NIN, Fahrenheit 451, Adjustment Day & So You've Been Publicly Shamed!
I’m P M Buchan, a reformed comic-book writer, lover of transgressive fiction and horror-punk. My stories have been featured in magazines including the Times Literary Supplement, Rue Morgue and Kerrang! This is a newsletter about writing, dark art and life, because despite what many have claimed, I’m first and foremost just another fallible human, making mistakes and trying to leave the world a better place than I found it.
I’d planned to get this newsletter back on a monthly schedule, but then everyone in the house apart from me got sick and I had to take care of them, then they got better and I got sick. As a result, I’ve spent some time becoming intimately acquainted with a rather well-known virus and truth be told I’ve found it pretty devastating, so one way another I’m at least a month behind where I expected to be and losing ground daily.
After a decade spent reading and reviewing so many comics and graphic novels that it left time for little else, I’m making a concerted effort to read more prose, alternating between books that I never got round to reading and anything new that appeals to me.
I’d heard the name Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury mentioned alongside dystopian classics like 1984 and Brave New World enough times that I thought I should give it a go. For the most part, I found it a real slog, labouring some compelling arguments against censorship and book burning, alongside other ideas that have aged less well, within a narrative that reduces complex human motivations and reactions to fairy tale-levels of simplicity.
As a sci-fi parable to remind us about the importance of literature to learn from the mistakes of past generations and to act as a vanguard against the decline of Western civilisation, I can see why there was a time and a place where Fahrenheit 451 had value. I can imagine people and places in the modern world where anti-intellectual movements could benefit from reading this novel and questioning whether book burning is really going to lead to the future they desire. But me? I wasn’t buying it.
Fahrenheit 451 is too far removed from the world I live in to resonate for me, at all. The women that Bradbury created are paper-thin, ranging from creepy wish-fulfilment teenagers barely on the right side of puberty to hysterical housewives that follow the same model of demonising middle-aged women that the UK and USA seems intent on indulging again in 2022. The only heroes are vapid moustached university lecturers who convince themselves that remembering old poems and standing witness while society eats itself will allow them to inherit the earth.
The prescience of Fahrenheit 451, in terms of flatscreen TVs and headphones, feels pedestrian and redundant simply because it exists in the shadow of George Orwell, whose prescience I’d argue had meaning and actual value. The world of Fahrenheit 451 feels like a Saturday-morning cartoon in comparison to 1984, which most of the Western world has had to live through for the past decade.
Another novel I recently finished reading is Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk, which fittingly enough echoes (and namechecks) Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World and a lot of classic American literature. As the Godfather of transgressive fiction, Palahniuk knows a thing or two about inciting strong emotions, and I found more to empathise and connect with in a single page of Adjustment Day then the whole of Fahrenheit 451.
Palahniuk is still best known for Fight Club, the novel that created ubiquitous modern notions and phrases such as the insult ‘snowflake’. Being the author of one of the defining novels of the 1990s and giving voice to a generation of disenfranchised men puts Palahniuk in a difficult position – how can you possibly top a creation like that? Adjustment Day is a direct response to this challenge, addressing all of the disgusting complexity of modern identity politics with the same aplomb that he once wrote about emasculated men who felt betrayed by consumerism.
I read a damning review of Adjustment Day in the Guardian that called it “A vapid Nineteen Eighty-Four for the Snapchat generation, mixed with a ghoulish touch of The Purge,” and that’s one hell of a good description, though I disagreed with the reviewer and thought it was Palahniuk’s most powerful book since Fight Club. The main problem here is that life in the mid 1990s in England or North America felt pretty simple. We were bombarded by MTV, sexy models, exciting aspirational lifestyles and soul-crushing jobs to earn them. Through advertising, mass media and consumerism, we lived largely uniform lives in a shared world. Almost thirty years later, our lives are fragmented to the point where we each view the world through our own insular tribes, finding people to identify with, adopting their values and eschewing outsiders. We have almost no shared touchpoints anymore or experiences shared with our neighbours or with members of any other generation.
It's like the cumulative weight of our academic research has built an intellectual world for us that is so nuanced and complex that everyone can easily go online and find someone to back up their world-view, however niche or extreme. As a result of literally every viewpoint being validated, nobody can open their mouths online without thousands of strangers deconstructing every syllable. Everyone is wrong about everything, all the time. We’ve lost our capacity to believe that anyone in their right minds could disagree with us, despite being presented with abundant evidence daily that most of the world does disagree with us on just about every issue. Well-meaning people all over the world are queuing up to flog you in the village square for wrong-think, every day.
