Rant by Chuck Palahniuk (a review by fightclubsandwich)

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.

NaNoWriMo – Only The Insane Need Apply

It’s only the 4th of November, and already, NaNoWriMo has consumed my life.

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an event thought up by Chris Baty in 1999. It takes place from the 1st to the 30th of November. Out of the huge amount of participants (number in total), three out of six TBO writers (myself, fightclubsandwich and ninthandash) are taking up the challenge this year, and we’re already finding it difficult to hit the daily average word count.

You might be thinking “Wait, word count? What does that mean?” It means that you have to complete a 50,000 word novel (although they never frown upon more) in thirty days.

And now you see why we’re crazy.

In order to hit the goal, you have to write 1667 words a day. It’s not impossible, and I’ve been hitting that target or beating it over the last couple of days. In fact, in order to catch up, I wrote over 3000 words yesterday. But, this took me around two to three hours when I was meant to be doing a history essay. I stayed glued to my pen and paper instead of talking to my friends during lunch time. I know that during the course of this month, I will be staying up late into the night in order to catch up. The novel doesn’t have to be perfect, which is something that many NaNo writers stress about. After all, you can call NaNoWriMo the first draft. You’ve then got time to perfect it and turn it into that best seller. In fact, many NaNo writers have used their NaNo novels and become best sellers in America.

So, all of the stress and tears and self-deprecation for what? The gratification of knowing that you’ve written a novel. The feeling of completing something on such a massive scale in such a short time span is incredible. I’ve written a novel once before, but over the course of around a year. I couldn’t believe how I had managed to put so much effort, sleepless nights and cups of coffee into a piece of work. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be exactly the same with NaNoWriMo. Except with a few more cups of coffee and sleepless nights.

We all have our vices. Mine aren’t sex, drugs and rock and roll, they’re video games, caffeine and literature. So for the next thirty days, goodbye, free time and hello, unpredictable characters, a faulty plot and overstyled dialogue. I can tell I’m going to love every minute of it.

Kraken by China Mieville (a review by Charlotte)

From the very first instant of encounter, from just its purple, tentacular beauty, Kraken is an intense experience. I fancy it would stand out even in the Vatican Library, the Library of Alexandria, and probably also the library of Lord Dream of the Endless. Find it, glowing, between the Necronomicon and the Gospel of Jesus. More concisely, it’s pretty. Pretty pretty pretty. Cold shower pretty.

The curtains rise with the spotlight on Billy Harrow, curator and specimen preserver extraordinaire, roped in to give a tour, the centrepiece of which is a magnificent Architeuthis, a giant squid. It is a remarkable specimen, most especially, as Billy, having worked on the process, knows, for its virtually flawless preservation. It also happens, contrary to all logic and laws of nature, to have utterly vanished.

For a chapter you get the sense of being in the middle of nothing more peculiar than a mystery thriller that is perhaps a shade eerier than it has any right to be, but before you start feeling secure, Kraken explodes out around our intrepid hero and starts to get seriously, well, weird. In short order, we meet a cast of thousands, ranging from supernatural crimelords, their hired brains and their hired brawn, to the Met’s supernatural squad, to a Marxist shabti who traded toiling for some forgotten pharaoh in the Field of Reeds for organising a union strike of magical assistants. Those that aren’t after the Architeuthis (and by extension, Billy) for whatever nefarious reason are nonetheless dragged into the squiddy fray.

The impossible squid/no squid is just the first of the breakneck inversions that riddle the plot and are played out by a cast of characters as myriad and varied as that of the real London. Inevitably, this means you’ll occasionally feel your favourite ideas and characters won’t have the playing time you would have liked. Above all, Officer Collingswood needs her own book. It could consist purely of her hurling ever more inventive profanities at the reader and I would still sell my brother to pay for it.

