Wednesday 30 May 2012

REVIEW: Rant - An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, by Chuck Palahniuk (4.5*)

(Vintage, 2008)

I've never read Palahniuk before, and although everyone raves about Fight Club, in particular, I wasn't really sure his famously oddball style would be 'my kind of thing'.  Happily, Rant turned out to be EXACTLY my kind of thing, which is why this review has taken so long to write.  It's always hardest to review the books we've loved most, isn't it?

I won't say too much about the plot, partly because there isn't one per se, and partly because I think this is really one those books that needs to be read WITHOUT knowing everything about it.  That way the reader can work things out for themselves and be swept along by the narrative without any preconceptions and erroneous ideas ruining the fun.  On the surface this is just what the name suggests: a fictional oral biography of a strange young man called Rant Casey, who has odd abilities, bizarre habits, and dangerous vices that include 'Party Crashing' - driving around at night in a kind of giant crazy game of dodgems - and being bitten by all kinds of venomous and diseased creatures.

But although Rant is at the centre of the novel, and everything ultimately returns to him, this is an incredibly reductive view of Palahniuk's vision.  It is also very much about the way society works and about the people in Rant's life over the years.  It is only as the book unfolds that you come to realise that Rant's America isn't the same as ours; it's a futuristic place with advanced media technology, and a society segregated into Daytimers and Nighttimers in an attempt to deal with overpopulation and road congestion.  As these things are explained by the various 'contributors' to Rant's biography, the book becomes almost like a fascinating non-fiction at times, kept manageable and well-paced by the broken-up oral-biography format. 

This really is an incredible book.  It has the energy of a Baz Lurhmann movie and the no-nonsense brutality of Quentin Tarantino's finest, all rolled into one.  I don't think I've ever read a book that feels so immediate and ALIVE.  It bristles with energy, like electricity sparking off the page.  As I turned the pages, I felt like I was in the hands of an expert manipulator; the building clues about Rant, about the new society, were all there, but I felt like I was working things out and getting little light-bulb moments EXACTLY when Palahniuk wanted me to.  Whatever he wanted me to feel - nauseated, tender, intrigued, repulsed - I did.  Even when I wasn't sure what was happening or where things were going, I felt 'safe' enough to accept it and carry on.  Like the Nighttimers' Party Crashing culture, I just held on tight and went along for the ride - and what a ride it was!

Rant definitely isn't going to be for everyone - there are some pretty extreme and unsettling moments thrown in along the way - but if you dare to dive in and go with it, you will find a novel that is simultaneously philosophical, amusing, disgusting, exciting, thoughtful, sensual, perplexing, shocking, stimulating and utterly brilliant.  Palahniuk throws out a continuous stream of ideas and observations, skewed through the different characters that make up the 'biography' and through the vaguely dystopian perspective.  I'm still thinking about it now, a couple of weeks later, asking questions and trying to work it out in my mind all over again.  Needless to say, I won't hesitate to read more Palahniuk now I've started.

Notable Quotables:
  • "The way Rant Casey used to say it: Folks build a reputation by attacking you while you're alive - or praising you after you ain't." - Wallace Boyer
  • "In the first forty-three seconds you meet a stranger, experts in human behaviour say that, just by looking at them, you decide their income, their age, their brains, and if you're going to respect them." - Wallace Boyer
  • "How weird is that?  A sexually conflicted thirteen-year-old rattlesnake-venom junkie with rabies - well, it's safe to say that's every father's worst nightmare." - Shot Dunyan
  • "It doesn't matter for crap that you've got three years of sobriety or that you finally look good in a two-piece bathing suit or you've met that perfect someone and you've fallen deeply, wildly, passionately in love.  Today, as you pick up your dry cleaning, fax those reports, fold your laundry, or wash the dinner dishes, something you'd never expect is already stalking you...  That bullet or drunk driver or tumor with your name on it, the way I tolerate that fact is by Party Crashing.  Here's one night when I control the chaos.  I participate with the doom I can't control.  I'm dancing with the inevitable, and I survive.  My regular little dress rehearsal." - Shot Dunyan
  • "There's worse ways to be dead than dying." - Shot Dunyan
  • "Every high school has its Romeo and Juliet, one tragic couple.  So does every generation." - Toni Wiedlin
  • "You could argue that we constantly change the past...  I close my eyes, and the Rant Casey I picture isn't the real person.  The Rant I tell you about is filtered and colored and distorted through me." - Shot Dunyan
  • "Ask yourself: What did I eat for breakfast today?  What did I eat for dinner last night?  You see how fast reality fades away?" - Neddy Nelson

Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.