Disclaimer: the pseudonym “Fight Club Sandwich” under which I write for this website is merely an expression of my love of stupid puns, not the work of this particular author. In fact, I’ve never read Fight Club, though I do have the film on DVD, and really strongly hated the only other work of Mr Palahniuk’s that I had ever read. Appearances can be deceiving.
If Chuck Palahniuk ever decides to start his own militia for whatever reason, he will have no trouble accomplishing this. Palahniuk fans are a strange breed. I’d hate to call them “rabid” – not only because it would be a really terrible pun in context, considering the subject matter of this book, but it would also be inaccurate and misleading. They are a devoted bunch, though, for sure, basking in the quirky and grotesque worlds that Palahniuk builds, seemingly by picking on the most disenfranchised, skewed or obsessive perspectives he can find, working out characters who think that way, and placing these characters at the eye of the tornadoes that are brewing up around them.
In Rant the misfits at the heart of the story are the “Party Crashers” – a subculture of nocturnal kids who crash their cars into one another on purpose. It’s a sort-of-biography of Buster “Rant” Casey, an individual who is heavily involved in the Party Crashing scene, told by those who knew him best, from after his death. This format is a really great choice, allowing Palahniuk to stay true to his very controlled, technical narrative style, to peel back elements of the real world and immerse us slowly into the one he has created, which grows further and further from reality as it goes, but at the same time, a lot of the story is left ambiguous, and for the reader to interpret however they want.
The story’s events are very strange, to the extent that some readers might be put off by the sheer leaps and swirls and crashes and other words with connotations of movement that the narrative takes. There’s a plague of rabies, very old, very valuable coins, potential time travel, it’s a very busy plot, but arranged in a way that is obviously designed in reflection of real life – a lot of strange stuff happens, often in random and unconnected ways, that’s just how it goes. But events and characters are linked to one another, and you’d never guess how. It gets eerie and is done very cleverly. If you like strange plot elements, you will like this book, Palahniuk manages to pass off a shocking amount of supermarket-tabloid-weirdness, on the strength of the way the story is told.
Weirdly, the world constructed within the book somehow comes off as completely believable. This is aided by characters who feel utterly real – one of the most satisfying feelings that accompany the finishing of a novel is the feeling that the characters are not fictional creations but people you’ve just met, and many of the figures in Rant feel this way. These include many of the titular character’s team of Party Crashers, and his mother Irene, and the fact that many of the strongest characters – the characters who get the strongest writing and ideas attributed to them, not necessarily the strongest personalities – are female is particularly refreshing. The women in this novel are not treated as “female characters”, as a defining trait, and it doesn’t feel as if Palahniuk has stopped and tried to force himself to consider “how women think” at any point. The believability of the characters is also important since many of the weirder elements of the story are introduced in their words. The character of Christopher “Shot” Dunyun introduces the reader to the concept of “boosting peaks” – a sort of virtual reality industry involving plus in the backs of many characters’ necks – in one of the strongest written chapters in the book.
There are of course exceptions to this, which is pretty inevitable considering the way the book is put together, there are so many characters and a good deal of them play very small roles and don’t get to say much. Galton Nye, for example, is a right wing Christian minister whose daughter rebels against her parents. His character is an entirely two dimensional straw man type, and feels like a bunch of the most negative, unpleasant traits propped up into a paper-thin excuse for a character. This is the complete opposite of Irene Casey, the mother of the titular character, who is written in a way that constantly evades falling into the pit of cliché, despite how easy it would be to turn her into a caricature of a red-neck-ish mother and wife who only bounces like a tennis ball between those two roles.
Conversely, the believability of the world Palahniuk has built may be one of the novel’s greatest strengths but also exposes a weakness – his attempts to reconnect his fiction with the real world can be problematic. The attempts at academic writing that crop up from time to time – due to the myriad “contributors” who write paragraphs in the novel – are, for the most part, just unbelievable, whether they’re too stylised or just over-simplified and clumsy. But the most grating part, for myself at least, is the way Palahnuik delivers his observations or speculations on humanity. I just have never been convinced by his philosophies, and perhaps this is a position that I’ve arrived at only because of outside sources twisting his words and adopting very crude and basic forms of nilhism that makes the interesting, complex versions boring. Or perhaps Palahniuk’s observations are just too simplistic to begin with.
This may just be a personal thing – when I read Haunted, the only other novel of his that I have read, I found the unrealism of the scenario grating – and it was a scenario that revolved around human nature and inner darkness. Rant has a far less believable plot in terms of the events that actually happen – or do they? – but the characters are much stronger than the earlier book. On the whole, Rant is a book that has strong enough foundations to be a really enjoyable read, and is satisfying enough as a whole for the few flaws to fade from your mind. It’s sufficiently strange to be off-putting to some, changing stylistically throughout, but the wacky events are handled solidly. Palahnuik has really proven himself imaginative enough to shame the likes of me, who might be only too willing to write him off as an unfavourite. That’s hard to do when one single book has the most vivid ADHD about its subject matter, there’s so much going on that this is a book it can’t hurt to try.