America is bigger than life. The upshot of this is that it makes death
look a lot smaller. Huge figures stride across the American landscape,
creatures created by whispered gossip, laughter, publicity campaigns,
stories told and repeated, each telling introducing another error,
another exaggeration, another lie. The sheer number of words alone
guarantees that the beings we read about, the men and women we speak
about, are bigger in print than they are in their physical lives.
Just ask Chuck Palahiuk, or Rant Casey.
Palahniuk's new novel is 'Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey'. Palahniuk
uses a non-fiction, meta-fictional format to tell a story that much bigger
than life, to take a thoroughly American archetype, the half-animal mountain
man, and turn him into America's most prolific serial killer. The novel
is a technical literary marvel, burnished and stripped down to serve
Palahniuk's minimalist inclinations. It includes many of Palahniuk's
familiar themes. It's cringe-inducing as Palahniuk speaks all too frankly
about the extremes embedded within everyday experience. You'll find secret
societies that offer peculiar redemption. It's frequently very funny,
if you like your humor queasy and embarrassing. It is utterly unique,
even for a writer as bold as Palahniuk. 'Rant' finds Palahniuk expanding
his literary toolkit to include elements of science fiction, and as one
might expect, the results are disturbing and wonderful.
Opening the novel, one is immediately faced with the format of the oral
history. The setup is simple. 'Rant' consists mostly of some 320 pages
of single paragraph entries, each a sort of sample of what one of a large
cast of characters has to say about Rant Casey. The effect of reading
this is cumulative, like putting together a puzzle when you don’t
know what the final picture will be. Don't let yourself be daunted by
Palahniuk's experimental metafiction. Once you start reading, it's really
very easy. The entries are split between Daytimers and Nighttimers, two
artifacts of Palahniuk's dystopian future. Some speakers get a lot of
air time; Green Taylor Simms is a "historian", while Echo Lawrence
is the closest thing to a girlfriend for Rant Casey. Once you've acclimatized
to the format, you'll find the story proceeds in a surprisingly straightforward
way. But even as you read the book and think that, you might also be
thinking that it's amazing what you can get used to. 'Rant' stays true
to the non-fiction format developed by George Plimpton for 'Capote' and
turns it into an effective device for conveying a tale filled with the
Palahniuk's prose is as ever cleaner than clean, even when what he is
describing is so icky you have to flinch, you have to look away. This
writer loves to embrace contradictions, using a non-fiction format to
tell what might otherwise be an implausible story, and using the cleanest
and clearest language to describe things we long not to think about.
For this reader, 'Rant' is easily Palahniuk's most accomplished work.
The execution is perfect, even as the material becomes more and more
The surreal inventions start early on in Rant Casey's life. He's a natural
intuitive, a man who can smell and taste the events that those around
him have experienced. For Palahniuk, this plays out in the most cringe-inducing
fashion possible. Rant infects himself repeatedly with rabies, reaching
down animal holes in the desert that surrounds Middlefield, the Podunk
mid-western town where he was born. He's almost a throwback to another
era, more primitive, cunning but not exactly intelligent. When he moves
to the big city, he hooks up with "Party Crashers", aptly described
as "Fight Club with cars". We only see Rant as others have
seen him, and never hear from him directly. All sorts of aphorisms are
attributed to him by a series of narrators who never even come close
to reliable. But the characters that Palahniuk creates are remarkably
strong. The Oral history format he has chosen helps him create a bigger
than life character who seems authentic.
The plot is remarkably complex. Rant's natural-man inclinations lead
him to become infected with rabies, and the "serial killer" aspect
of the novel unfolds when he becomes a Typhoid Mary of rabies. Do not
expect any forensics or even crime fiction in this novel. They're absent.
What's present instead is a cleanly delineated science fiction plotline
that involves virtual realities, multiple realities and time travel.
Suffice it to say that Palahniuk manages to come up with some entertainingly
original variations on the hoariest of time travel clichés. He
doesn't just toss in the science fictional elements willy-nilly. They're
carefully and artfully slotted in to move his story and enhance his characters.
Putting together a puzzle has never been this much fun.
'Rant' is clearly not a novel for everyone. Palahniuk never flags in
his ability to make the reader squirm with discomfort. The odd format
at first seems off-putting, but in reality, it makes the novel read like
lightning, once you've accustomed yourself to the rhythms that Palahniuk
establishes. It's really a natural step for Palahniuk to start using
science fiction to tell his stories. They’re fantastically outré,
and benefit from the veracity that both his non-fiction format and the
science fiction toolkit can bring to literature. Few readers will be
able to separate themselves from the grotty details they'll find in 'Rant'.
It's consistently distressing, whether it's discussing the disgusting
past or the appalling future. But Palahniuk has the skill to show you
something you don’t want to see and make you look with words so
artfully arranged, they seduce the brain into reading them.