Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk on his book becoming a bible for the incel movement

The American novelist talks about extremism, learning about failure from Brad Pitt, the power of protest and why losing nearly all his money has been kind of nice

First his father-in-law died of cancer. Then came the suspicion that his income for the last few years had been embezzled by an accountant at his literary agency. And to top off Chuck Palahniuks 2018 so far, there was the death of Anthony Bourdain fondly remembered by Palahniuk for a TV show they made together in 2007, doing a gastronomic tour of the novelists hometown, Portland, Oregon. Its been a spring to remember, he murmurs.

Id idly assumed that the author of Fight Club, Choke and other vivid studies of all kinds of American violence would be an expansive raconteur, maybe even a bit boorish and alpha. But sitting in the lofty space where he teaches writing in Portland, he is gentle and thoughtful, choosing his words carefully. Its looking like my payment for at least my last two perhaps four books has been taken, and so that leaves me with no reserves to write the next book, he says. Money seems to have been taken over such a long period that they havent even established yet how much was taken, and from what accounts. Palahniuk says the accountant, Darin Webb, would lie, telling him that the publisher hadnt made the cash available, or that he was preoccupied with caring for his mother who has Alzheimers. Webb was charged with fraud in May. Depending on the terms of his next book deal, and on how much money is recovered in a settlement, Palahniuk may have to sell his house to stay afloat.

What does it feel like, suddenly being so financially precarious? Theres a long, silent look down. Its kind of nice, he decides. Writing was initially my way of saving money, because if youre writing, youre not spending. So it throws me back into writing. There are larger issues in life the embezzlement is dwarfed by my father-in-laws death. And theres the awareness that Im the person who got me to this place, and Im still that person, so I can still turn it all back around, and come up with something really strong and vibrant and interesting.

He breaks into a grin. This is going to sound so asinine and name-dropping, but when we were making [the film adaptation of] Fight Club, Brad Pitt had made some movies he wasnt particularly happy with one was Meet Joe Black and he said every movie is the antidote to the one you just made; that the real blessing of failure is that it is the only thing that gives you the isolation and time to reinvent yourself. If youre moving from success to success, you dont have that daydreaming period that will allow you to come up with something new and unique.

In Fight Club, and in his latest novel Adjustment Day, Palahniuks men find brotherhood in violence. Photograph: Allstar/20-CENTURY FOX/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

He has already done so with his latest novel, Adjustment Day, a satirical fantasy in which, threatened with a new war draft, American society is overturned via an armed insurrection. As in Fight Club in 1996, theres a band of disfranchised men who find brotherhood and identity in violence. It also shares that books moments of body horror: maggots devouring a dead mans face; a gross-out moment with a catheter. I include those scenes so its not just an exploration of emotions and intellect, he says. Its really rare that art affects us on a corporeal level on a physical, gut level.

But Palahniuk moves on to fresh ground, too. Following the uprising, the US self-segregates into white and black ethno-states, Caucasia and Blacktopia, while gays and lesbians of all ethnicities take over California, renaming it Gaysia. The redrawn map is the starting point for an analysis of race, sexuality, class and nationality, with a few love stories chucked in between the bulging cast of characters. Credibility is stretched at one point a voice on a radio announces the joy of fiction is that it only has to smell true but the book remains rooted in real-world ructions.

Very little of what I do is invention most of what I do is journalism, he says. Doing research for the novel, he interviewed groups already advocating for American ethno-states, including the white American Renaissance. And California could break into three states following a referendum vote in November. Palahniuk sees Americans as being out of love with a narrative of one great rainbow, and everyone being homogenised and allowed to live within this system. His own experience growing up in the 1970s in the nearly all-white town of Burbank, Washington, was that we still had a great deal of domestic violence and crime and suicide. I never bought the idea that a white ethno-state would be a Disneyland fantasy. But I am fascinated by the idea that isolation is the only thing that might allow us to create something new. Culture is developed in isolation, and what Im wondering is whether in this very wired world, there wont be a return to that isolation. Journalists, incidentally, are among the most victimised characters in the book: the Adjustment Day uprising of the title is brought about by a social media poll of the least popular people in society, and journalists are some of the first against the wall. I think Americans are realising that journalism is so partisan now, he says. Theyre sick of that.

