Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Booklog, Rant, An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, Chuck Palahniuk

Rant, An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday Hardcover, 336 pages

Well, you can't blame me for dallying. This novel was only released yesterday.

I'm in a strange place with this novel. It's better than I expected from his last work, Haunted, which I felt would have worked much better as a book of short stories than as a novel, and good enough that I recommend it without many reservations, but it also has a number of structural and thematic issues that would probably be pertinent to mention in this review.

But I can't really discuss it. Palahniuk has written a novel that is elegantly constructed for I think the first time in his career, and one of the primary joys of reading it is to experience without spoilers the many red herrings and changes in meaning that the book undergoes as the plot unfolds. Suffice to say that this really could have been three or four books, in the hands of a lesser author, but Palahniuk integrates it all in a way that makes it wholly original, even unique.

Hell, it even has some thematic similarities to Against the Day, or at least a small portion of it.

The book is structured as an oral history of Buster "Rant" Casey, who we learn in the opening pages is a strange sort of celebrity who spread some horrible disease to "half the country" and is the leader of some weird cult. As the book continues, much if not all of that is brought into question by the various perspectives of the persons "interviewed" for the book, and by the end much of what we thought we knew about this character and the world in which he lives are known to be wrong. Maybe.

The oral history aspect feels like an affectation at first, a narrative technique that fails largely because Paluhniak's characters are similar enough to one another to make their voices indistinct. But gradually I realized that Paluhniak is using the technique to give us the "good parts" version of this novel, in which the narrative flow can move from scene to scene without showing a lot of the more dull interconnective tissue. This gives the book a velocity that is hard to resist -- I read the whole thing in about three sittings over the course of twenty-four hours or so, and it didn't feel like a forced read at all.

Palahniuk's fans are going to eat this up. There's a lot here that his devotees will enjoy, and there's enough here that is new to his fiction that he might even get some new readers, although it's really only in the last hundred pages or so that the real meaning of it all becomes clear. The gore factor is turned way down from Haunted, although there's a bit towards the end, and the worldbuilding done in the more speculative-fiction portions of the novel is pretty top-notch (although even that's probably saying too much).

If it seems that I'm discussing this novel without telling anything about it, that's because I am -- if anything that I've said above has interested you, read nothing else about this book (even the dust jacket) and start reading. I haven't always considered myself a huge fan of Palahniuk's writing, and there are some issues I have with this book, but overall this is a hugely confident and largely successful book, a definite step forward for the author, and while I don't plan to own this book immediately, I'll be thinking about it for a while.

Give it a shot. It's a good read.

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