Thursday, August 21, 2008

RANT, by Chuck Palahnuik

This is the second Palahnuik book I've read--the first being CHOKE--and I see a lot of similarities between the two. Both focus on counterculture individuals, and their rebel friends, who are notable for some quirky behavior or activity they engage in. In the case of CHOKE the protagonist cruises Sex Addict Anonymous support groups for casual partners, and gains money by staging choking incidents in restaurants, and then taking advantage of the compassionate feelings provoked in those who save him. In RANT the main character has a penchant for receiving bites from animals, especially from venomous spiders and rabid mammals. The book also incorporates and expounds upon an underground activity group, known as Party Crashers, who participate in a modified form of demolition derby that takes place on public streets.

Acknowledging the possibility that some of his other books are different in nature, I'm coming to the conclusion that Palahnuik is an idea man. The allure of his writing doesn't lie in eloquent diction, richly fleshed-out characters, or a well-crafted plot--all of which are generally considered synonymous with good writing--it lies in the innovative ideas he generates. In RANT this is particularly apparent--the book is chock full of ideas, but the plot is pretty sparse, and the characterization of the protagonist is so nebulous that you never get a very clear image of him, only a glimpse of his animal-bite scarred arms and his tar-blackened teeth.

Part of the reason RANT reads more like an idea log than a novel results from the way the story is told. Instead of a conventional narration, RANT is written as an oral biography--in other words, the text is broken up into multiple first-person accounts, snippets taken from fictional interviews. A few chapters are just one person's voice, uninterrupted, describing an event, and these are invariably the chapters that work best, that have the most time and space to develop into something intriguing, and to occasionally approach profundity. The bulk of the rest of the novel is short little paragraphs--one person saying one or a few sentences, immediately interrupted by another person with their own line or two--in an approximation of an interview-heavy documentary. Palahnuik tries to use this delivery to unique effect, by alternating between two sources describing two separate events for example, but the overall result of this approach is a general cheapening of the reading experience. At its best it feels like a gimmick, at its worst it feels empty and repetitive--it actually blocks you from engaging with the story.

(Other authors have attempted the multiple-person narrative with greater success--Irvine Welsh's breakout novel TRAINSPOTTING is an excellent example, with each character's tone immediately recognizable, unique, and authentic. Palahnuik, in contrast, relies on lame little tricks to endow his accounts with individuality--like Neddy Nelson speaking in a relentless stream of questions--and rather than achieving a group of voices, he only reinforces the contrived feel of the novel.)

Beyond exposing the cardboard nature of his characters, Palahnuik's oral-biography approach also succeeds in sabotaging the book's sense of plot. There isn't any one narrator in the book that was present for all of the events, except the protagonist Rant Casey, and he's only allowed one sentence. What we do get is a bunch of people talking about Rant's country childhood, and a bunch of other people talking about Rant's time in the city later on. Unfortunately, the former section, dealing with Rant's childhood, feels more comprehensive and important than the latter section, in which the events that purportedly make Rant significant enough to warrant a biography occur. The outcome of this is that the reader is given an inflated expectation of who Rant is, and then there's no payoff, no significant achievement as an adult to satisfy that expectation. It feels unbalanced, and poorly connected. Also confounding is the fact that the incidents from Rant's childhood seem to be more easily traceable in time than the incidents in his later life, despite the fact that the childhood is deeper in the past and therefor harder to remember. The people repeat each other, but don't manage to build much on each other's statements, and we're left with a satisfying sense of who young Rant was, and what he did as a child, but only a vague and frustrating idea of who Rant was as an adult, and what he did then. If I pause and think about what happens in the book, I wind up with a paltry amount of events to use as the basis for a novel. As if he became aware of this during the writing of the novel itself, Palahnuik throws in some crazy time-travel stuff near the end, seemingly just to stretch the plot out a bit more.

Despite its faults, RANT is still a decent read, owing largely to the wealth of ideas Palahnuik packs into it. From using spider venom as a erectile aid, to dividing society into separate daytime and nighttime populations, to leaving behind traditional media in favor of direct brain-boosted experiences, RANT is chock full with intriguing notions. If only he'd had more than a paper-thin story to wrap around those ideas, this could have been a much better book.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

WOLF MOON, by Charles de Lint

An interesting book. It's a high-fantasy story, but it draws its power from familiar sources, namely a person's need to be loved, and their fear of rejection. The main character harbors a dark secret--he's a werewolf--which has kept him on the run for most of his adult life. His running leads him to an inn where he's accepted and cared for, and where he finds love. The story's antagonist, fueled by a fascistic arrogance and a hatred of werewolves, and aided by a magical ability to manipulate people, exposes the man and frames him, leading to his rejection by the inn folk, and his betrayal by his lover. The scene in which that betrayal happens was remarkably well realized--it actually affected my heart rate, got me all stressed out.

I suppose that the idea of using mundane issues as the core for Fantasy and Sci-Fi is nothing new, but it does seem like certain books (the DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT book I read a few months ago comes as a good example) don't subscribe to that approach, and suffer because of it. And there are different levels of weight that you can give to the mundane factor, too. In WOLF MOON it dominates the story. You could very well tell the story in a different setting, completely omitting werewolves and magic, and have it work equally well.

