Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Party Crasher

Rant: The Oral Biography of Buster Casey
written by Chuck Palahniuk

Everyone’s got that moment in their lives. That defining moment that gives them the chance to decide who they’re going to be. Actually, it’s a series of several moments. The first one I ever had was when I was about fourteen.

My cousin and best friend at the time were staying up all night playing around on this new thing called “the internet”. While she took her turn, I was watching MTV at 3am—the only time they still showed actual music. Anyway, the band du jour video ended and then a miracle happened. The man that appeared on screen next was… incredible. Watching that video was what going to church should feel like. It was the first time I’d ever heard any sort of non-mainstream music. I grew up with classic rock and 80’s pop, but this was wholly different. When the white printed letters popped up at the end up the video I was ready to write it down. But as soon as I saw the name of the band I knew I wouldn’t forget it. The Cure. I swear, after seeing that video, everything changed.

Anyway, I said all that because it’s easier to describe how a 3 minute long music video changed my life than a whole body of work by an author. The point is really this: Chuck Palahniuk is to books what The Cure was to music for me. So, it’s fairly safe to call me a fan.

Rant Casey’s life changing moment came when he was bit by black widow and got his first erection. That’s the kind of story this is, so, you know.

The book is told as an oral history, which, as the author’s note says, is “a form which requires interviewing a wide variety of witnesses and compiling their testimony.” This really highlights how people see other people differently. Every character in the book talks about “Rant” Buster Casey and every single one of them has something different to say.

Opening the story with Wallace Boyer, the quintessential car salesman, is perfect. Wallace knows all the salesman tricks about connecting with a potential buyer, so the character does a fantastic job of describing and setting up the story without coming across as forced.

Echo Lawrence is a typical Palahniuk stock. If I were to make any complaints about her, they would be that I didn’t realize she was a girl until about halfway through the book and I didn’t know she was deformed until about 70% through. I suppose you could say that this goes in quite well with the theme of how we see things, and if Rant himself were telling the story, I could understand how he wouldn’t mention it because he certainly never seemed to care. But I really think that Shot or Green Taylor Simms could have said it at some point. I had to stop and kind of re-imagine all the scenes she’d been in. Twice.

Shot Dunyun was, besides Rant, my favorite character. In his self-deprecating and overly-entertained-jacked-into the world sort of way, I think he was the character that represents most of us. I found it very easy to identify with him. Maybe it was because he had a dog. Or that his real name was Christopher. I think Winnie the Pooh brainwashed me into liking Christophers. I do wish we’d found out why he started going by “Shot” though.

As for the rest, I was never confused about who was talking and found it much easier to remember the characters’s names and voices than I thought it would be. And each one of them was engaging and honestly fun to read.

The basics are this: Rant grows up in a small town in the middle of nowhere. He knows people lie. They lie about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. He has a theory that if enough people tell the same lie, it becomes the truth. He wants to experience something real.

So, he fools the town into handling real animal organs during the Halloween carnival. He forces the entire town’s economy to change using “tooth fairy” money. He goes out to get bit by animals and insects. He ends up building an immunity venom, or he had it naturally, and he gets rabies so many times that it hardly seems to affect him anymore. When he heads out of his small town to the city, he discovers how different it is.

The world is segregated into Daytimers and Nighttimers. Respectively, they are only allowed to be out during the day or night. This is to… reduce traffic? The Daytimers have started to see themselves as better as the Nighttimer crowd. Especially after Rant arrives and spreads his rabies around the Nighttimers. With the epidemic spreading, the government begins to take extreme action. Except… not really?

Some of the characters talk about quarantines and people getting hauled off to government run facilities and never heard from again, but I never really felt any sense of urgency. It was like Rant was supposed to have been this “superspreader”, but none of the characters seemed very affected by the changes this brought about. The Daytimer/Nighttimer thing is interesting, but almost seems a kinda tacked on.

Oh, but the Party Crashers! A whole subculture built around the next logical step after cruising. You put the appropriate sign on your car—Just Married, For Sale: $13,000.50, Ajax Student Driver—whatever the theme of the night is. Then you crash, not too hard, into anyone else with the right tag.
“Boosting”, while interesting, was so glossed over and unexplained for most of the book that I just didn’t understand what Shot was saying. I actually had to go back and re-read many of his sections. Boosting is when you “outcord” an experience. People are fitted with Shadowrun/Matrix style ports on the back of their necks and they can use these to record an experience using all five senses. Then others can plug in and live that same experience.

There were a few other subplots going on that felt like they pulled the book into too many directions. It’s like in the X-Men when you suddenly realize you’re reading a comic book about mutants that’s just now introduced witchcraft, aliens, vampires, angels and demons. It just goes into too many places and takes away from the original awesomeness that you thought you were reading.

Granted, this is an oral history, so it’s possible that the characters believe things that aren’t true or are blatantly lying, but still. The underlying reason they give for Party Crashing and the deeper mystery behind Rant near the end of the book left me forcing myself to finish it. It felt… indulgent and bigger than it needed to be.

The themes of choice and perspective are really neat-- how you are not now the person you were before. The future you have today is not the one you have tomorrow. How every decision you make changes who you are and how you’re seen.

And, of course, the moments that make a person who they are. When Rant’s mother stops seeing him as her perfect baby boy. When Rant replaces the fake organs and body parts at the town Halloween party with real animal organs from the slaughterhouse and the townsfolk no longer think of him as a normal mischievous kid. When Rant gets bit by a black widow and experiences his first erection and fully separates himself from “normal” society.

All of these little snapshots of time build an identity. It all goes into how you perceive yourself and how you can show people what you want them to see. Rant builds an identity based on his notion of honesty while still trying to prove his mother right about calling him a “little monster.” Echo makes a living lying to people, giving them a glimpse of something and letting them infer what they will. Shot goes from moment to desperate moment, just trying not to mess up too badly. Every character in the book has a string of moments they talk about that helped to form who they are.

So, I give this 4 out of 5 because I really enjoyed reading it. Right up to about 80% through. Then, I dunno. It got weird. Like, SUPRISE! SCIENCE FICTION!

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