Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
I read Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel, Rant: an Oral Biography of Buster Casey, on the strength of a description of its plot. I thought it might raise some interesting bioethical issues. I suppose it does. Mostly it makes me want to take a shower.
Honestly, I have no idea what to think about this business, but . . . here goes:
Rant is a pseudo oral history of the life and exploits of the title character, Buster “Rant” Casey. Palahniuk delivers over 300 pages of short-paragraph-length observations from peripheral characters describing their interactions with him from overlapping and mismatching perspectives. (The book reads quickly because, given the large amount of white space between the “recollections”, it’s probably closer to 250 pages of real text.) We’re supposed to reconstruct the events described on the basis of which stories we believe. When you solve the puzzle, you get a picture of a dysfunctional and paranoid society suspiciously like our own, in which the government has vacated all civil liberties, imposed lifetime detention without trial for undesirable elements, and sequestered half the population in a dark underworld in which they are doomed to menial, marginal existences, receive a grudging minimum of social services, and can be shot on sight for being caught in the wrong place with the wrong paperwork; the justification for all this is . . . (wait for it) . . . the security of the nation, in the face of an existential threat from an invisible but omnipresent enemy. Young people respond to this with desperate nihilism, engrossing themselves in bizarre and self-destructive practices, as well as drugs, mindless sex, and violence. Behind the scenes are shadowy conspiracies enacted by powerful individuals who maintain the danger and the resulting oppression for their own interests: corporate, political, or religious.
Palahniuk’s take on this otherwise none-too-fictional theme is that the danger in question is not terrorists or traitors, or weapons of mass destruction, but biology. The world is driven to the brink of collapse by an unstoppable epidemic of rabies, passed mouth-to-mouth through close, casual contact, through sex between unknowing partners, and sometimes by those who deliberately seek infection as an act of rebellion. Rant Casey is the source of the infection, and of much else that goes on in this strained and tortured world.
Casey, it appears, has always been a kind of human disease vector, and he possesses an unusual closeness of connection with other living things. Growing up in the country, he has an affinity for animals of all kinds – and women of all kinds. From childhood on, he deliberately seeks bites from wild animals, because, he says, that moment of pain is the only one in which he feels truly alive; later, he finds sex offers the same benefit. He can taste a person’s entire life history, their menstrual cycle stage, and what they had to eat at any point in the past, from a kiss, or cunnilingus – and he gets many opportunities to do so. Here, Palahniuk introduces the theme that is most recognizable from his other works, and which underlies much of Rant: the search for authentic experience.
This desperation for authenticity drives even the parts of his life in which he is not giving oral sex or sticking his hand down rattlesnake dens. Casey sends the entire town into hysterics one Halloween by substituting real blood and brains for the pretend exhibits in the community “haunted house” (thereby earning his nickname: “rant!” is supposedly the sound a child makes when vomiting in disgust); his explanation is that he wanted it to be real – that he couldn’t stand the thought that the fake tricks usually used were a lie. When he reaches puberty, he discovers that spider bites are the only thing that give him an erection, which he then puts to use after wielding his persuasive charms on all the women and girls in the town. He stages stunts that disrupt the order of things in his environment, at one point suspiciously discovering an immense fortune in gold coins that he distributes among the children in the town, who instantly subvert the local economy and social order. Business profits are driven by the whims of children, parents steal from their children, the local market devotes entire shelves to stocking toys and water pistols costing hundreds of dollars; one narrator comments that the episode reveals the “consensual reality” nature of the capitalist economy (things are only valuable because people agree they are). Taking advantage of the the erection-on-command potential of his affinity for spiders, Rant stages a boner rebellion in his high school, encouraging the boys to disrupt classrooms by displaying fake erections that teachers cannot punish for fear of lawsuits, until the authorities are finally forced to negotiate with him to put an end to it, thereby freeing himself from the terrors of a haughty math teacher (and demonstrating that authority, like market value, is consensual). He deliberately seeks infection with rabies, and repeatedly catches the diseases, takes injections to cure it when the symptoms approach the danger point, and then re-infects himself – passing the infection to all the women he sleeps with as well.
This search for excitement and authenticity guides every step of his path through life – nothing matters to Rant, and nothing feels to him, except his few moments of transcendental sensation. The biological theme – closeness with people and animals, seductive persuasiveness, obsessive sex, disease, infection and transmission – also defines Rant’s life, and his actions in moving through it.