Another interesting thing about WOLF MOON is the level of attention it gives to relatively few events. I've read books that come across as a string of separate events, each event influencing the others to a certain extent, with the final sum of events reaching the double digits. In WOLF MOON only a few things happen, but they're explained in rich detail that fills pages. At times, especially when de Lint focuses in on character thoughts, the level of detail becomes bothersome, boring. But for the most part, it's rewarding to have each event thoroughly envisioned.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


I just finished reading THE VIRGIN AND THE GIPSY. It's the first D.H. Lawrence book I've read, and here's what I noticed about it.

Lawrence writes in a fussy sort of way that brings to mind other English authors of his era, especially E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. His focus on women and their relationships with men, especially with how those relationships are tempered by social mores, also makes me think of Jane Austen (though Austen writes a tighter noose of propriety, and her dialog is much sharper). The vagueness of his descriptions, their allusion to something larger and more abstract, seems characteristic of Modernist British writing. Here's an example:

"Yvette went pale, and very distant. Her pride, that frail, precious flame which everybody tried to quench, recoiled like a flame blown far away, on a cold wind, as if blown out, and her face, white now and still like a snowdrop, the white snowflower of his conceit, seemed to have no life in it, only this pure, strange abstraction."

From this passage you can see how Forster uses multiple adjectives, and makes several small passes at whatever thing he is trying to describe. By doing that he lessens the force of individual words--they aren't allowed to hold as much weight as a word used by itself, and therefor they seem less forceful. It's like impressionist painting, in which several loose brush-strokes are used, resulting in a looser and less distinct representation of an object. Oftentimes whatever is being described is left conspicuously ambiguous, like the "abstraction" in the above paragraph--we never really learn what comes to replace the pride in Yvette's face.

Another thing the passage reveals is Lawrence's stitched together writing style, in which a comma is dropped in after every few words. You rarely get a straight-ahead sentence; usually you're jolting over all these little speed bumps. It reminds me, in a way, of the later writing of Celine, with it's two or three word clumps divided up by ellipsis. Celine uses the technique to create a strobing series of glimpsed images, while Lawrence seems to use it for the impressionistic brush strokes mentioned above, but the feeling the reader gets while reading them is somewhat similar. And Lawrence seems to use the resultant rhythm of this constant self-interruption as a way to advance the writing itself. Another example:

"And thence, for a long time, they stayed in the mud and dark and dampness of the valley, often with sheer rock above them; the water brawling on one hand, the steep rock or dark trees on the other./Till, through the darkness of overhanging trees, they began to climb, and Leo changed the gear."

It seems to me that Lawrence is using the repetition of "dark" and "trees" deliberately, as a way to connect one paragraph with the other. We hear it in the las sentence of the first paragraph, hear it in a disjointed, interrupted, repeated way, a way that goes back and restates part of what has already been said, which makes the words stand out in our minds. Then, in the next paragraph, the words are repeated again (though "dark" becomes "darkness"), provoking in our minds a small sense of familiarity, a recognition, that makes the connection between one paragraph and the next more explicit than proximity alone.

Another passage:

"She was truly simple in what she said. It was just what she thought. But it gave no hint of the very different feeling that also occupied her: the feeling that she had been looked upon, not from the outside, but from the inside, from her secret female self."

The narrator's intimate knowledge of the internal workings of his characters, which the characters themselves don't consciously know (as is illustrated above), is another one of the things that stands out to me about Lawrence's writing. The protagonist in this book, Yvette, is a rather dizzy girl, which makes it less surprising in regards to her, but it holds true for all the other characters too. Lawrence's creations are motivated by feelings and compulsions they have no awareness of, and no control over. They are the pawns of their own secret desires. I'll end this post with another passage showing this, specifically in the context of a man bound by social mores, and resentful of those less worried with propriety. It's one of the most compelling, in my opinion, found within the entire book:

"The rector looked at her insouciant face with hatred. Somewhere inside him, he was cowed, he had been born cowed. And those that are born cowed are natural slaves, and deep instinct makes them fear with prisonous fear those who might suddenly snap the slave's collar around their necks./ It was for this reason the rector had so abjectly curled up, who still so abject curled up before She-who-was-Cynthia: because of his slave's fear of her contempt, the contempt of a born-free nature for a base-born nature.:

Friday, August 1, 2008

Thieves Jargon

I've had another story published, this time by Thieves Jargon. It's currently at the top of the homepage for their 171st issue, but they update the site every Friday so you'll have to look in the archives if you don't make it there before the week's over. Thieves Jargon is a cool site, and they've published a lot of compelling, hard-edged writing. I only found out about them a month or so ago, when they had issue 168 up. Rachel Hale Drew's "The Goat," from that issue, enslaved my mind for the time it took to read it (beware if you're tender-hearted--it's a brutal story). They also feature a cool piece of art by a different artist each week, which is more of an art-connection than a lot of literary journals have.