Going to extremes
Chuck Palahniuk's violent visions shock and satisfy
A chat with Chuck Palahniuk is not unlike reading one of his novels. Both offer a compelling mélange of the profound and the perverse, the terrifyingly strange and the strangely touching, viewed through the dark lens of a satiric minimalist whose intent is to get under our skin in order to reveal the humanity beneath. Like such clear-eyed predecessors as William S. Burroughs, Anthony Burgess, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, Palahniuk serves up a naked buffet of disturbing images from the bedlam of modern life in order to point out their desensitizing effects on us all. In less chaotic times, Palahniuk (pronounced Paula-nick) might have been put to the stake as a blasphemer, blacklisted as a pornographer or institutionalized as a loon. But these days, his many fans consider him a visionary, if not a full-blown prophet. Which only goes to prove his point—crazy times call for drastic measures.
Comes now Palahniuk's eighth wild ride, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, a documentary-style faux oral history that stitches together comments of 100-plus characters on the short, extraordinary life of Buster "Rant" Casey, a teenage rebel whose iconic death in a fiery car crash made him a dashboard saint among a cult of teenage car-crash enthusiasts.
Rant unfolds in two parts. The first centers on Casey's unconventional childhood in small-town Middleton, where the lonely teen seeks a natural high—and in the process develops heightened sensitivities—by intentionally soliciting the poisonous stings and bites of various insects, mammals and reptiles. When he contracts rabies, he becomes Patient Zero, a "superspreader" whose saliva sets off an AIDS-like epidemic.
In part two, Casey departs Middleton for the big city, where the haves work days, the have-nots work nights, and government curfews enforce this bipolar disorder. He falls in with a group of Party Crashers, who endure their nighttime exile by intentionally crashing their cars into each other to feel in the moment, when time stands still. It turns out these "liminal" moments have a place in time travel as well, an unexpected second-act plot twist that hijacks the narrative in a baffling new direction.
On the V-for-visceral shelf that already holds his violent 1996 debut Fight Club, the sex-addict satire Choke and the Grand Guignol Haunted, this new novel is Palahniuk's ode to loners, losers, misfits and mavericks willing to risk everything just to feel one true thing in these soporific times.
Palahniuk, 45, prepared to write Rant, the first of a planned Middleton trilogy, by reading the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn "about a thousand times."
"Maybe my reason for writing this book is, I've fallen into a point in my life where I am fantastically nostalgic about my growing up, and I really wanted to go back and explore all those memories," he says. "My growing up was really s---ty, but I want to be honest and prove to myself that I'm not nostalgic for the actual past; I'm nostalgic for being a child again, and for the family I've lost."
Palahniuk's memories of growing up in Burbank, Washington, just upriver from his current home in the Columbia Gorge area near Portland, Oregon, take some macabre forms in Rant. Casey's mother, for instance, proudly shares her recipes for baking foreign objects, from razor blades to ground glass, into her cakes and pies to make eating them a memorable experience. It's hard to pin down the actual facts of Palahniuk's life, since he's a self-styled mystery man not above erecting a few facades to keep the world at a comfortable distance. Still, there is some truth behind the scene where Casey gathers graphic sensory information about his neighbors by sniffing their, uh, personal wastes.
"When big windstorms would kick up, everyone's trashcan would blow over and our barbed wire fences would be hung with everybody's secrets, all the tampons, all the rubbers, all the things they couldn't flush down the toilet or burn," he says. "People would have to go out with bags and pick these flags of shame off the barbed wire."
Palahniuk fashioned his young protagonist on the classic rugged individualist, an archetype in American fiction that stretches from Tom and Huck to Randall Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
"It's a character that Americans have always found really appealing, so what would be the next version?" he wonders. "How do you reinvent that character?"
The second act of Rant—which careens between the Party Crashers' various theme nights (formal wear for wedding night, lighted trees on top for Christmas, mattresses for moving day, etc.) and various Ph.D.s digressing on anthropologist Victor Turner's classic essay " Liminality and Communitas"—has its roots in Palahniuk's experiences at the annual counterculture gathering known as Burning Man. That festival once featured such shoot-'em-ups as a drive-by shooting gallery and a Big Car Hunt on the Nevada desert, until festival numbers grew so large that organizers were forced to abandon the cars-and-guns catharsis. The author, who once participated in the Big Car Hunt, contends that Party Crashing is now commonplace in some West Coast cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
"It's Fight Club with cars. It's an equal opportunity, non-gender-specific, non-age-or-race-specific fight," he says. "You need a physical activity like a rave or Burning Man for people to engage in that gives them this liminoid structure so they can come together in mutual communitas [an unstructured, egalitarian community]."
Palahniuk, who alternates edgier works (Fight Club, Lullaby, Haunted) with "lighter" satires (Choke, Diary, Rant), describes as "appalling" next year's offering, Snuff, about the making of an adult film that goes bad. Does this shock author ever give himself nightmares with his Boschian visions?
"That's the entire point, to get yourself to a place that you couldn't have planned or calculated, that is kind of beyond what you think you're capable of," he admits. "At that moment, you feel like you've done enough when you've gone a little bit too far, because otherwise, if you don't go that little bit too far, later you'll wish you had. You just keep reminding yourself, it's just words on the page."
Jay MacDonald writes from Austin.