Review: “Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey”

Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel is an odd bird. That didn’t really surprise me, mind you. I’ve been reading his recent works mostly out of curiosity — and because they’re such quick reads — but I can’t say I’ve been particularly fond of any of them since he first vowed to “reinvent the horror genre,” beginning with Lullaby.

What is a surprise is that Palahniuk really seems to be serious about trying experimental approaches to writing. His last book, Haunted, was pretty much a short story collection in the form of a novel, but at least it showed him trying something new, after a series of novels that was growing increasingly repetitive. His latest, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casy, takes the experimentation even further. It attempts to be what its title sounds like: a kind of postmodern epistolary novel delivered in the form of sound bites and monologues.

Palahniuk isn’t the first to try this form, and in retrospect, though I like to see that he’s not just phoning it in after all, I have to say it’s my least favorite aspect of the book. Your first clue that Palahniuk wasn’t able to pull the device off effectively is the apologia he saw fit to include at the beginning of the book. (“For additional biographies written in this style, see Capote by George Plimpton,” he helpfully advises us, even while getting the title of the book wrong.) Palahniuk is known for his witty novels and odd ideas, but if you have to explain the joke every night it’s probably best if you just leave it out of your repertoire.

And, sure enough, this joke just isn’t that funny anyway — all the characters sound exactly like snippets from any of Palahniuk’s other novels. Which is to say, none sounds like a real human being. But given the context of the novel, let’s give Chuck a break and just assume that the world of Rant is one populated by witty, postmodern authors disguised as hillbillies — but more on that later.

If it’s odd ideas you’re looking for, you got ’em. The first part of Rant reads like sort of a continuation of Haunted, where Palahniuk dreams up every crude and deviant idea he can think of and stitches them all together into a crazy-quilt plot about a bizarre and surreal corner of rural America.

You’ve got a man who can tell which of his neighbors has used the condom or tampon he’s just found, simply by smelling it. A man who likes to stick his hands into holes in the ground to see what will bite him. A deformed woman with a shrunken arm and palsy on one side of her face, so she drools constantly. A man whose teeth are black because he chews road asphalt instead of gum. A town menaced by packs of wild dogs.

Later, when the characters relocate to the Big City, we’re introduced to a society where people are separated by curfew into “nighttimers” and “daytimers.” Where people like to go out and crash their cars into one another, seemingly just for the fun of it. Where a plague of rabies is spreading across town, transmitted from person to person like an STD.

Of course, as usual a lot of Palahniuk’s wilder ideas don’t really stand up to any kind of scrutiny. The notion that Buster Casey could fund his activities by pawning a mountain of rare coins seems to defy the most basic concepts of economics. I’ve never had rabies myself, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work the way Palahniuk says it does, and certainly nobody would ever want to get it (or get treated for it) more than once. And it seems to me that any dog breeder could tell you that Palahniuk’s concept of eugenics doesn’t make any sense at all — or, if you don’t know any of those, try a high school biology student.

Moreover, a lot of readers are bound to ask just what is the point of all this garbage? Is there any kind of real story here, or is Palahniuk just trying to leave you feeling ill?

Well, as it turns out, there is a point to it all, and this is where the book gets interesting. Without giving too much away, by the second half — when the science fiction elements start turning up — you realize that this isn’t the kind of book you were expecting it to be at all. Palahniuk turns most of your preconceived notions about his writings and this subject matter on their heads. As it turns out, what’s happening isn’t exactly what it appears to be, the characters aren’t exactly who they appear to be, and there is a reason why everything has seemed to go so implausibly haywire from the very beginning. I’ll leave it up to you to discover what that reason is.

All told, I enjoyed this book, and I wasn’t really expecting to (especially after the first couple of chapters). I think it’s probably the best Palahniuk has turned out in the last few years. I’m still hoping he tries to stretch his literary wings a little further (the epistolary device is cute, Chuck, but how about some long sentences, some real characters, less of the repetition, more description, more metaphor, fewer urban myths and pop culture references — just to try it out, just for once?) but for once I can say he surprised me and gave me more than I’d hoped for.