Another aspect of this is that the ending comes as something of an anticlimax, with all the grand plans failing and a simpler, barely foreshadowed course of action saving the day. While I was perverse enough to enjoy what happened, there was a definite blink-and-you-miss-it quality to proceedings. Really, though, I doubt anyone who gets within the last quarter of Kraken will still be reading for the conclusion – the journey there is too interesting. And more apocalypses need to be averted through wordplay and logical argument, if only to screw with the Hollywood special effects departments.

Plot and characterisation and all that shit aside, my favourite thing about Kraken is that China Miéville is the biggest fanboy of all time. The very words bubble with superhuman enthusiasm, in their Latinate polysyllabicism, their Hellenic technicality, their Anglo-Saxon bluntness that comes both as gallows humour and a punch to the guts. In practice, those who go into raptures over the man’s vocabulary are matched by those who just wish he’d get to the bloody point, but damn it’s a vocabulary.

The core of the novel is a spirit of I Think This Is Cool, Let Me Show You which is infectious and endearing. And, William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Hog’ turned on its head (Cutest. Demonpig. Ever.) and run through I Can Haz Cheezburger? Literature has been working towards that moment since the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In conclusion, I can only advise most strongly that if you read only one New Weird- apocalyptic-detective-weird -political-thriller-mystery novel this year, you should make it Kraken. Or at least tell me which other one you find.

On The Road by fightclubsandwich

There is an odd smell about the gallery section of the Barber Institute Of Art, kind of like chocolate that’s been half melted and the mixed with wax. I have no idea what the actual source of the smell is, though. The gallery part is up a curved staircase, and the curved staircase is at the end of a very fancy corridor which has very high ceilings and very tall doors, but is not in anyway intimidating. The whole place is very marble and shiny, and there are lots of leaflets about future events to be taken, all over the place, and when I leave later, back down this same marble corridor, there’s very live, very fancy piano music coming from behind one of the very tall doors. This music may also have been playing when I entered the building, but I was listening to Jawbreaker, which drowned it out. I obviously chose Jawbreaker in order to “psych myself up” about what I was going to see, but when I started to ascend the stairs, the sound of jazz wafted down my way, and I decided that this maybe set the scene a little better than Shield Your Eyes. (I don’t have Boxcar on my iPod, though it would clearly have been the obvious choice)

The actual display itself was kind of lean and modest. The room was very small, and the walls were all white, and there weren’t nearly as many people there as I had expected. I think I might just be a huge geek, really, and my geekiness caused me to over estimate the appeal that this artefact had to the majority of students on campus. I won’t go on the first day it opens, I had thought to myself, there’ll be so much crowding, so many queues! I went to see it on the second day and saw something like five other people there. Admittedly, it was lunch time.

There were three very long, narrow glass cases in the middle of the room. The centre one obviously held On The Road itself, the ones on either side of it held supplementary materials, like various editions of the book, both British and American; articles about it, when it was first published, and copies of Kerouac’s other works, including one that was signed. That, more than anything else – for some reason – made me sad about Kerouac’s death at the age of just forty seven. Not only is that far too young an age to have died, it’s frustrating to think that he was never even alive in my lifetime. It was very odd considering just how many of my favourite authors are long dead (that’d be most of them) but thinking about it that way only really gets me at random moments, it stabs me like a needle and really bothers me. I had such a moment there, at the Kerouac display.

So, the actual scroll? Every single aspect of it is impressive. My eyes got caught on lines I remember reading in the book, “in their eyes I would be strange and ragged like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word” being one of my favourite parts, that I was hoping I’d see, but never really thought I would be able to pick out, when I saw it for real, but I did pick it out, and it felt terrific. The whole thing is very long, and there’s this aged amber tape holding the reams of paper together. It just reminds you how old, how historical this is, this is an artefact. There are crossings out too, in his own hand, in pencil. Not all of his handwriting is totally readable, but you can see how he changed it so that Sal lived with his aunt and not his mother- the word mother is crossed out a lot, and replaced with aunt. In reference to what I was saying earlier about picking out memorable lines, you’d think that the opening line – one of the most memorable in most novels – would be one of the easiest to find, and to remember it and make the connection between the Penguin Classic you have in your bag and the piece of history looming before you. But the opening line is utterly different, because of course, he changed Neal Cassady’s name to Dean Moriarty to make it less autobiographical, and changed the death of his father to the divorce of his first wife for reasons that can be explained either politically or sociologically.

