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Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
By Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-0-385-51787-4
So before anything else, a horrible confession: that this is the first novel by Chuck Palahniuk I've ever actually read from cover to cover. Yeah, I know, shame on me! And the reason this is such a big deal, of course, is that I'm an obsessive fan of the movie version of Fight Club, adapted from another of Palahniuk's novels, a film I have officially now seen one zillion freaking times. And why do I like that movie so much? Here's why I like that movie so much:
--Because it takes a profoundly original and compelling idea and makes you think it's going to be the theme of the entire project, just to later prove that it was actually a ruse to hide an even more profoundly original and compelling idea as its real theme.
--Because it unmasks the simmering hatred of the modern world so many young intellectuals have these days, this incessant desire to do something, anything, to break out of the usual corporate-manufactured, safely lobotomized, "synergetic cultural experience."
--And because the story pulls off such heady things through a slim, minimalist personal style, which much like Vonnegut attempts to use the least words possible to convey the greatest amount of information possible.
And thus do we come to Palahniuk's latest novel, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, which just randomly happens to be my first book of his simply because of opening CCLaP this particular year. And you know what? It too manages to pull off all the things just mentioned, and in fact does it even better; that this book even manages to head into legitimate science-fiction territory at points, even while being a grounded examination of the human condition at the same time. It's dense for sure, with a plot that's impossible to keep up with at times; but if such things, for example, made you love Donnie Darko instead of detest it, then you're seriously going to want to run out and pick up a copy of Rant as soon as you possibly can.
In fact, it's this fractured and dense structure that leads one to an immediate problem concerning reviewing it -- of how to even begin describing what this book is 'about' to others, without either hopelessly confusing them or giving away the spectacular series of surprises at the end. Just like Fight Club, there is ostensibly a linear storyline taking place -- it is purportedly an oral history of a person named Buster "Rant" Casey, who happens to be one of the worst "Patient Zero"s in the history of epidemics, in this case a particularly virulent strain of rabies that ends up infecting enough of America to push the country into martial law and near-anarchy. But also just like Fight Club, you deserve it to yourself to pay very careful attention to what's actually being said; because at the end you're going to find a very different story taking place than the one you started with, one with clues that Palahniuk peppers throughout the first two-thirds of the manuscript, and will have you screaming "Ah-hah, I finally get it now!" by the time you're finished.
Turns out that Rant actually grew up in a Sam-Shepardesque nowhere town in the Midwest, the same place the oral history starts; it is there, for example, that we first learn of his obsession with animal bites and stings, where he would regularly do such things as smear raw meat all over his forearm and then shove it down gopher holes, purposely trying to get animals to bite him and give him rabies, just as a way of feeling alive. It's an odd place to be sure, where kids chew on roadwork tar for fun until their teeth are completely black; and Rant's an odd kid as well, someone with a dog's sense of smell (he can tell what someone had to eat three days ago, for example, by sniffing a car seat), and who for some reason women find simply irresistible (hence over half the town's female population contracting rabies through spit by the time Rant graduates high school, and then the cases dropping to zero once he moves out of town).
It's here in the beginning of the story, in fact, long before he gets into the meat of the plot, where Palahniuk first shows off his insane skills as a story plotter, put in this case in microcosm form -- a self-contained short story about how Rant single-handedly devaluated his entire town's economy one summer when he was ten years old, using a series of antique coins he had found in outlying rural farmhouses, done only because he was pissed at the town's adults insisting that things like the Tooth Fairy exist, and wanted to teach all these lying adults a lesson. Right here in this tight fifteen-page story lies every element of Palahniuk's writing that I love: the violent disdain for authority; the belief that ridiculously elaborate schemes can be pulled off with a smart-enough plan; a naked plea for sincerity, honesty and authenticity in every facet of life; and an ability to layer audacious plot point on top of audacious plot point, so that by the end he's got you actually believing that a ten-year-old really could single-handedly devaluate the economy of his entire hometown and get away with it, simply as an act of childish revenge against perpetually lying adults.