I’ve read other recent novels that wanted to investigate these same ideas that are percolating in Western society’s collective consciousness. The Last Good Man by Thomas McMullan addresses a dystopic society where law is decided collectively by writing names on a wall of anybody in the village perceived to have committed a crime, which incites other villagers to add to the accusations if they feel strongly enough, or to ignore the accusation if not enough people agree with it. This is similar to the online list used in Adjustment Day to upvote who deserves to be killed first. But The Last Good Man took the recent revival of (digital) witch hunts and transposed this to the heart of a discrete, isolated cast of people. McMullan’s approach is narratively satisfying, but only really works because of its narrow focus.
Adjustment Day, on the other hand, is a messy, dense novel, more interested in ideas and capturing some of the multi-dimensional complexity of modern identities than settling on a narrative that has a beginning and end. But what a brilliant, insightful, offensive, obscene world Palahniuk creates. This is Fight Club squared. When a generation of disenfranchised young men catch wind of the announcement of an imminent world war, planned only to reinforce the status quo and take their brimming testosterone out of the mix, they perform an armed insurrection instead, creating a brave new world where everyone gets to live with their own tribe and nobody has to suffer being judged for not adhering to values that were never theirs to begin with.
This is an incredibly offensive novel with the potential to piss off pretty much anyone who reads it. Nobody escapes unscathed. There are times that it’s laugh-out-loud funny and others when it’s just depressing. But crucially, I can’t think of another piece of recent art that tries as hard to summarise the human condition in the period around the year 2020. The messiness of Adjustment Day echoes the messiness of modern life. It makes me feel like, rather than the accumulation of human knowledge over the course of history being a good thing, we’re drowning in theories and opinions, scrutinising every word and thought and event at such a molecular level that we’d somehow find 20 different contradictory-but-equally-valid interpretations of everything that happens on any given day.
I enjoyed Adjustment Day a lot. It made me hate modern life more than I already did, but I’m glad Palahniuk tried to tackle what a fucking mess we’ve made of the world.
Here’s a quote that I particularly enjoyed:
The books said, “People are addicted to being right.”
It suggested going to a dinner party and stating over the table that the writer Sylvia Plath was a racist due to the scientific conclusions she’d reached in her most famous book, The Bell Curve. Your fellow guests will enjoy sputtering, multiple orgasms of rightness as they correct you.
“It might take a moment,” Talbott counselled, “But your audience will descend upon you, correcting you with all the yelping blood frenzy of a pack of rabid hyenas felling a lone wildebeest.”
Making others right redeems their paltry and pointless educations.
Chuck Palahniuk, Adjustment Day (2018)
Because I’m haunted by questions about how evangelical puritanism of thought has taken such a hold of Western society, I listened to the audiobook of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It had been recommended to me by quite a few people and although I listened with interest, I found it less revelatory than friends had suggested I might. As a professional in his field, with a well-established career, I think that Jon Ronson takes a fundamentally naïve approach to the topic of public shaming, overlooking the way that the pressure to conform has been harnessed by people seeking to influence societal change in such a way that swift, brutal public shamings are being used to silence dissent and make an example of people who ask questions in public spaces.
Central to Ronson’s book is the belief that the majority of people want to do the right thing and that this is what inadvertently motivates the worst public shamings on platforms like Twitter. Again this feels naïve to me, but in the author’s defence, I could believe it the case that the online world has moved on so rapidly since he wrote the book that this felt true to him at the time. I’m of the opinion that because we’re now judged by our social media presence more often than our physical actions, the majority of people want to be seen to do the right thing much more fervently than they want to actually do the right thing.
We’re judged by the success of our performances rather than our actions. Jon Ronson seems to me to wilfully overlook asking questions about what it means that we’ve created a world of performance where ideology trumps action and any divergence of thought is seen as evidence of hateful obtusity.
I also spent the whole book convinced that at some point he’d tie the concept of public shaming and online witch hunts with historical incidents when things like this have happened in the past, such as McCarthyism in the 1940s and 50s in the United States. I feel like if there was ever a moment in history that could teach us why public shaming has become such a powerful tool in the 2020s, it would be the fear of communism and socialism that devastated the careers of so many artists. But sadly, that was never touched upon.