On The Road is really remarkable for the way it was written – over the course of three weeks, under the influence of lots of coffee (hell yes) and based upon real, autobiographical stuff that Kerouac got up to. As strange, – but at the same time obvious – as it is to think that the computer’s take over of the typewriter as the most convenient way to write in the twenty-first century means an end to such artifacts as these, we have to remember that On The Road is in no way typical in its form, it really is special. As a landmark literary artefact, the scroll follows the original, handwritten versions of the likes of the Bronte sisters, or Dickens, and to go back even further, the extraordinary elaborate illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Now that we’ve chosen new mediums to write in that save our words as pure information and memory, (like this column you’re reading right now, oh wow!) and have all but discarded traditional, physical forms, I think it’s really exciting to think about what artefacts we’re going to be treasuring – years from now – as physical connections to the writers of today. Will we start keeping tiny things, like J.K. Rowling’s hair slides, or Audrey Niffenegger’s socks? I can’t help thinking about how monks kept bits of the body parts of saints after they died, as relics. What if you went to a library and they said “oh yeah, we’ve got Will Self’s hand in a glass case, wanna see?”

The cases in the exhibit were quite low down, which frustrated me. I’m something like five foot five, and they were about hip level, so I had to crane my neck downwards to read the scroll, not to mention that because of the very long, narrow, rectangle shape of the cases, you have to stand beside the thing at a right-angle to the words, so you have to turn your neck a lot to read it. This makes it a very awkward and uncomfortable thing to look at, and it starts to hurt a fair bit to pore over for too long. Luckily, the exhibit is completely free, and so close to my house, and the places I go every day, that I can go back whenever I want.

If you are anywhere near the Birmingham area, I compel you to go. Really. GO. You will not regret it. There is a train station on the campus itself, (the uncreatively named “University Station”) which is only five minutes walk (ten, maybe if you’re really slow) from the Barber Institute. If you’re remotely interested in Kerouac’s work – or books and literature at all – it’s a really remarkable thing. You will be impressed. You will be inspired. You might have an orgasm. If you miss out on a chance to see something so amazing, you will just be miserable.

A Goth’s Book Club by fightclubsandwich

Edgar Allan Poe may have been great, but there’s no reason to see him as the be all and end all of gothic literature. If you like reading material that’s morbid, poetic, gloomy, clever and full of damaged, cynical characters, or wild Byronic heroes then you might just be a closet Goth, and even if you’re not, you may still enjoy this article, since its full of book recommendations that should fit that description.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

This book has it all: death, insanity, more death, romance, giant old mansions out in the middle of nowhere! Almost every character is troubled and unconventional and the introspective writing style manages to convey the story’s gloomy atmosphere perfectly while also avoiding any out-of-place angst.

The average goth will probably be able to relate to the main character in a number of ways. She’s got an artistic temperament, had a bad time at school, and is tortured by her unrequited feelings for Mr Rochester, a man that she feels certain she can’t have. Throughout the novel she feels like a misfit around others, and generally sees her surroundings as constrictive – whether it’s at the house of her aunt, who hates her, her underfunded school or at Thornfield Hall, where she is looked down upon by Mr Rochester’s wealthy acquaintances. At the same time as being introspective without getting too claustrophobic and losing sight of the plot and other characters, this is a novel that is clever but accessible. I hate to use the term “stands the test of time” but it really does apply here, and its obvious gloom, intelligence and sense of wonder make it ideal for the Goth audience in particular.

