Thursday, June 21, 2007
Choose Your Own City, and Bridge and More, in Chuck Palahniuk's "Rant"
Did you read any of those "Choose Your Own Adventure "books, when you were a kid? I remember one year, somewhere around fourth or fifth grade, when I plowed through a ton of the things. In case they somehow passed you by, they tended to be mystery or adventure stories, set in exotic, if not terribly realistic, locales, and every few pages, there'd be some sort of cliff hanger, requiring you to make a choice about what the main character ought to do next, and to turn to one page or another, depending on the choice you'd made. The stories themselves weren't always all that interesting, but it was the openness of their narratives, limited as it was, that I loved about those books. Until the day came when I understood the limits they imposed, understood that I could exhaust the choices offered by any "Choose Your Own Adventure" book in a single afternoon, and moved on to better books entirely. Books that made me look a little harder to find the places where they opened up whole worlds of choices, not just into their own narratives, but into my life, if I simply took the trouble to look for them. Books in which the possibilities were limitless. But limited as they were, it was those "Choose Your Own Adventure," books that first taught me that a narrative doesn't have to follow one straight line.
I hadn't thought about those books for years and years, until I came across this passage, in Chuck Palahniuk's latest book, "Rant", "picture time travel as nothing more than knocking your half-read book to the floor and losing your place. You pick up the book and open the page to a scene too early or too late, but never exactly where you'd been reading." While those lines didn't prompt me to start tossing my books across the floor in an effort to get back to, maybe, the spring of 2000, so I could try to explain to all of those foolish Nader voters exactly how much of a difference there really was between Gore and Bush, it did, by reminding me of those long ago page turning choices, serve to help me figure out at least a part of just what it was I liked so very much about the reading of "Rant."
If there's a working writer more subversive than Palahniuk right now, who's managing to get his or her books published, and on to those sought after Barnes and Noble shelves, I can't think who it is. In the world of "Rant," Palahniuk steadfastly refuses to give us any of the things we take for granted in a novel. Just about the only point of stability is the story's, and it's erstwhile protagonist's, point of origin, the rural town of Middleton, everything else is up for grabs. And by everything, I really do mean everything. All the things that matter most to us, both in our lives and in our reading, from time, place, identity, the nature of reality, possession of truth, to the sources and uses of power, that's a big one, wherever you turn, isn't it?
"Rant" carries the subtitle, "An Oral Biography of Buster Casey," so we aren't dealing with a consistent, coherent narrative voice. Instead, we've got a plethora of voices, not a chorus, blending easily together into a harmonious whole, but a disparate bunch of storytellers, each with his or her own version of events, his or her own interests to protect, secrets to reveal or to keep, reputations to construct or to maintain. Buster Casey, also known as Rant, is, of course, the silence at the center of this vocal storm. He may or may not be dead, at this particular point in time. But wherever he is, whatever he's doing, the one thing he's not doing is talking, that much is certain.
Everyone else is though. From his childhood years in Middleton, we hear the voices of his mother and father, early friends and enemies. Then his city years bring in the voices of his girlfriend Echo, other friends and acquaintances, plus the government officials, and epidemiologists, thrown in for good measure. Everyone who ever met Rant, and more than a few who didn't, has something to say about him, now that he himself is nowhere to be found.
Predictably enough, out of all these voices, emerges not one story of Rant's life, but three, at least, depending on which threads you pull together, where you find coherence, whose truth compels, whose bores, whose leaves you disbelieving. Rant could have been the superspreader of a new strain of rabies, so virulent it's lead to something like martial law, in this dystopian near future, and threatens to wipe out approximately half of the population. Or, Rant could have been a time traveling near super hero, who's discovered just how his destiny's been manipulated, and is determined to do some mysterious sort of something about it. Or, he could just be a dumb, good looking, half crazy, country boy, who came to the city, went all the way crazy once he got there, and committed a spectacular suicide. Or he could be all four at once, or someone else altogether. I love a book that asks me work this hard, leaves so many blanks for me to fill in, so many connections for me to make myself, or not.
And that is part of the brilliance of "Rant," the work it requires of the reader. By virtue of it's structural conceit, the oral history form, it is exceedingly light on physical detail. A we know about what Rant looked like, for instance, is that he had green eyes, stained black teeth, and that he was covered up in scars from childhood animal bites. His girlfriend, Echo, we know has an undersized right arm and leg, courtesy of a mysterious childhood car accident, which killed both her parents. People who are more or less average looking, without deformities or disfigurements, go essentially undescribed, leaving us free to imagine them however we see fit, without limits. The descriptions of Rant and Echo, when they come, function most decidedly as reminders of the author's right to impose limitations when he chooses, coming as they do after both characters have been hanging around in our minds for quite awhile. We've been hearing about Rant's green eyed good looks, his popularity with the girls of Middleton, and picturing him thusly, long before we hear a peep about his blackened teeth. Similarly, we've heard Echo described as a sex worker, heard her talking about having all kinds of sex with rant, been influenced by her pretty name, well before learning of her "withered arm," or facial tics. Palahniuk really doesn't want us getting too comfortable inside his story. Not here, not there, not anywhere. The world he's created is a slippery slidey kind of a place, but it's his creation, and we're well advised to remember that fact.
In the midst of all this slipperiness, Rant inevitably leaves the relative solidity of Middleton, for "The City." That's all it's ever called. Not Chicago or Los Angeles or Seattle or Miami or New York, just, "The City." Allowing us to fill in that blank with the cities of our choice. So for me, that of course meant he'd headed for the city of New York, as all sensible people leaving small towns in search of something ill defined and other will do. Even though much of the story hinged on cars, for me "The City," was this city, and that was that. Any time a gas station was mentioned, I pictured that BP at the corner of East Houston and Broadway. And as for the pivotal scene when a hipster type drives his car right off a bridge and into some nameless river? Well, that would be the Williamsburg Bridge of course, no problem there.