Monday, June 11, 2007

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, by Chuck Palahniuk

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday: 2007

Subtitled An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, Rant is an experimental novel by author Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Survivor, Haunted). Before the novel ever begins, Palahniuk explains what the oral biography tradition means to this novel. The tradition of oral biography means simply that the story of Buster Casey is told by multiple interviews of people who knew Casey, knew of Casey, and perhaps did not know Casey at all but wanted to be interviewed about Buster Casey. There is no true narrative thread in the sense of the reader seeing the action unfold from the perspective of Casey. Rant is entirely about Buster Casey, but from the viewpoint of others. What this means is that some of the interviewees will contradict with each other and disagree with what others have said about Buster Casey and the situations surrounding his life and death.

So, who is Buster Casey? This is the question which Rant attempts to answer. Early in the novel Buster "Rant" Casey is referred as one of the great mass murderers in history, but what is apparent from early on in the novel is that Rant Casey was a charismatic young man, but he never got far enough away to truly be a mass killer. How exactly, then, is this possible?

The journey Chuck Palahniuk takes his readers on is one of a young man who never quite fit in, but was always exceptionally popular. Oh, and he had rabies. Yes, this is vitally central of the story of Rant.

In the first paragraph I called Rant an experimental novel and it is. The narrative is not straight forward, it jumps around all over in chronology depending on what the interviewees are discussing at the time. Shifting chronology is not necessarily a major issue and it works with the format, but the shifting chronology and the multiple narrator format makes Rant a bit disjointed. Palahniuk spins something of a dystopian future novel, mixes in accidental genocide, time travel, rabies, spider bites, and a rather creative counter culture called Party Crashing (whatever you think it might be, it's not that). The ingredients are all here for something that could be quite good. Palahniuk fails to deliver the goods.

The multiple narrator format can work exceptionally well in fiction. Take Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Erdrich's Love Medicine as examples of how to do this well. As I Lay Dying is the standard. Now, Chuck Palahniuk is not exactly doing a true multiple narrator format as the format normally requires one narrator per chapter. Rant, as stated earlier and in the subtitle, is an oral biography. The chapters are collected by topic, not by narrator. Each chapter features short paragraphs (or several paragraphs) by each of the participants in the oral biography. Together it forms something of a narrative.

I believe it is the very format of Rant which contributes to Rant feeling disjointed and not at all compelling. Every time a particular point of view or storyline gets intense, it is pulled away by the next narrator. Rant is an interesting fiction experiment, and something that could work in short doses to complement a more conventional novel, but as a complete novel in an of itself, the oral biography in Palahniuk's hands does not work. This is a great disappointment because Palahniuk is capable of some outstanding fiction, lately his output has not lived up to the promise of his earlier work. Still, there is hope because Chuck Palahniuk is an immensely creative storyteller and one who is worth giving many chances to because when the man delivers, he can leave his reader short of breath.

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