After finishing So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the thoughts that stayed with me were all the things that I wished had been voiced but hadn’t. That successful public shamings have emboldened far too many self-appointed moral gatekeepers online today, to the point that it gives us a warped perspective on what is or is not an appropriate response to disagreeing with the views of another. There can be neither freedom of thought nor freedom of speech within our society without the freedom to disagree, the freedom to debate and the freedom to offend.
When I look at recent modern events like the Brexit vote, the overturning of the right to abortion in the United States and the war in Ukraine, what they tell me is that the notion of human progress is a myth. We are not all moving in the same direction. We are not all afforded the same rights. We do not all uniformly get to live with dignity and respect and the idea that we could make the world a better place by shaming people we disagree with on Twitter is obscene and ludicrous. Changing the world, for the better, is a slow process that requires hard work and compromise. Any “progress” achieved by instilling a fear of public shaming in people who aren’t onboard yet is a castle built on sand, very pretty but doomed to disappear into the sea as quickly as it arrived.
Before getting sick I managed to go and see Nine Inch Nails play live as part of the Eden Sessions in Cornwall, which was a bucket-list experience for me. When I adapted a Megadeth song for Heavy Metal Magazine I spoke publicly about how their Countdown to Extinction was the first cassette that I ever bought as a kid. But the first CD I ever bought? Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral. I listened to that album so much as a moody teenager that it was unreal.
NIN played Eden on two consecutive nights and I went for the Saturday. It was an incredible gig and when they played Head Like A Hole it blew my tiny mind, but I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed when I discovered afterwards that their Friday and Saturday setlists had been very different. I managed to book for the night when they didn’t play three of my favourite of their songs, Mr Self Destruct, Heresy and The Perfect Drug (featured on my favourite David Lynch film, Lost Highway). It was amazing, but would have been more amazing if I could have been in the crowd when they played Heresy!
Alongside watching Nine Inch Nails I got to see Supergrass play at 1 Big Summer festival on the Hoe in Plymouth, which was surprisingly much fun, as well as taking a holiday week with some very good friends. Most of our time was (predictably) spent at or in the sea, but we also squeezed in a trip canoeing up the river Tamar, a turbulent group kayaking session near Goodrington Sands, and hand-feeding lorikeets at Longleat Safari Park. A week later I also had a fantastic weekend with a visit from a nephew and niece who I don’t see often enough, with incredible weather and a chance to teach them to bodyboard at Mothecombe beach. I can’t think of a happier sound in all the world than children laughing in the sea when they catch their first wave.
In other news, I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been writing since September. 87,618 words, 150 pages, with a complete story from start to finish. There’ll be a lot more work to do, but for now I’ll call that a cause for celebration.
I’m also planning to resurrect the interviews that used to be a regular component of these newsletters, but very likely transforming them into something long-form that digs a lot deeper into the lives of the interviewees. I’ve already started a couple, but (optimistically) recovering from an illness didn’t seem like the perfect time to start editing the transcript from the most ambitious interview I’ve conducted in recent years.
As should be self-evident, writing to me is nothing without music, so my playlist for you this month is She Knows It, a collection of my absolute favourite recent pop-punk and punk-rock tracks that are generally fronted by women vocalists. Including Maggie Lindemann, Charlotte Sands, Olivia Rodrigo, Willow, Halsey and Pale Waves, there are some phenomenal songs on this list and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Pop-punk has been going through a total renaissance in the last year or two, as all the kids who grew up listening to music that I loved came of age and started recording their own brilliant interpretations of the sound of the Warped Tour. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. Next, I just need another ska revival that consists of more than the same bands who were around for the third-wave…
That’s all for this time. Hang in there, take good care of yourself and your loved ones. If anybody tells you that they’ve had the virus and it was no big deal, feel free to pour a drink on their head from me. If you want to talk about anything in this newsletter then reply to this email or leave a comment on Substack. And if you want to read mini reviews of everything I’ve been reading and watching during my isolation, you can find some on Instagram, but be warned that I mostly use it to share family pics, usually at the sea. Thanks for reading!
P M Buchan
Thanks for reading IF YOU GO AWAY - News from P M Buchan! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.