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Southern Exposure: Literary dystopia and a surprise antidote

When the world goes off the rails

Published on October 8, 2018 9:58AM

‘Adjustment Day,’ by Chuck Palahniuk.

Random House

‘Adjustment Day,’ by Chuck Palahniuk.

‘Submission,’ by Michel Houellebecq.

‘Submission,’ by Michel Houellebecq.

Chuck Palahniuk.

Random House

Chuck Palahniuk.

Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq

By R.J. Marx

This season’s political theater has surpassed adjectives, leaving “surreal,” “circus-like,” “outrageous” or “absurd” in the dust — policy based on tweets and politicians graded on their high-school yearbooks.

The New Yorker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic Emily Nussbaum describes this year’s television season as reflecting “a familiar modern mood, the feeling that we’re all living in crazytown.”

The Nation called it “The Dystopian Boom” — a season with “The Leftovers,” “The Good Place,” “Black Mirror” and “Electric Dreams.”

“The opening of Netflix’s dense, trippy new limited series ‘Maniac’ does not give viewers much reason to feel hopeful,” writes the Hollywood Reporter.

‘Adjustment Day’

When it comes to dystopian novels, Portland author Chuck Palahniuk is ahead of his time, known for measuring modern-day angst long before our current pinball political climate.

“Adjustment Day” draws a future America doomed to a return to tribalism, a spinning gyre of miserable subservience, a mass of humanity beholden to a privileged few — and all defined by racial identity.

In a single day, academics, politicians and journalists are killed, their ears harvested as bounty. Television and radio stations, internet websites, all broadcast the same message at the same moment: “Adjustment Day is Upon Us.”

There is no changing the channel.

Names on a list are to be systematically eliminated, but a key tenet of Palahniuk’s is “there is no list.”

Inspired by an aged oracle named Talbott Reynolds, the political philosophy relies on strict racial apartheid and male dominance. This is a proletariat movement with America’s long-suffering workers rising with blood force. With Reynolds’ aphorisms as guidance, the unemployed, underemployed, the steamfitters and the press operators “see themselves slay their oppressors and then rise to rule their own fiefdoms.”

Some “hightail it to the border.” Others “suck death from a tailpipe in a closed garage.”

The dirty work of the revolution is driven by men with “nothing to lose.” Recruits are those who hate the society that has “left them no means to achieve the status that all men crave.”

Informants are rewarded with currency made out of human skin, meant to be spent within 30 days or to rot away. All citizens are required to carry a copy of a blue-black book — to fail to do so could lead to being reported.

Citizens of the former united states (sic) involuntarily shuttle to homelands: blacks receive the South, renamed “Blacktopia”; whites to Caucasia, and gays to Gaysia; others exiled to their native homelands or warehoused in “retention centers.”


Similar cultural unraveling occurs in Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission.”

The novel provoked a stir after its 2015 publication and led to 24-hour police protection for the author after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Set in present-day France, the dystopia shift comes as Western culture gives way and the Muslim brotherhood ascends to power. “Many of the usual political issues don’t matter to them,” Houellebecq writes. “To them it’s simple — whichever segment of the population has the highest birthrate, and does the best job of transmitting its values, wins.”

The narrator, a professor specializing in the work of 19th-century writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, is fired from his academic position, along with everyone in his department: “They gave us two hours to clean out our desks.”

As in “Adjustment Day,” all is settled in a flash — money is frozen, guards close down the university. The storm breaks, the fighting begins. “You could make out groups of masked men roaming around with assault rifles and automatic weapons. … It was impossible to get a clear picture of who was doing what.”

While Houellebecq’s world is less violent than Palahniuk’s, the repression is numbing, defeating intellectuals, artists, teachers and women. Especially women.

“The summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission,” in Houellebecq’s fictional society.

Women leave the workforce en masse. Palahniuk’s new leaders, like Houellebecq’s Islamic elite, select their “home” wives, field wives, chambermaids — all required to undergo genetic testing to prove their worthiness. Women are “baby-making machinery” for chieftains. The birth of every child brings a government subsidy.

Palahniuk’s women wear sexless gingham, aprons, clogs — “long sleeves and long skirts were the rule” — Houellebecq’s the burka and the veil.

Both novelists take a cynical, almost hopeless turn. “The facts were plain,” Houellebecq writes. “Europe had reached a point of such putrid decomposition that it could not save itself any more than fifth-century Rome could have done. … Europe, which was the summit of civilization, committed suicide in a matter of decades.”

Doyle to the rescue

If after these reads you are in a state of utter despair and cable news fails to offer succor, as a palate cleanser I recommend Brian Doyle’s sunny, bittersweet novel “Chicago.”

Doyle, the late, great Portland-based writer and editor, is best known for his Oregon coastal imaginings and kinship with Pacific Northwest culture. In “Chicago,” he writes a fictional memoir about a young journalist working for a Catholic weekly newspaper and experiencing the wonders of 1970s Chicago.

His merry band of housemates is quirky, quizzical and loads of fun, as he establishes an intimacy between the most diverse of people, and in his own particular way, with a dog named Edward who is capable of communication at the highest level.

Doyle describes the city down to the rattle of the El train and the whiff of Comiskey Park in a year the team even made a credible go for the title. I lived in the city at the time myself — 1977, when the Sox were in first place for most of the summer — and remember those real-life characters: Richie Zisk, Chet Lemon, Eric Soderholm and Oscar Gamble. (The White Sox finished third in the American League West.)

The author zeroes in on details we don’t always observe: “odd fascinating corners and sights” ­­— the city’s obscure fountains, remarkable trees, and “a hidden aviary with more than a hundred parrots and parakeets of every color and species, tended by a tiny old man who could not have been more than four feet high.”

Advice from a Doyle character is a welcome antidote for the chronic dystopia that feels all too real: “Drive safely,” he writes in “Chicago.” “Be joyful. Be tender. Everything else is secondary to tenderness. Remember that.”

R.J. Marx is The Daily Astorian’s South County reporter and editor of the Seaside Signal and Cannon Beach Gazette.


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