In response to the breakdown of their society and their marginalized place in it, young members of the subculture – known as “Nighttimers” for their nocturnal ghettoization and dawn curfew in a society organized into two camps on opposite sides of the clock – invent a thrill-seeking game called “Party Crashing”. They acquire used cars and decorate them with a specific recognition signal keyed to the theme of each night’s adventure (“Wedding Night” sees the cars decorated with “Just Married” signs, the drivers and crew wearing tuxedos and wedding gowns; on “Student Driver Night” they all sport traffic-school warning signs, with hilarious results for one hapless actual student driver who wanders in by mistake); they then drive around in a specified zone until they spot another car with the recognition signal, whereupon they deliberately crash into it, rating themselves on the quality and artistry of the wreckage. The most popular radio station broadcasts live descriptions of drivers’ injuries and probabilities of survival after each crash. Most crashes are minor; occasionally someone dies in a spectacular inferno, and, rarely, after such an episode, the wrecked car is then found empty. After Rant Casey flees the farm, he hooks up with the Party Crashers; the authentic moments – focus, excitement, danger, pain – they provide satisfy some of his needs. Through casual and non-casual contact, he introduces rabies into the wider urban society, sparking an epidemic that rages across the nation and leads to the civil-liberties crackdowns and perpetual-quarantine prisons that further fracture society. Some observers speculate that Rant is the worst mass-murderer in history, but it is not at first clear why he knowingly does this.
We see other aspects of this somewhat manic and desperate society. Media culture is centered around “boosting” – electronic recordings of direct neurosensory experiences that are downloaded by those having the experience, and uploaded by those wishing to experience it vicariously, through a connection port at the base of the skull. Boost artists can edit the neural traces by replaying for a viewer and recording the experience of having the experience from that second-generation viewer – boosting a recording through a blind person enhances appreciation of the sound, while boosting it through a dog gives a vivid sense of smell. One can experience the influence of drugs by merely boosting a drug trip rather than taking it; the most euphoric experience comes from boosting experience tapes through a port installed in a new-born infant’s perfectly innocent brain. Rabies-caused neurodegeneration, however, wipes out the ability to experience the recordings.
Throughout the book, cryptic references are made to mysterious strangers who reappear at intervals in the history of the Casey family, and to how Rant’s mother became pregnant with him, and who his “for real father” may be. The source of the wealth that Rant stumbles on, and then spends without care, is also obscure. Certain characters, including Rant, make vague and portentous prophecies; often they come true. For most of the story, these hints and complications are kept dark.
Toward the end, the narrative (if it can be called that) takes a turn, and an explicit time-travel theme is introduced. One character proposes a wild and vague solution to the infamous “Grandfather Paradox” – he claims that you can kill your own grandfather, if you go back in time before you were born, but that the effect is not to kill yourself as well, but to cut you loose from all history – to set you outside of time, as a kind of immortal. Along with this theory, it is suggested that you could be your own grandfather – go back in time and seduce (or rape) your own grandmother, thus fathering the man who will father you. And, of course, if you can be your own grandfather, you can be your own father, thus you would be the man who fathers the man who is you who fathers the man who is you – one person, reappearing over and over through history, coupling with each member of the same line of daughters and sequentially raising himself as his own son who is also his own father who is also himself. And each such generational re-charge, it is asserted, reinforces and concentrates whatever special powers that individual might have – an affinity for animals, maybe, and the ability to withstand disease. Of course, such a person could also ensure his own wealth simply by going back in time and hiding something ordinary that it was known would be very valuable later – for example, gold coins.
All this, however, requires some mechanism for actually going through time. Palahniuk supplies one: when someone of precisely the right frame of mind, freed of all external influence (a mind, for instance, at the moment of a transcendently authentic experience and that is also incapable of boosting neural stimulation, as a result of rabies), suffers a sudden and violent death, that person may be transported back in time – from whence to start (re-start?) the cycle of fertilizations and rebirths that will eventually give rise to themselves in the present age. (This then gives them the opportunity not only to spark their own lineage but then kill its first-generation member – themselves in an earlier age – allowing their later self to ascend to the “Liminal Space” – the out-of-time realm where they become effectively immortal, able to reappear in Earth time when they choose. Such immortals, of course, would have no emotional connection to ordinary humans. A human life would be a flicker in time to them; humans, born to die, would have no intrinsic value. These immortals could toy with humans, alter their societies for amusement, kill them simply as a way of passing time, for instance by starting an epidemic . . .)
As I said, I have absolutely no idea what to make of all this.
Some critics complain that Palahniuk has recycled themes from much of his other work. I have not read any of his other books, but I did see the movie version of Fight Club, and the parallels seem glaring. Though many reviewers draw a link between the fistfights of the previous work and the car crashes of this one – violent events undertaken for amusement by social misfits – I think the parallel runs deeper than that. Violence is what Fight Club and Rant have in common in only the superficial sense; in both cases, it is the rejection of stultifying social convention and the search for authentically felt experience that matters. In the present work, that search motivates all aspects of the main character’s life: deliberatey seeking bites from wild animals and poisonous snakes and spiders, constant sex, car crashes, and his obsession with his own ancestry. It is not coincidental that in both books the main character sparks a social upheaval that destroys conventional society while causing thousands of deaths. Along with the desire for authenticity comes hatred for those who deny or corrupt it.