After Adjustment Day, Blacktopia quickly becomes a kind of Wakandan paradise, full of pyramid-shaped spaceships. I have no standing or authority to say anything unflattering about the black ethno-state, he says. Im white, so I could make the whites total dolts; Im gay so I can trash the gays.

Gaysia, then, doesnt fare so well. Gay people who want to emigrate there when they reach adulthood can only do so if there is a straight equivalent wanting to emigrate from Gaysia, and the imbalance leads to thousands trapped in limbo, working in labour camps. It plays with what Palahniuk sees as a fixation on parenthood in the gay community. Theres no art or music in Gaysia all expression is the expression of having children. So much culture was created by gay people because they were trained to be observant, because everything that kept them alive was from observing how straight people were, and aping and mimicking those ways of being, so they would not be destroyed. They then used those skills of observation to execute beautiful things that served the overall culture. But having kids is a full-time job it doesnt leave you a lot of time to be a sculptor. I and a lot of people in my generation, an older generation, felt that gay people were having children as a means of expression, and giving up this incredible heritage of artistic expression.

Caucasia, meanwhile, becomes a feudal system in thrall to the beefy overlords who brought about Adjustment Day: an incel fantasy where women are utterly subordinated (at least for a while). I tell Palahniuk that Ive seen incels involuntary celibate men angry at their lack of sexual partners quoting Fight Club as an example of why one shouldnt underestimate ordinary frustrated men. He is amused, saying that the book was previously quoted by adherents to The Game, Neil Strausss guide to picking up women for emotionally unattached sex.

Its fascinating that the group that cant get laid is now adopting the same language. It shows how few options men have in terms of metaphors: a skimpy inventory of images. They have The Matrix theres a lot of red pill, blue pill stuff and they have Fight Club. The only other thing is Dead Poets Society, where men go into a cavern and say poems to each other, and theyre not going to adopt that. Women, he says, have more literature about female social structures, the likes of The Joy Luck Club or How to Make an American Quilt. Those have a script and roles and determined ways of being, that women can adopt in order to be together long enough to share their lives. Dont men have sports or the pub, instead? Those social groups dont produce the memes and one-liners and metaphors. Palahniuk doesnt see Fight Club as particularly gendered anyway. It was more about the terror that you were going to live or die without understanding anything important about yourself.

Demonstrators protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Where does he see the incel movement going? It might be comparable to Valerie Solanass Society for Cutting Up Men, these very extreme feminist movements, he says. The extreme always goes away. What about the recent clashes between the alt-right and the Antifa (antifascist) movement, disruption that feels part of the fabric of Adjustment Day? This is just my gut reaction: we saw very little protest during the two Obama terms, largely because people were reluctant to protest anything when we had our first black president, for fear of being judged as racist, regardless of the issue. So weve had this pent-up need for protest, because protest is a way to discover ones power and potential in the world, to do battle against something, and aside from Ferguson, Missouri, and the quiet protest of the Occupy movement we havent been able to do battle against the government for eight years.

My generation drew an enormous amount of strength from battling against Reagan and Thatcher, he continues. They were the perfect white parents for us to rail against, and helped develop a sense of ourselves as a generation. And Trump is white, straight, a combination of Margaret Thatchers hair and Ronald Reagans body hes the perfect guy to rail against.

Adjustment Day has several narrators, so its uncertain where Palahniuks own sentiments lie. To some, then, he will seem a mere provocateur, or even a troll, but in an age of dogmatism, theres something refreshing about his poker face. If I write something really didactic, its resolved, its gone, he says. But if I write something that people can really argue about, that thing is going to be in the culture for ever. For example: is Fight Club good or bad? Its consensual, but its violence. Im trying to create this dazzling spectacle thats not meant to perpetuate or generate anything, but to be a sorbet that allows you to taste the next thing. To be a little more present in the next thing. You dont want to see resolution? No. Especially in creative work, resolution is death. Given his year so far, its a credo that he needs to believe in.

  • Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk (Jonathan Cape, 14.99). To order a copy for 12.74, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of 1.99.

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