July 2007

Benjamin Jacob Hollars

fiction

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk

For the man made famous for causing crowds of listeners to blackout during his graphic readings, Palahniuk’s latest attempt, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, will, at the very least, allow his listeners to remain conscious. To call it “a tamer novel” would do it a disservice, though it is more thoughtful, more hypnotic, than some of his previous attempts. 

The truth is, we’ve all seen Buster “Rant” Casey -- Palahniuk’s perverse protagonist -- at least a dozen times before. He is the archetypal anti-establishment character of whom readers have grown fond in past years. Yet Palahniuk coats him in fresh packaging, eliminates the swagger of James Dean, the confidence of Rock Hudson, and adds an assortment of flaws to his list of attributes. 

Told through the style of an oral history, for 320 pages Rant’s parents, friends, and acquaintances attempt to make sense of their shared tales. The structure of an oral history lends itself to a quick read, though it is simultaneously disorienting, an overload to the senses, and the reader is left questioning what criteria Palahniuk employed when deciding who says what and in which order. The story is rehashed in clips, in snippets, in a narrative that knows no primary narrator. Rather, it is told through various witnesses who attempt to relay the story of a man whose mythology outgrew his life. “Anytime multiple sources are questioned about a shared experience,” Palahniuk writes in the author’s note, “it’s inevitable for them occasionally to contradict each other.” These contradictions are best when relished rather than questioned, and by addressing the issue of unreliable narrators early on, the reader finds it easier to swallow the story whole. Palahniuk acknowledges that the biography of Rant is a heresy history, yet the combined unreliability of the voices form a chorus worth to believe.

Rant -- the boy who loved poison, who stuck arms in shadowy earthen holes, who had rabies and caused an epidemic. Rant -- who found a goldmine of old coins, who crashed cars for the sheer thrill, who died one night prior to the beginning of the novel.
He seems an unlikely character, though Palahniuk, well known for pushing the envelope, pushes it in a new direction this time around. Rather than merely upping the ante of the shock factor -- a simple trick applied to earlier books -- Palahniuk performs a breakthrough experiment on character development. Can a book centered on the shared recollections of an already deceased character sustain the reader’s interest? Oddly enough, Palahniuk proves that it can.

Where Palahniuk fails, however, is in his attempt to tackle far too many subjects. The story of the peculiarities of Rant might have made for a sufficient novel, though Palahnuik stretches himself too thin, employing dystopian backdrops, injecting time travel theories, and pondering questions of immortality; all of which overshadow the heart of the story itself -- getting to the heart of Buster “Rant” Casey.

Likewise, Palahniuk has an apparent fascination for “party crashing” -- his name for city-wide car crash contests. Yet the amount of space devoted to the concept itself is out of sync with the payoff -- it whimpers where it should roar. Further, when nearing the end of the book, the reader begins to feel an inkling of déjà vu after hitting on Palahniuk’s formula for the novel: show Rant at his wildest, and when the reader begins to lose interest, throw in a car crash or two.

Still, Palahniuk should be commended for tackling the experimental form of oral history within the realm of fiction. Most certainly, he has redefined the boundaries of the form by treading where many writers never bother to go -- in the land of originality. He dangles his work like bait before the critics, and overall, the story stands up to the test. Despite flaws, undoubtedly, Palahniuk presents us with yet another cerebral conniption fit, another evolution of anti-hero to hero, and another world in which rabies rule, con-men are kings, and the circus of freaks fraternize in the sun rather than stay confined to shadows.    

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday
ISBN: 0385517874
336 Pages