With its hodgepode of self-destructive contempt for phoniness, rejectionist desperation for authenticity, cultural despair, violence, sex, neurocyberpunkish science fiction, dystopian time travel, and a literal deus ex machina ending in which central characters become gods through fatal car crashes, Rant is nothing if not a mess. It reads like Catcher in the Rye meets Last Tango in Paris while the Neuromancer rides The Time Machine to meet Lazarus Long so they can all go watch Fight Club and cheer for the Brad Pitt side of things. But there are other cultural touchpoints to be aware of.
Rabies, in this book, is a clear metaphor for the AIDS crisis; Palahniuk at one point explicity compares Rant Casey to Gaetan Dugas (and to other “superspreaders”, including Typhoid Mary). The asymptomatic infectious period found in both diseases contributes to their epidemic nature (though Palahniuk posits an unrealistically infectious form of rabies). But the progression of the rabies epidemic is not described in Rant; it is merely stated in passing that it had been devastating and resulted in the crackdown on civil liberties and the imposition of quarantine without due process. Here, Palahniuk widens the metaphor, from rabies-as-AIDS to AIDS-as-terrorism: the quarantine and isolation regimen imposed in the wake of the rabies epidemic has elements of both the AIDS hysteria of the 1980s (bars and bathhouses are named among places shut down due to rabies; disease transmission is mostly sexual, though this is not the case in real rabies infections) and the terrorism scare and “homeland security” crackdown seen under the Bush administration (indefinite detention, summary execution, mob violence against suspected threatening individuals). But, given the limited focus on the specifics of the epidemic, he is clearly not trying to replay the AIDS scare; his interest is the effect such intrusions have on social interaction, not on the civil liberties battles that took place to prevent them.
The nihilist youth culture Palahniuk describes may be a commentary on contemporary society: everyone constantly tied into multimedia players with wires leading directly into their skulls; lives devoted to unreal online experiences and commodified sensation; experience itself packaged and edited for commercial consumption; product ads infiltrated into the sensory media to create external, but real, desires for products; “extreme sports”, drugs, and sex filling the void left by dead-end lives in the corporate hive-state. If this isn’t the world we’ve given ourselves with our iPods, X-Boxes, product placements and incessant, pervasive, howling consumerist huckstering, then we’re just one product upgrade away from it.
From that perspective, Palahniuk’s familiar quest for authenticity seems to make sense: in a fake world carefully crafted to constrain and mold human lives, anything real and primordial – sex, here, a punch in the face, in Fight Club – may be a relief, and a chance to break into the “liminal world”, the world outside those constraints. The death-and-resurrection theme carries the motif forward: the authenticity of violent relief (pain, orgasm, fiery death) does take the initiates through to the other side. The quasi-Christian aspect of that transcendence cannot be accidental, either – escape is achievable only in an immortal afterlife, and only after they have renounced the consumerist culture (“be in the world, but not of the world”), cleansed themselves (searing the inauthentic from their minds with the rabies virus), mortified their flesh (with bites, poisonings, and automobile accidents), and become first hermits (Nighttimers), then martyrs. It’s at this point, though, that the story seems to go off the rails. The authenticity motif becomes muddied and confused just at the point that the immortality/time-loop theme is clarified; once we are told that Rant, and certain others, are living their lives over again, it becomes clear that what they are seeking is not the liminal experience, but some procedural method to access another state of being – one that just happens to involve snakebite, rabies, and car crashes. Rant’s poetic rhapsodies about feeling “truly alive” while being chomped by a groundhog are robbed of their significance. And why this has to take on such explicitly Christian form is also not clear – the book is anything but an endorsement of Christianity, yet there are older and better versions of the transcendence and immortality theme.
The book makes little sense throughout. During the last quarter or so of its pages, however, when Palahniuk lets the other shoe drop regarding the coy hints about past lives he has been leaving, its tenuously-connected themes – authenticity, transcendence, sex, pain, consumerism, isolation, time travel, immortality – whirl apart; it becomes impossible to say what the book is actually about. Its biological motifs, however – sex, death, life, rebirth, rabies, AIDS, pain, pleasure, viral transmission, the connectedness of bodies – seem even more non-literal than the demands of fiction would make them. Ironically, they don’t seem to be . . . authentic. He’s not talking about a real viral epidemic, or for that matter real sex, real pain, or real life and death; they are convenient MacGuffins to be chased on his road to, well, wherever it is he wound up. So the book has less to say even about those pregnant topics than it at first seems.
For all this, I was not disappointed to read the work – though I did not find it entirely pleasant to do so. But I found it works better as “mere fiction” than as literature, and better as fiction – of whatever kind – than as fact.
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