Chuck Palahniuk: "Books Catalyze Revolutions"

The Fight Club Author on His New Novel, Adjustment Day, and the State of the American Male

By Sam Eichner ·
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Depending on how you look at it, Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel in four years, Adjustment Day, is a biting satire of Trump-era grievances, a meta-fictional treatise on the danger of, and our hunger for, explanatory narratives, or a semi-sincere call for revolution. Or none of those things. Or all of those things.

Of course, Palahniuk himself is resistant to any critical descriptors one might use to explain his work. Spoken like a character in one of his own novels, the author says “satire” is just a marketing term employed to sell books; so is “transgressive.” And politics?

“Nothing I write is about politics,” Palahniuk wrote, in an email exchange. “It’s about basic human behavior.”

This is, understandably, the kind of evasive response a Very Serious Author gives. It also feels patently untrue, and is perhaps even a shirking of responsibility for his work; to say Adjustment Day isn’t about American politics, even on a superficial level, is like saying Animal Farm isn’t about Stalinism. The novel traces the roots and ramifications of a populist revolt in America, set in motion by a mysterious piece of agitprop written by a man named Talbott Reynolds, itself entitled Adjustment Day. “The world wants a unified theory,” this book-within-a-book reads. “A thing, one something that explains everything—give it to them.”

As the violent revolution unfolds, academic and political elites are persecuted and removed from power. America as we know it is divided up into ethnostates—Blacktopia (for African-Americans), Gaysia (for homosexuals) and Caucasia (for whites)—ruled by various “Chieftans.” Unraveling from a chorus of mostly college-aged characters, including the besotted student, Walter, the faux-regal white Chieftan, Charlie, and Gavyn, a gay man stranded in Caucasia, the novel explores life in this new normal—a male-dominated country where each culture, no longer “held to the expectations and subjected to the withering gaze of another” is allowed to flourish. Or not.

I emailed Palahniuk to ask about his inspiration for the new book, its winking references to Fight Club and the state of the modern American male—a recurring subject of his work.

There are a lot of different ideas and strands in this book. What was the germ of Adjustment Day for you? Where did you begin?
The seed was the love story motivating Walter. In effect, how he plans to propose marriage to Shasta Sanchez. It occurs as a sequence well embedded in the book, but it was the first portion I wrote, and it creates the motivation that generates everything that follows.

What kind of research did you undertake for this book? How many of the conspiracy theories—from the stuff about the youth bulge, to the one about Stephen King almost revealing the secrets of black mysticism—did you find elsewhere, and how many did you create yourself?
The only one I invented was the Stephen King alternate history. The rest I discovered while meeting with members of the Alt-Right, the Hotep Nation, and various groups that advocate for civil war and ethnostates based on identity politics. The Heinsohn book documenting historical 'youth bulges' is fascinating. It's a shame it's not translated into English, maybe Adjustment Day will prompt an English version of the book.  

[Ed Note: The so-called “youth bulge” is when 30% of a population consists of males between the ages of 15-29; proponents of this theory, at least within the confines of Adjustment Day, suggest revolutions from the French to the Bolshevik were caused by “extra male children” who “craved status, power, recognition, and social position.” In Adjustment Day, millennial men are being sent to die—in a “world war”—to curb the bulge and restore the status quo, i.e. the patriarchy.]

The language in the book is both crass and grandiose, freewheeling and formal: what were you trying to convey through the voice/tone here? 
Gradually, each ethnostate and character had to develop a unique voice so the reader would recognize instantly when the story veered from one point of view to another. The White Speak based on Renaissance Fair cosplay was especially fun to write but irksome to read. But, really, the first thing a new regime does is control the language. Franco did it by banning Catalan Spanish, and Hitler did it be demanding Germans speak only High German. Orwell did it so well we still use his jargon. Ain't language wonderful? 

Why did you choose to write the book through the lens of a chorus of loosely connected characters, rather than focus on a few?
The inspiration for the book's structure came from The Martian Chronicles which was structurally inspired by The Grapes of Wrath. In both books we see several through-line characters, much like the characters of Charles Dickens or Armistead Maupin. But both Bradbury and Steinbeck present many characters we see only once, usually to help establish the environment. And to better pace the on-going plot. These one-off vignettes also help suggest time elapsing. So I did likewise, allowing plots to leapfrog one another and to zigzag between the past and present. I am far less linear than my role models.  

