The scariest thing about Chuck Palahniuk’s Adjustment Day is that it’s not as scary as real life. Don’t get me wrong: It’s terrifying. It’s blood-curdling, bone-shakingly, soul-shatteringly horrifying on every level. It’s a fucking Palahniuk book, and it makes things worse that I live and work in Portland where most of the action occurs.
But as an analysis of What’s Wrong with America, the book almost made me wish we lived in Palahniuk’s world instead of ours: He puts his finger right on the deep veins of bitterness and anger that have driven so much of our culture this last decade or two, and it’s the raw goddamn truth. The naked lunch at the end of your fork. Our Great War is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives.
Adjustment Day is a fable about a mass-assassination plot. The first half details the buildup to the big day, when a network of angry men who’ve bonded over their resentment and rage get together to kill everyone on their shit list and take over the government. It’s Fight Club’s Project Mayhem re-imagined by Steve Bannon.
The second half, where the book gets really compelling, details the aftermath. Everyone has to deal with What Happened, one way or another, and Palahniuk’s genius is showing you exactly why his characters make the decisions they do, and how their original motivations lead to how they deal with the consequences. There’s also plenty of grand surrealist sequences. The Pacific Northwest turns into a horrific Society for Creative Anachronism nightmare when white nationalists outlaw STEM and start a chain of feudal victory gardens in the Columbia Gorge. Closeted heterosexual couples meet surreptitiously in a mandatorily queer California. There’s a bunch of totally unexpected Afro-Futurism in Blacktopia (I swear I’m not making this up) and plenty of all the crazy absurdist shit Palahniuk does so well.
The book ends on an ambiguous but hopeful note, which might have felt forced and false coming from any other writer, but Palahniuk makes the landing. In a way, it’s the ending that scares me the most: He loops backstory into the aftermath, showing us via flashbacks the inexorable planning of Adjustment Day at the same time he’s showing us the first tendrils of resistance nearly two years later. Ultimately, I think he might be more optimistic than he seems at first glance.
To update those of you who dropped off after Fight Club: Palahniuk has been getting better and better these last 20 years. He was already an engaging writer and insightful social critic, but over the course of his last several novels, he’s matured into a serious satirist with surprising emotional depth hiding behind all the patented Generation X cynicism. If you’ve followed him past Choke and Lullaby up through Beautiful You, the Damned Trilogy and the Fight Club 2 comics (which were awesome, and you can fight me about it), then Adjustment Day will feel like the culmination of a literary trajectory now entering its third decade. The book is important, funny and good—a rare trifecta. It’s also a delicious page-burning thriller, a one-day binge worthy of Stephen King (who has also improved with age, but that’s a story for a different book review), and reaches levels of cutting psychological satire and endearing humanism which put Palahniuk in the same league as Ballard and Ellis, maybe even Vonnegut. Not too bad for a former diesel mechanic.