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.

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