You reference Fight Club in the text, both explicitly and thematically—as representing, and correct me if I'm wrong, a sort of ‘communion’ for men in a capitalist society that has, in many ways, rendered them (or their masculinity) redundant. Why did you feel the need to revisit Fight Club here? And have your notions of what that book means or signifies changed since its publication?
Consider how many men's fraternal institutions have vanished. All those lodges and clubs—gone. Something fiction can do is to model new social structures, and people will adopt the ones that seem the most appealing. In many ways Fight Club is to Adjustment Day what The Fountainhead is to Atlas Shrugged. The first book depicts an inspired, ambitious individual, and the latter book depicts the combined efforts of many such individuals. I think men are looking for ways to gather and process their experience. Popular media has given women so many such social models: The Joy Luck ClubThe Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya SisterhoodHow to Make an American Quilt, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, to name just a few. While men have only been shown Fight Club. I'm not a patch on Robert Bly, but I wanted to expand upon some of my original ideas since no one seems to be exploring this dearth of men's gatherings.

Speaking of Fight Club...there are some meta-fictional aspects of the book, both in the winking reference to yourself and your work, but also in the more macro sense that the title of the novel is the same as the one around which it's shaped. (I found your Adjustment Day not so dissimilar from Talbott's Adjustment Day—both ostensibly offer a certain reader a unifying theory for why things are the way they are.) What do these meta-fictional flourishes allow you to do as a writer? For what purpose do you employ them?
A secret: Take the dust jacket off the novel, and the underlying book is bound in blue/black and bears the title in gold, with Talbott Reynolds given as the only author. So the real book becomes the fictional book. My background is in Journalism so I seldom invent anything. It's more fun to take actual topics and present them as fiction. It gives the book greater authority if it seems like a roman à clef. Like how H. G. Well's The War of the Worlds became terrifying when presented in the context of a radio news broadcast.  

There are moments in this book, as in some of your other books, that are graphically grotesque. When does something profoundly and/or authentically grotesque become grotesque just for the sake of being grotesque? And is that a line you're conscious of as a writer?
Nothing I write is grotesque for the sake of being grotesque. I simply refuse to turn the camera away at the important moments.  

You've mentioned in interviews how taken you are with the idea of "limnoid events"—institutionalized events that happen in different threshold periods throughout the year. How does that concept come into play in Adjustment Day? And why are you compelled to revisit it so often in your work?
No, that's wrong. "Liminal" events take place at traditional thresholds—Halloween, honeymoons, Lent, etc. "Limnoid" events can take place at any time, but they have the general characteristics of traditional liminal events: power reversals, transformation, communitas. The best works of art act as limnoid events, presenting a different esthetic or way of life and allowing the audience an option for living life in a slightly different way. 

To me, Adjustment Day seems to be, in many ways, about stories—and how the false ones we tell can manifest themselves in deleterious ways, some of which the creators and/or propagators never anticipated. Talbott's book is essentially a joke taken too far, at least to Walter, who transcribes it. It doesn't even have the intended title; an actor performs it unawares for the masses; its writer never would've imagined it would become reality. The ties to Trumpism here seem pretty explicit to me. How much of this was a reaction to our current political climate? 
Nothing I write is about politics. It's about basic human behavior. Read a century-old newspaper, and you'll see how we're still thrashing out the same issues as we were back then.  

Your work in general, and Adjustment Day in particular, deals significantly with the plight of modern masculinity. Indeed, there seems to be a crisis amongst some young (especially white, uneducated) men in this country, what with the school shootings, the burgeoning alt-right/nationalist fervor, the #MeToo movement and, as of recently, the incel group. What do you attribute to these developments amongst these men? And what do you see as the way forward for them?
I'd venture that at least two generations of men have had little or no fathering. And the traditional "secondary fathers" that Joseph Campbell talked about—coaches, clergy, teachers, military officers—have become stigmatized and withdrawn from the field. So many men now lack both a birth father and a mentoring secondary father. Until that situation is addressed, those men will seek political expression in their own violent ways.  

I would describe this novel as a satire (or at least say that it has satirical elements). How do you go about creating a pointed satire in 2018, when so many aspects of contemporary life already seem stranger than fiction? 
No, it's not satire. "Satire" is an easy marketing word. Adjustment Day is a hard-headed political romance with moments of comic relief. I said the same thing about Fight Club.     

Your work has often been labeled "transgressive," and I would probably apply the same term to Adjustment Day. Do you want this book to challenge people? If so, how?
"Transgressive" is another marketing word, meant to pigeonhole something. My hope is that the book will help people have a cathartic experience of racial and sexual separatism and thus vent their desire for it. Let's indulge in the fantasy and get it out of our collective system.  

What do you see as the role of the novel in 2018? Has it fundamentally changed/shifted, even since you began writing? 
Books catalyze revolutions. From Uncle Tom's Cabin to the Bible to Mein Kampf. Name one film that's toppled a government. Go ahead. Name one. For that reason if for none other, books will survive and remain important. 

Sam Eichner

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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