Rant, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday Canada, 2007, 336 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-66349-6

It’s done. Chuck Palahniuk has finally turned to Science Fiction after years of teasing us with the possibility. The promotional material remains hush-hush on the issue and many reviewers will tiptoe around the evidence, but Rant is the novel where Palahniuk finally crosses the border into unarguable Science Fiction. After teasing us with a research-heavy writing style that often felt as hard-SF, after revelling in social extrapolations only one step away from SF satire, Palahniuk finally owes up to the genre.

Everyone saw it coming, of course. Palahniuk’s stock in trade, from Fight Club onward, has always been to imagine the possible. The “What if?” so beloved of SF writers. It doesn’t matter how unlikely it is, if it is possible. Not many people actually like beating up other people and getting beaten up in return, but it is possible, in today’s world, in much the same way bodily modifications can twist a narrator’s identity or how someone can fake choking for a twisted con game. Reading Palahniuk’s fiction is already an exercise is suspension of disbelief.

It helps that Palahniuk has never been a rigorously mainstream writer. His last three novels, from Lullaby to Haunted, more or less dealt with fantastical concepts. Haunted even included two short stories that, squinting the right way, could be read as classic fifties-style SF. Rant, despite tackling the very science-fictional trope of time travel, is not such a big stretch: Palahniuk can’t be bothered by technological or scientific explanation and reaches straight for the woo-woo bag of tricks. Time travel via the wish fulfilment of Jack Finney rather than the machine-aided rationality of H.G. Wells.

(I’m not spoiling much: A close reading of the first thirty pages of Rant pretty much give the game away.)

So this new infatuation with another genre may not be as interesting than it seems at first glance: This is just Palahniuk going further in one of his usual directions, after all. Far more interesting is the way he tells the story: Rant is written as an oral biography, a style of writing that allows Palahniuk to have some serious fun with the way he structures the novel. Nominally a way to present different perspective on a same subject, oral biography is here twisted to serve Palahniuk’s style: He uses the “different voices” motif to create a collage of perspectives that each describe an aspect of the character and the world. The cacophony of voices acquires a pleasant montage-like effect, every bit player whispering something worthwhile in our ear, even if we can’t recognize it at first.

Rant Casey himself ends up being a side player in his own “biography”: From a strong Trickster-like presence at the beginning of the novel, Rant fades against the lively background that Palahniuk puts together as the book unfolds. Progressively, we’re made aware that the world in which Rant exists is not our own: that substantial social differences exist, and that they mask something even more hideous lurking under the surface. In a way, that’s always been one characteristic of Palahniuk’s oeuvre: presenting a society that may superficially look like ours, but is really not. In this case, though, no amount of rationalization will manage to take in account the radically different world in which Rant exists, even if most of the concepts (party-crashing cars in each other, for instance, in an acknowledge nod to Fight Club‘s main conceit) are at least theoretically possible.

Those used to Palahniuk’s style won’t be shocked to find that Rant is once again all about, well, shock. Disgust, decency and logic are the three virtues one must learn to ignore in order to read a Palahniuk novel and this one is no exception. It doesn’t always add up, naturally, but Palahniuk’s books are rides more than they’re sustained arguments. Part of the thrill of Rant is in seeing unfamiliar words, concepts and icons gradually become clearer and clearer as the book unfolds. Besides the SF elements, this is another sign of Rant‘s belonging to the Science-Fiction genre: Palahniuks wields exposition like a master and often lets slip strange blips before we’re ready to understand them.

But also like a Science Fiction novel, the world of the novel eventually overpowers the main character. Rant, after our promising expectations, eventually become a shell of a character in a far more intriguing world. The repetitive ending grates a bit as it goes back to Rant to back-fill obvious parts of his back-story.

Yet it doesn’t matter much: Rant is easily one of Palahniuk’s most enjoyable piece of writing in a while. The acknowledged SF influence seems to allow him a bit more freedom that usual (which is saying a lot), and the oral biography form shakes up some of Palahniuk’s stylistic quirk. A strong entry… but not for everyone.

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