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Chuck Palahniuk
Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007

Doubleday / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-38551787-4
320 Pages; $24.95
Publication Date: 05-01-2007
Date Reviewed: 05-08-2007

Index: Science Fiction  General Fiction Horror

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 fantastic.

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 scandalous.

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.

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