Rant: The Oral History of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk

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Rant: The Oral History of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Rabies epidemic, a game of fender-benders, cyberpunk and time travel combine with gross-out and macabre, generation and class panics and derivative musings on the nature of social control, celebrity and religion in this over explained and often turgidly boring attempt at subversivness. Palahniuk fans and newly-hatched young American rebels will undoubtedly like it, others might as well skip and read some Ballard instead.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 336 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224080590

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Rant tells the tale of Rant Casey, born in the redneck town of Middleton to develop an animal bite addiction, become an urban legend and likely a Patient Zero of pan-American rabies epidemic. He leaves Middleton to find his real father in the big, bad city, where he gets involved in a underground game of Party Crashing, where parties dressed in clothes and cars chosen according to the 'flag' of the night meet up to hunt and bump into each other in a game of controlled fender bending.

I have not read anything by Palahniuk before, but this is his seventh book and I am told it's not very different from the previous ones. It read as something spawned by a multitude of influences; from Bret Easton Ellis to Vonnegut, DeLillo to William S. Burroughs and then of course influenced by cyberpunk while definitely having been mothered by Ballard's Crash. The spirit of The Dice Man was particularly detectable: Rant shares the same desire to shock mixed with convoluted philosophical musings, though mercifully replaces psychoanalysis with anthropology as the source for the more pretentious paragraphs.

Rant is mostly a commentary on the angst of 20-somethings, uncomfortably numb with consumer culture, but there is also a bit of a satire on red neck America, and an attempt to explore the nature of celebrity and the arising of religious or quasi religious mythologies within non-mainstream culture. There is also a cute subculture of car-bumping game of Party Crashing and a nice line on conspiracy theories, unfortunately only appearing at the very end. As seems quite common with American novels, one of the important deeper themes of Rant is the combination of the fear of death and the notion of either taming, controlling or conquering death mixed with the perception of 'normal', 'mainstream' life as artificially blunted and sweetened. The book panders to the rather naive idea that the 'real' life is invariably rough, edgy, sharp and brutal, that being bitten by a Black Widow is inherently more 'real' than smelling roses. Palahniuk's characters also seem to believe that by the sheer engagement in mildly destructive activities (bumping into each others' cars at not more than 20 mph, carefully marked as not to hurt unengaged bystanders) is, by itself, a subversive and anarchic activity. Which is a bit like saying that shooting up will lead to revolution, only tamer. We can, of course, read the whole story of Party Crashers as a satire on pseudo-rebelliousness, this reading is even cued (and then denied) in the text itself.

In fact, the number of things that are cued and, even more so, explained and over explained in the text ad nauseam contributes to Rant's failing as an entertaining or challenging read. Palahniuk must have a rather low opinion of his readers, because nothing is left to them to try and work out: from the rules of Party Crashing to neural transcripts, from allusions to Jesus to Elvis, all possible readings and interpretations are presented neatly on a plate, all the reader is left to do is to pick and choose the version or interpretation they prefer. The mystical and time-bending aspects of Rant's birth and family history are also rather obvious pretty early on and when presented as big revelations they are anything but.

If you add to that the fact that the summary of the main points of the plot is presented on the first few pages and the rest is mostly linear recount of Rant's short life with accompanying background info, interspersed with clichéd statements of the rather obvious 'deeper truths' one is left with a text that ranges from turgidly boring (especially the first 100 pages or so before Rant's arrival in the city are terribly tedious) to pretentiously convoluted (the last part devoted to more bizarre interpretations of the Party Crashing subculture and the meaning of Rant's life). The middle bit, to do with Rant's life as a Party Crasher in the city is probably the best one, with few good satirical touches, though it seems to waste some perfectly good motifs (the supposed rabies epidemic, the contrast between Day and Night timers, the social construction of the whole world).

Rant is technically a near-future sci-fi, using some of the cyberpunk toolkit (people have ports via which they can 'boost peaks' or peruse neural records of others' experiences which replaced all other forms of entertainment; the society is a bit dystopian and divided into Nightimers and Daytimers, with Daytimers culture seeming to be staunchly neo-con Christian). There is also the notion of time travel and accompanying paradoxes.

The book is a pastiche of 'oral history', with the life and times of Rant described, deconstructed and reconstructed by multiple voices of his contemporaries, from mother and childhood friends to fellow Party Crashers, private investigators, anthropologists and theologians. The formula works well, and it fits one of the themes of Rant which is an exploration of celebrity and becoming a legend. There is some effort at differentiating the language between different voices and the colloquial American idiom is convincingly caught, though generally most of them do speak quite alike.

All in all, Rant is a mixture of well used motifs, essentially a genre book if "transgressional novel" with philosophical pretences can be considered a genre. As such, it does what it does reasonably well, though the hype and pretence around it should not distract a potential reader from the fact that it's derivative and the effort required to plod through the more boring sections will not, alas, be rewarded by any gems of worthwhile insight or interesting twists of the plot. None of the characters are particularly likeable (not surprising, considering the accumulation of grotesque) and none of them offer an emotional connection or even sustained interest to the reader who doesn't really care what happens to them. There are several decent ideas there, but they get rather wasted, with the authors lack of faith in his readers leading to tedious repetition and over-explanation.

Personally, I would give Rant two stars as "only if you must" pretty much sums up my feelings about this book. Three Bookbag stars as for those who happen to be just starting to read adult-rated (if rather immaturely minded) novels it might be a rewarding experience, and for Palahniuk fans, another piece of a familiar Chuck-cake.

This book was sent to the BookBag by the publishers.

Don DeLillo's White Noise is a rather more biting (and much better written) satire on the American plastic consumerism and the fear of death, while Hospital provides rather more nihilistic and more funny metaphor for the world losing its moral framework.

Those interested in near-future visions from the master of cyberpunk might want to have a look at Pattern Recognition.

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Buy Rant: The Oral History of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Rant: The Oral History of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk at Amazon.com.


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