Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, casting itself as an oral biography in the style of Capote and Edie, begins with a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer:
“This book is written in…a form which requires interviewing a wide variety of witnesses and compiling their testimony. Anytime multiple sources are questioned about a shared experience, it’s inevitable for them occasionally to contradict each other.”
Palahniuk’s cast of fictional “oral history” participants contradict each other so fantastically that reviewers of the novel have been unable to agree whether it is social commentary, science fiction, religious allegory or just a good yarn. This uncertainty is built into Palahniuk’s witty use of a typically nonfiction form – the unreliable narrator brought to extremes.
The most we can say is that we are introduced to Buster “Rant” Casey as a minor and dubious celebrity, rumored to have engaged in macabre acts ranging from encouraging insects and rodents to bite him for sexual pleasure to single-handedly causing a rabies epidemic, to bringing the game of Party Crashing – crashing cars for kicks – to its dramatic and lethal conclusion. Beyond that, the novel snakes off into a myriad of parallel universes, or twirls itself into a Mobius strip of genealogy, or drowns itself in a murky swamp of sheer unknowability. It’s hard to say for sure.
It gets complicated, and it gets truly gross. The book’s title comes from the sound of vomiting. The very desirable hardback edition boasts a gorgeous illustration of a gold-flecked heart, and I don’t mean the kind you see on Valentine’s day cards. The heart surfaces in just one of the many events in the course of the tale that took me close to ranting myself. Mind you, not once was I repulsed enough to consider putting the book down – it’s a brilliantly compelling read.
With a following too massive to be accurately described as “cult”, it’s interesting that Palahniuk is so often compared to J.G. Ballard, another “cult” author whose influence on cinema has ultimately outstripped his contribution to literature.
Comparing Rant to Ballard’s Crash is an easy connection to make, but more generally, Palahniuk’s work is, like Ballard’s, cinematic in the sense that it throws down a gauntlet to cinema. Rant nods to films like Donnie Darko and 28 Days Later but takes their apocalyptic visions that inch further.
There are readers for whom Rant will simply be too grim and gruesome, and others who will lose patience with its bonkers convolutions. But those of a strong constitution are in for a treat. This is a dirty, wild, helluva ride.