth. It was a bloody, furious, satirical takedown of the men's movement, self-help groups, slacker culture and consumerism.

So my question is, what would happen if Fight Club were bigger? Bigger in scope. Bigger in ambition. Bigger in every conceivable way there is to be bigger. What if Tyler Durden, rather than being a small-time terrorist with dreams of changing the world but only local follow-through, had somehow managed to ignite the revolution that he'd actually intended? What if, rather than being hampered by secrecy (the first rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club), it leveraged social media and the listicle obsessions of the internet?

What would happen is Adjustment Day, Palahniuk's newest novel. It is Fight Club franchised. Gone national. Sick with all of our current ills and darkest, weirdest desires.

In it, he lays down a dirt-simple premise for a one-day revolution called (no surprise) Adjustment Day: For months, angry men from all across the country have been organizing, planning, recruiting like-minded companions to be the leaders of a new American nation. For months, they've been reading a mysterious book with a blue-black cover. They share it only with those they trust. They don't talk to outsiders.

These men have made a list of people who deserve to die — politicians, professors, journalists, scholars. The politically correct elite. The list lived on the internet and everyone was allowed to add names. Everyone was allowed to vote on their most hated. They called it "America's Least Wanted" and laughed about it on talk shows.

'Adjustment Day' ... is 'Fight Club' franchised. Gone national. Sick with all of our current ills and darkest, weirdest desires.

Only it wasn't a joke. Once the names were all collected and the list finalized, value was added to each name in accordance with how many votes it'd received. That value would translate to votes in these men's new American government. And the only way to collect?

Kill that person and bring in their ear.

And yes, obviously, Palahniuk is playing a game with you here, the same game he's been playing since Fight Club — a game on which he's more or less staked his entire career. Chuck Palahniuk just wants to see how far he can push you before you get offended, throw the book down, walk away from it for good. He wants to see how thin of a tightrope he can walk between satire and slur, provocation and revulsion, knowing full well that at this moment in our collective history, he isn't just doing it without a net but over a pit filled with fire and spikes and 10,000 rabid wolverines, too.

And I gotta tell you, watching him try it? It's fun. It's fun like watching NASCAR but only for the crashes. Like watching football and cheering for the concussions, for the career-ending injuries.

Read the pages and you can imagine his manic glee as he stacks his tightrope-walking balance pole with impossible weights. Cause on one side, effect on the other. There's the gay kid, bullied in his old life, dreaming of a new one in a nation made up of only people like him and willing to do whatever it takes to get there. The overlooked factory worker wanting a better life for his son. On one side, an active shooter situation in the well of the U.S. Senate — as gory and horrible as only someone like Palahniuk can make it. On the other, the knowledge that all those terrible old men were there to vote on a declaration of war and the re-instatement of the draft which would send tens of thousands of surplus American 18-year-olds to die in the Middle East.

Palahniuk has always been a vicious satirist. He has always dealt in the blackest, bleakest comedy. His best work has always been about looking at the world as it is and imagining it five minutes from now, assuming all the worst outcomes. He's masterful at making readers feel and understand the desperate, grasping needs of his underdogs, and maybe too good sometimes at making us cheer for them when they achieve their violent catharsis. And in Adjustment Day, he's at the top of his game.

At least for most of the book.

Once Adjustment Day comes and goes (which happens about halfway through the story), what he's left with is telling a tale of reconstruction. And while he handles it gamely for a time, describing a multi-nation solution where white people all live in a ridiculous Ye Olde Renaissance Faire fantasy called Caucasia, black people suddenly become free to practice the magic and super-science they've kept hidden for generations in Blacktopia, and homosexuals are sent away to Gaysia which goes almost instantly dystopian with forced breeding programs, labor camps and violent purges of hetero pretenders, he just can't stick the landing.

Primarily because there isn't one. While Adjustment Day itself was a quick, horrifying descent into madness and murder, gorgeous in its psychotic build-up and over-the-top execution, there's always a day after. And a day after that. The politics are murky at best. The flashback-vision of the (almost) accidental founding of the revolution gets distended and thinned-out to pointlessness. Palahniuk's women act primarily as a kind of Greek chorus — witnessing the ridiculousness of this new world from varied positions within it (mostly bad ones).

And just as most revolutions fail in the reconstruction so, too, does Adjustment Day fall apart before something finer is built over the bones of the old. It ends with a whimper rather than a bang, leaving everything in tatters and no one left to clean up the mess.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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