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Book review: <i>Rant: An Oral History of Buster Casey</i> by Chuck Palahniuk


the cover of the book

If this was a car, it would be going cheap—a DeLorean someone died in. Pay cash, clean it yourself.

Cover

[Editor: the cover pictured above is not the same as the one Tom describes here.]

Grey pencil illustrations of garnished cars (the Party Crashers, see Plot) against some predominantly white collage-style text and design. More interesting than it sounds.

Plot

When Rant Casey first shows his face, he’s already second-hand—to the reader, through the eyes of others, hence the subtitle. And he’s rough around the edges alright. Of disputed provenance, raised in a hick town by his mother and a drifter, troublesome, haphazardly educated and unconcerned with hygiene. But, as his deeds are recounted by those who met him, it begins to seem that there was a strange compass guiding his unbeaten path. Whether he’s getting himself bitten by every critter in fifty miles and developing an immunity to, for instance, rabies, or finding fortunes in other people’s rubbish, there may be madness to his methods but the opposite is also true.

When Rant moves to the big city, he hooks up with the Party Crashers, a nebulous group whose hobby is dressing up, packing into cars, and prowling the streets, looking to ram each other’s vehicles and make a big stupid scene in a sort of road-rage am-dram. In a future where pre-recorded experiences are beamed directly into people’s skulls, the population segregated into Day and Nighters, and with a rabies epidemic now sweeping cities, a few bored wasters playing car tag barely registers on the socio-political radar. Until, that is, one Rant Casey commits a very public suicide and becomes something of a folk hero. Party Crashing is suddenly under the spotlight, as is the life of Mr. Casey. But who WAS Rant Casey? And is there more to Party Crashing than meets the media’s jaded eye?

The good

With the exception of Haunted and Fugitives, all of Palaniuk’s books present the reader with a very welcome bundle of new ideas. Rant combines so many that there’s barely room. Most carry a metaphoric weight, from the Party Crashers (an evolution of Fight Club’s amateur pugilists) to the division of society into Day or Nighters, and the spectrum which stretches from those who purchase second-hand experience through to the literally rabid, driven from their homes by unchained instincts they’ve spent their lives denying.

The science fiction element is the latest fascinating wrinkle to emerge in Chuck’s work, and allows him to draw some strong parallels—as with the last decades most enduring sci-fi writers, that seems to be the primary purpose it serves. Thus, the author is prepared to happily sacrifice subtlety for effectiveness once again, and good on him. The biggest piece of futurism is saved for the finale, and, though it’s hinted at throughout the book, I shall refrain from revealing it here. Suffice to say, it’s one of the oldest tropes in sci-fi, given a vigorous twist by Chuck’s stylistic biceps. Whatever you may say about him, no matter which genre devices he employs, this is not an author in danger of trying to re-invent the wheel.

An “Oral History” sounds like an old-fashioned technique, yet it plays contemporaneously with the setting, landing comfortably between CNN post-catastrophe vox-pops and tribute special. It also enhances the absence of the eponymous character; no doubt a deliberate decision by the author to create an aura of mythos around said character, and possibly to echo the sense in which Rant represents an increasing absence in modern life—the truth of experience, of the embrace of organism in all its gory glory.

When I enjoyed this book the most, it was reminiscent of both Fight Club and Lullaby in the manner in which it seeks to feed the flicker of our youthful fire. Sans superheroes, politics, or any cheap trappings of the culture of the moment, Palahniuk tries to tease our guttering candle of passion and outrage into a gouting flame of energy, possibility, and anarchistic self-empowerment. Which is what Rant, or rather Rant’s ghost, seems to be doing for half the future population. Chuck wants to explode the forces, internal and external, which stop us making more of our brief, brief time. Twelve paragraphs of bullshit which still can’t explain why I don’t, deleted.

The bad

At its worst, Rant is a sketchbook of ideas, like the cars on the cover—never without drive and skill but lacking in polish and cohesive execution. In my opinion, there’s simply too much going on, and not enough focus. Don’t get me wrong—I love what’s there, and I love Chuck for trying to fit it in, but there simply isn’t room for all the ideas to breathe, particularly the sci-fi parts, which I thought were some of the most interesting in the book—more interesting than I found the Rant character, I admit. You could argue that they’re less fundamentally original than the Rant storyline, or that they serve their symbolic purpose adequately, but the fact is that the reader is given tantalising glimpses of potential (a student, for example, discusses her studies editing together fragments of other people’s experiences and memories, then re-filtering them through different points of view to create five-sensory mental movies) but Palahniuk keeps dragging us back to, for instance, some bollocks about rabies, despite the fact that the whole virus/catalyst thing pretty much goes nowhere, at least plot-wise. It’s doubly frustrating because the earthiness and humour of Palahniuk’s prose has an intoxicating effect combined with the sleek stand-bys of science fiction. More!

Yes, Palahniuk conveys a sense of Rant’s charisma and density of self which forms part of the Big Twist, but he can’t resist making him a revolting hick any more than he can resist telling us entertaining but discursive bollocks about spider bites, sex toys and disease epidemics. To be brutally honest, at the end of the book, I wasn’t a hundred times more enlightened as to why I was meant to care about Rant than before I’d picked it up. As a central character, inversed or otherwise, Rant simply lacks the empathy of Jack/Tyler or the purpose of Survivor’s Tender, just as his titular book lacks that of those in which they appear. For instance, the endings of Fight Club and Survivor could not be more thrilling without including free amphetamines in the dust jacket. Rant finishes with some great ideas, I won’t lie to you, but I felt a definite sense of fumbling as Chuck tries to get them down, and that the fact that the main character’s long dead doesn’t help. There’s a definite denouement, sure, but without a climactic conflict or a core character I was left partly sated and more than a bit mystified as to the role played in all of this by Rant. In fiction, surely even a ghost should have a presence.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m being thorough here cos I love Chuck and know what brilliance he’s capable of—as ever I feel safe in saying that there’s nothing like this on the New shelf. He’s so contemporary that it’s actually difficult to critique him for lack of effective comparison. So huzzah for him, boo to reviews. You should DEFINITELY check this out if you’ve enjoyed any of his previous work, and it’s far from his worst. If this is the first thing of his you try it’ll probably take the top of your head off and leave you scrambling for his previous books, many of which are even better. Don’t listen to my criticisms, listen to the inner voice that told you to buy the sniper rifle and try this on for size.

What I learnt

The bite of the black widow spider induces priapism.

In short

Title: Rant: An Oral History of Buster Casey
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385517874
Year published: 2007
Pages: 336
Genre(s): Fiction, Contemporary Literature, Science-Fiction

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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