The Gum Thief – Douglas Coupland

What happens when we grow up and are expected to grow out of subcultures that we still feel attachments to? That’s not exactly The Gum Thief’s central issue, but one of the main characters, Bethany is a 24 year old Goth who works at Staples and is better equipped to deal with death than life. She befriends Roger, a depressed colleague with a similarly difficult and fractured personal life and the novel is told through the secret letters they write for each other, and Roger’s novel, Glove Pond, that Bethany helps inspire.

Coupland is kind of similar to Chuck Palahnuik, in that he’s very good at writing on darkly philosophical themes with that sassy, 1990s tone. Both manage to weave the day-to-day and the mundane in with universal themes like, y’know, death and stuff. In my personal opinion, I think Coupland accomplishes this better than Palahnuik, it just feels smoother and more genuine to me, whereas sometimes I get the feeling that Palahnuik is finding it more difficult to hold it all together. I also think that Coupland’s characters are convincing on a level above Palahnuik, and a lot of other writers actually. Check out Bethany’s mother DeeDee, only a side character, but a very believable one who you really feel for. She represents another layer of hopelessness, different to Roger and Bethany, and as an acquaintance of both, she deepens their relationship.

Crow – Ted Hughes

Crow is a book of poetry that is so good it can convert people who thought they hated poetry. The poems tell the story of the titular Crow, whose life is entwined with the very creation of the earth. It’s as dark as you should expect from Ted Hughes, whose work frequently revisits the theme of nature being fucking brutal. Although this collection borrows a lot of mythological ideas and imagery, it’s not the same as T. S. Eliot and a lot of other writers using mythology to build a framework or a sense of order. There is no order to Crow’s world, and the chaos is a little scary, as well as one of the defining elements of the work. If nothing else, it is the shortest work on this list, so if you like darkness, wilderness and that general aesthetic, you’ve really no excuse not to give it a look.

Heart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill

Does it get any more Goth than reading a book after hearing Gerard Way mention it in an interview? Well, only if you seek out books on the recommendation of Glenn Danzig, and maybe if that book is about an aging rock star who buys a ghost on the internet. No really, that’s what this book is about. It starts off about as dramatic and sensational and “holiday reading” as that synopsis makes it sound, but it gets more sophisticated as it goes. The book is full of damaged characters, from protagonist Judas Coyne to his current girlfriend Georgia and spooky dead ex, Florida. Yes, he has a penchant for nick-naming his girlfriends after states of the U.S. and yeah, they’re all weird gothic trophy partners with black nail polish and tattoos and perfect bodies. This is why Judas and Georgia’s relationship is so interesting; the haunting drives them closer together than they ever really expected of their weird partnership of convenience. The ghost itself is at the same time otherworldly and mundane – this is not a faceless demon of any sort, it is the spirit of a real dead man, and the intertwining of memory and identity with death and the macabre is a key theme throughout.

The Sandman Series – Neil Gaiman

An obvious choice? Or just a classic? Firstly, yes, it is a comic and I know that comics don’t qualify as “real, highbrow art” but I feel that the inclusion of Ted Hughes poetry sort of cancels this out. The titular Sandman is the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, one of seven siblings known as the Endless who embody other alliterative concepts, such as Delirium, Death and Desire. These beings are mostly omnipotent, with powers beyond gods, which is often an easy way to make a story boring – is there any struggle that cannot be overcome by a character with no limitations to their ability? Gaiman avoids any such pitfalls by basing the Endless on the character types that you might find in classical literature, such as the scheming malcontent, or the powerful figure brought down by his own pride. The overreaching story arc that runs through every volume is about the siblings plotting against each other, paced like a mystery story in the way that it cleverly withholds key facts but offers lots of clues to keep you guessing.

As well as the poetic tone of the whole series and the fact that Death herself is a character, there are other factors that make this comic a perfect Goth Option. Dream’s main character flaw is his romanticism, which leads him to overestimate himself and get filled with pride, behave cruelly to his enemies and invest too deeply in romantic affairs that go badly. Not to mention that his character design suggests he’s a big fan of both Robert Smith and Trent Reznor.