People who work the dead end jobs in offices, factories, amusement parks, and restaurants haunt Chuck Palahnuik’s world. Or they have no job at all. They occupy the dead zone of the modern urban world. His characters– The Fight Club, Survivor, Choke, and Diary (are the previous novels I have read) – share a common trait: they are cut loose from the mainstream, and drift along with their head just above the water line. In Rant, one character says, “What if reality is nothing but some dream?” Most of his characters fold up in a world of self-absorption, self-hatred, self-mutilation, and self-destruction. A “self” preoccupies them that is empty of content and their lives are spent seeking to pour some meaning into that empty vessel. They have nothing to lose but blood and guts, and the gore splattered wide and far somehow redeems them.
Another recurring theme in Rant is the hidden lives, secret hurt and damage, and private games of revenge. They piss in people’s soup, organize fight clubs, or crash cars as a kind of rite of passage. Mostly they come out with cuts, bruises, and broken bones and, as in the case of Rant, they die. There is a message buried in Rant and other of Palahnuik’s books, that no matter how clean, sober and upright you lead your life some freak disease, accident, madman, random gunshot can cut you down. No one is safe. No place is safe. As one of the characters in Rant says, “We are all in the same boat.”
Those who fight back in Rant find their cars as an outlet for aggression. They have theme nights for their crash parties. Mattress night, dead deer night, honeymoon night. These teenagers dress up and with their own odd-ball set of rules set out in the night to wound, maim and secure victory.
The main character in Rant is a young man who comes from a dysfunctional family. His mother puts small toys and thumbtacks in food. It makes people eat slower. Rant seeks out all forms of poisonous creatures from spiders to snakes, and enjoys the pain of being bitten. He has rabies and passes this disease on wide and far. The story is told from the point of view of those whom either participated in or witnessed the world that Rant occupied.
Chuck Palahnuik’s books often have an unusual structure and Rant is not exception. As a story telling technique, the outside observer reporting as in an email creates a sense of detachment. The reader is kept at a distance. But when it succeeds we are privileged to a world of competing voices, each an original seeking to bring some meaning to Rant’s world. The set pieces on the history of disease and rare coins were interesting but cloying, showing research rather than embedding it in the story, and as a result as interesting as the historical elements are, they distract from the main story. Where Rant succeeds is inventing a world where people seek to be in control, and do everything in their power to gain control. Of course, that is impossible, as they are overcome by their greed, stupidity, prejudices, and ignorance.
Chuck Palahnuik’s world reminds me of Michel Houellebecq, the French author of Platform. A world that is dark, dangerous, where sex is just another car ride in a capitalistic system designed to use you as fuel, burn you up, and throw you aside.