Ah, but eventually we get into Rant's adult years, as well as the main thrust of the plot, which is where we get to the main problem of me trying to review the book in the first place; that the very act of telling you why I liked it is by its nature going to give away at least some of the story, but that this story is one of those exquisite puzzles about which the less you know beforehand, the better. I can tell you this, for example, since the reader learns it too right on the dust-jacket -- that in the speculative near-future world Palahniuk has created for Rant, the main leisure activity among rebellious youth is something called "Party Crashing," where teams prowl the nighttime streets with junker cars, looking for other teams, ramming into them when discovered and causing all kinds of very public messes. I can tell you that the game has a series of elaborate rules despite its underground nature, to keep things unsettling but not fatal -- no impacts faster than 20 miles per hour, no full-on side-door crashes, no getting citizens or their property involved, etc -- with repeat violators being taken off the email list divulging the "code" for the next round of the game (a "Just Married" sign and accompanying outfits, a fake Christmas tree tied to the roof, etc).
I can also tell you that this is a world similar to our own but not exactly alike, and that in general is just a touch more fascist than ours; for example, that the US is now permanently split into a daytime and nighttime population because of overcrowding, with neither group legally allowed outdoors in the twelve hours that's not "theirs." That this situation originally came about, believe it or not, through a simple bureaucratic report on how to decrease traffic jams, which in Patriot Act style kept getting added to a little and added to a little, by a series of ultra-right-wing administrations, to the point where an entire "Nighttimer" culture has now become permanent second-class citizens. That Rant's spit-based spread of rabies continues as an adult under such an environment, eventually creating an entire Cold War between the daytime and nighttime populations altogether, a nice metaphor not only for Bush and "The Great Terrorist Scare of the '00s," but also Reagan and how he originally dealt with the AIDS crisis (that is, by blaming the victims and doing nothing at all, turning it into a crisis in the first place).
But you know, I just can't tell you much more than that without starting to give away some really important secrets; because make no mistake, just like Fight Club, a big part of enjoying Rant depends on you knowing absolutely nothing (or at least as little as possible) about the last third, going into it. And that's why, unlike a lot of other online reviewers you'll find out there (be warned), I'm not going to get into any of the rest of the book here, even though it means skipping over what is easily the coolest, trippiest, most fun part of the entire novel in the first place, the part that is making some people these days declare Palahniuk the next JG Ballard or Philip K Dick. And that's frustrating, to tell you the truth, because as a sci-fi fan I want as much as anyone else to be able to say, "And what about that, and what about that other thing, and ooh, didn't you just love when he referenced that when he was talking about that?" But like many others, I too tend to get incensed when online reviewers casually slip in information about projects that were better kept as secrets (and by the way, turns out that Hermione is actually Harry Potter's sister, can you believe it LOLL!!1!!!1?), and so refuse to participate myself in this case, even if it means a shorter and less fun review today than I would normally otherwise write.
I will say this, though, since it gives away no specific information -- that as great as this book is, it definitely follows the "formula" (so to speak) of Fight Club in an astonishingly similar way, and I could easily see a person getting awfully sick of Palahniuk awfully fast if it turns out that all the rest of his novels are like that too. It's a case here at CCLaP where I literally need to warn readers of my naivety; that I undoubtedly enjoyed Rant as much as I did because of it being my first Palahniuk novel, while veterans of his work will undoubtedly find it less charming than I did. I'm definitely going to have to sit down now and start making my way through Palahniuk's back catalog, in order to see for myself; Tales From the Completist, here we come!
It surprised me, how many other projects Palahniuk manages to reference in Rant without ever feeling derivative himself -- from Crash to Existenz, even such relatively obscure projects as the '80s movie Brainstorm and the Neil Gaiman novel American Gods. That plus his usual attention to stylistic detail is what ultimately elevates Rant, in my opinion, above the similarly-themed Fight Club; it's what proves that Palahniuk really is getting better as a writer all the time, despite being pretty damn good right from the very start, and why much like Christopher Nolan he has legitimately moved beyond the realm of "gimmicky smartypants" and into a place where he deserves your deep respect. Love it or hate it, you'll be talking and arguing about Rant for weeks afterwards; and if you just happen to be one of those people who love for those arguments to include discussions of the space-time continuum, this is a book you're going to want to not let slip through the cracks. For God's sake, stop referencing Palahniuk's work at snotty cocktail parties, and actually sit down and read some of it! Take it from me, you'll be glad you did.
Out of 10: