Book review: Adjustment Day, by Chuck Palahniuk

The United States of America, you may have noticed, is undergoing another period of intense introspection. The American political class, and by extension its news media, spends an inordinate amount of time debating the relative strength of the republic and whether it can retain its position as the world's only true superpower throughout the 21st century.

Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk
Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk

This tendency is as old as the country itself. But added to the mix is a complicated and fast-changing debate on sensitive issues such as gender and race. From Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, Americans have been trying to wrestle with long-standing societal problems while also coming to terms with structural changes caused by suppressed wages and a creaking welfare state.

This jolly mix has been given further potency by the surprise election of Donald Trump in 2016, a result many Americans – and Scots, for that matter – are still coming to terms with. The real impact of the Trump administration will be for future generations to debate – presuming the planet has not been reduced to a smouldering wreck, of course.

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It’s sobering to remember we have barely reached the half-way stage of Trump’s first term – there could still be a second – in office. But already the books on this period of American history, whether directly focused on Trump or not, are piling up.

The latest author to have his say is Chuck Palahniuk, a writer no stranger to the bestseller lists across the pond. He remains best known for his spiky debut, Fight Club, which caught the zeitgeist of mid-90s America – a time when the republic spent its days idly wondering if it really had reached the end of history, and rampant commercialisation was all it had to show for it.

Adjustment Day is Palahniuk’s first novel in four years, and it is a book as depressing as spending 12 hours in a low-budget New Jersey hotel room with only CNN and Fox News for company. There will undoubtedly be great works of fiction produced from this demoralising time, but this is not one of them.

The novel grandly sets out to take on the Fake News landscape and conspiracy theory-laden society at large. Bad stuff is happening, folks, and you’d better watch out.

Instead of following a central character, we meet a series of narrators, most of whom fail to excite any stronger emotion than a pursed lip. We are introduced to an overly familiar US senator – high opinion of himself, evil to the core, probably kills baby rabbits in his spare time – who is planning to bring back the draft to solve the problem of America’s growing mass of underemployed, over-educated young males. Once they reach the battlefield, they’ll be wiped out by a pre-agreed nuclear attack.

“The mass media had done its job to demonize draft-age men, greasing the skids for their induction,” we’re told, as if that’s all that would be required to reassure generations of Americans brought up on memories of Vietnam. Those unfamiliar with Palahniuk should be aware he has previously denied accusations of being a nihilist.

Leading the fightback is mysterious actor Talbott Reynolds, who calls for a new system built for and by the people. Copies of a “black and blue” book begin circulating among the disenfranchised, promising an “Adjustment Day” that will hand power back to the powerless. Drain the swamp? You betcha.

For a satirical novel, there’s little on offer here to amuse or entertain: we struggle on through the interchanging narrators to reach a rather limp conclusion.

Many of Donald Trump’s fiercest critics reassure themselves that his presidency must surely be brought to a dramatic halt. One of the various investigations must inevitably snare him, with impeachment swiftly following. By that stage, Palahniuk’s novel and its attempts to explain a nation that’s struggling to understand itself will be long forgotten.

Adjustment Day, by Chuck Palahniuk, Jonathan Cape, 336pp, £14.99