BooksTalking up Chuck
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Chuck Palahniuk puts out books the way the Beatles and the Stones used to release records nearly every year, with precision and artistry. Then he goes on tour and sells out huge venues. His latest work, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, the first of an upcoming trilogy, should be no exception. Set in the future, dozens of perspectives make up this oral biography of a farm kid who goes to the city and starts a national rabies epidemic. Folded into the story is a day-night division of culture in which an entire group of people has agreed to become "Nighttimers," living on the overnight shift, never seeing the light of day. They spend their time driving around the deserted streets and running their cars into each other, a pastime they call "party crashing." Later in the book, a strange time-travel theme develops, as well as lots of dark humor and as in Haunted 's infamous story "Guts," where the kid in the swimming pool has his colon sucked out some rather intense bodily-function gross-out imagery.
Metro Times: In this book, there's a lot of graphic description of tampons and feces and that kind of thing. Is that a conscious attempt to freak people out?
Chuck Palahniuk: No! Oh, my God. It breaks my heart when people say, "Oh, you're just doing it for effect." That, that in particular, is something right from my childhood. Whenever the wind blew really, really hard, in the eastern Washington desert, everyone's trash would go over. And my sisters would have to take brown paper bags out and walk along the fence lines and take all of these bloody tampons off the barbed wire fences, and my brother and I were forbidden to leave the house or to let the dogs out until all these things were gathered, and it was like a tradition in this little town. So often the things that I depict that people find most offensive are the truest things.
MT: So you're revealing things people aren't usually willing to talk about.
Palahniuk: Or they're so far from their own experience that they won't acknowledge them, or they won't recognize that they're valid. A friend of mine, whenever he and his wife have a child, they freeze the afterbirth. Then they go on a long hiking/camping trip out to the Utah desert. In the middle of the night, by the time the placenta has thawed, it attracts animals, and they feed each placenta to the nighttime animals that gather around their camp. And I included that theme in Rant and my editor said, "No way! That is too fucking unbelievable and disgusting." And that's the one scene that got cut.
MT: Why rabies? Have you had rabies? Is this a cry for help?
Palahniuk: No. One fall, my sister Heidi jumped into a pile of these leaves, and there was a rabbit hibernating in the leaves. And it bit her through her coat, and so she had to have rabies shots. But I just thought that rabies, especially the way it's sort of exploding in native populations of animals, it made a really nice metaphor for these disease-of-the-year things that keep coming along, whether it's SARS, or bird flu, or swine flu it seems like we face one every year.
MT: This night and day culture, where an entire class of people volunteers to live the night shift? Seems like a good idea. How would you feel if it were enacted?
Palahniuk: You know, there is nothing that I put on the page that a million people aren't already doing. So that's my big defense. Even party crashing is part of Cacophony Society now, and so often what I do is just journalism. Even if I think I'm inventing it, ten thousand people will come up to me and say, "You know, we were doing that Fight Club thing before you wrote the book." There is nothing that can come out of my brain that is truly original.
MT: Does the book take place in an alternative present, or is it a distant future?
Palahniuk: It was actually going to take place in an alternative past, and the original ending was you were going to see that it was 1977, and that the book was actually taking place in the late '70s, but that seemed a little too literal, so I just kind of scrapped that.
MT: Were you inspired by J.G. Ballard?
Palahniuk: The Crash book, you mean? Not really. I mean, God bless J.G. Ballard, but that whole ponderous eroticism of car crashes? You know, the idea of putting a hood ornament in Elizabeth Taylor's pussy and all of that, I thought that was just too much.
MT: Do you like to mess around with the novel form because you're kind of sick of it?
Palahniuk: Every book is an experiment. So why not try to redo as many aspects of the book as you can reinvent them every time?
MT: What are you working on now?
Palahniuk: I've got several chapters into the next Rant book; but for next spring, there is going to be a sort of in-between book called Snuff, which is just a short, dirty, funny, dark novel about making one of those world's largest gang-bang movies. Another tasteful subject.
A version of this article appeared earlier in Boston's Weekly Dig.
David Wildman is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.