Jun 17, 2007

Rant by Chuck Palahniuk - review

Is Chuck Palahniuk a genius, a literary stylist, a pop culture icon, the next J.G. Ballard, or a gross-out artist extraordinaire?

At times none of the above, at times all, there is one thing he is definitely not: boring.

From his first novel Fight Club onward, the cult author has careened through the grotesque underbelly of literature, spilling forth tale after tale of the disenfranchised, the violent, and the bizarre, with decidedly mixed results. While Diary displayed an author in firm control of his material, his last effort Haunted was spectacularly uneven, a set of stories that sacrificed his talent on an altar of stomach-churning imagery.

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey finds Palahniuk revisiting a favourite theme; the quest for spiritual meaning through the manipulation of violence. Along the way, he tosses in science-fiction themes, deformities, conspiracy theories, spider attacks, car crashes, the Tooth Fairy, possible zombies, and messianic complexes, to keep things from getting dull.

Presented as the memories of friends, enemies, and various intellectuals, Rant covers the short life of the legendary Buster ‘Rant’ Casey, pieced together, as one friend puts it, “out of the details we each had to dig up from the basement of the basement of the basement of our brains.”

Depending on whom you talk to, Buster was either a futuristic Huckleberry Finn, “the worst Patient Zero in the history of disease,” the most successful “naturopathic serial killer” ever, or various epithets unsuitable for public consumption. As Buster himself says, “You’re a different human being to everyone your meet.”

After a childhood that consists of intentionally courting death through rabies, Buster moves to the city, a futuristic urban nightmare where the population has been severed into a form of “segregation by time,” where people are either function at night or day, but not both. There, he participates in “Party Crashing,” a form of urban demolition derby that “rejects the idea that driving time is something to be suffered in order to achieve more useful and fulfilling activity.”

Buster seems content at first to revel in his twisted nature, working as an exterminator, collecting specimens of spiders, and quickly contaminating all around him with his unique strain of rabies. But inside the contradicting recollections of his monstrous deeds, there is a hint that Buster has transcended humanity, and a myth of biblical proportions may be taking shape.

Palahniuk gets a tremendous amount of mileage from sprinkling pop-cultural references throughout his outlandish plot. Alongside a liberal helping of William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, Ballard’s controversial Crash (concerning sexual fetishists of car accidents) is the most obvious homage. Yet just when the plot finally appears to be straightening out, Palahniuk throws in thematic references reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ and Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.

The result is a plot that never stops, multiple points of view, shifting perspectives, contradictory information, nauseating side trips, truly dark wit, and a skewed take on humanity so warped that the effect on the reader verges on the vertiginous. It doesn’t make a lot of surface sense, but there is an intriguing undercurrent of logic that drives Rant’s increasingly preposterous events.

It can be best to look at Rant as a carnival, chock full of roller coasters, hucksters, human oddities, and fast food. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, and many will look upon its thrills as cheap and unworthy of discussion. But Palahniuk, acquired taste though he may be, knows his audience, and mixes the highbrow and lowbrow with aplomb and vigour. Like a carnival, you may feel queasy afterward, but you sure won’t forget that you visited.

Originally published in The Winnipeg Free Press, June 3, 2007.

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