This is my first Palahniuk novel, and to my surprise, I enjoyed it. Surprised because it’s not the sort of thing I normally like, a hodge-podge of urban punk, violent, humorous, sci-fi, horror of an experimental thing. It defies easy categorization. But I kept turning the pages and eventually fell into the rhythm and enjoyed the characters, the voices, the writing, and the ideas.
I’d say the book is mash-up of several ideas and themes I’ve seen elsewhere, from Fight Club (which Palahniuk wrote — I saw the movie), to (strangely) John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and with doses of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, the Mad Max movies, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and some kind of a time-travel story based on the “grandfather effect,” and the idea of parallel universes (maybe like the movie, Predestination, which was based on a Heinlein story).
The tale, the eponymous “oral history,” is told through short comments and anecdotes recorded by a large cast of players, as if in an anthropologist’s field notebook. There are dozens of characters, lots of different points of view, though only a few distinctive voices. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story.
The writing is witty, both erudite and vulgar and always clever, definitely strong enough to keep the pages turning even in the absence of a clear plot line. Many themes appear, as you might guess from the list of allusions above, and this rambling through literary space can leave the reader disoriented.
Strong, recurring themes are the search for identity in a society divided between the “haves” and the outcasts; and the idea of having and holding a secret treasure (the treasure of personal identity? That’s just a speculative reach). None of the themes are well-developed. There’s a vague religious theme of martyrdom and resurrection, and also a rape theme that I thought was gratuitous and which brought the tone of the whole project down, but hey, it’s Palahniuk.
I’d like to recommend it to my book group because of its imaginativeness, and because there’s a lot for an aspiring writer to learn from this one, but I hesitate, because Rant is so weird, and so vulgar. Maybe I’ll do it anyway. What the hell.
Palahniuk, Chuck (2007). Rant: An Oral History of Buster Casey. New York: Random/Anchor, 319 pp.