A Man Who Wanted A Son:
Faulknerian Techniques in Palahniuk’s Rant
written 12/15 rev. 06/17
Absalom, Absalom is widely considered one of William Faulkner’s best and most difficult novels. It’s a dramatic and ambitious work, and its plot spans nearly a century. It’s likely that this novel and its companion, The Sound and the Fury, were responsible for Faulkner’s Nobel Prize win in 1949. In Absalom, the story of one of Faulkner’s most enduring protagonists is told: Thomas Sutpen, the obsessed, incestuous, murderous patriarch of a doomed dynasty.
One of the vital characteristics that sets Absalom apart from other stories with clear main characters, and even from Faulkner’s other novels, is that Sutpen doesn’t do the telling: his past is relayed by a series of characters, most of whom heard their information secondhand. It’s a complex storytelling technique, and Faulkner certainly doesn’t make understanding it easy for the reader, but knowing the absolute truth about the events in the novel isn’t really the point. As Richard P. Adams writes in Faulkner: Myth and Motion: “In the text, the question of ‘truth,’ in any sense of historical accuracy, is hardly relevant. The issue is not what is true about Sutpen but what it is like to live in the South” (183).
Sutpen’s goal, and his eventual downfall, is his obsession with conceiving an heir who would live up to his own self-imagined legacy. During an interview at the University of Virginia in 1957, when Faulkner was asked by an unnamed audience member whether the central character in Absalom, Absalom was actually Thomas Sutpen, he responded: “The central character is Sutpen, yes. The story of a man who wanted a son and got too many, got so many that they destroyed him. It’s incidentally the story of—of Quentin Compson’s hatred of the—the bad qualities in the country he loves. But the central character is Sutpen, the story of a man who wanted sons” (Faulkner at Virginia).
Comparing any author to Faulkner tends to elicit impassioned responses, which is fine, because Chuck Palahniuk and Faulkner don’t have very much in common anyway. Faulkner was an undisputed master of prose who won multiple Pulitzer Prizes, and is continually considered one of the greatest American novelists and essayists of all time, whereas Palahniuk is (unfortunately) mostly known for his 1996 novel Fight Club, which features a scene in which a man steals human fat from a liposuction clinic dumpster in order to make soap. Despite some fairly tasteless sections, Fight Club is a widely-known and relatively respected novel; at least compared to Rant, which Palahniuk published 11 years later to significantly lesser acclaim.
Rant was kind of unprecedented, even to Palahniuk’s cult followers. The novel presents itself as an “oral biography:” a compilation of interviews with friends and acquaintances of Buster “Rant” Casey, our protagonist, concerning his childhood, activities as a young adult, and the events leading up to his suicide in a fiery crash. (Henceforth, he’ll be referred to as “Buster” to reduce confusion with the title of the novel.) The story takes place in two locations: Middleton, Buster’s fictional Southern hometown, and the unnamed city to which Buster moves in order to realize his goal of becoming a sort of patient zero for rabies.
This is where it gets complicated: Rant takes place in a science-fictional America in which society has been crippled by a voyeuristic form of entertainment known as “boosting peaks,” which I’d describe as a sort of mental virtual-reality lens that allows users to jack into others’ experiences and view them firsthand, complete with all the sensory stimuli. Only someone with a surgically installed port can boost, and a port can be deactivated by something like a traumatic injury or brain inflammation. Buster’s actual objective in spreading rabies throughout the populace is to disable as many peoples’ ports as possible, and free society to live in the physical realm, rather than basking in self-induced mental dissociation.
Admittedly, it’s a bit of a heavy-handed metaphor. Although the harmful detachment to the real world caused by the ubiquitousness of technology is the most obvious “message” of Rant, there’s an even more intricate subplot that is revealed late in the novel: it is discovered that by crashing a car just the right way, an individual with rabies can travel through time. Most of the narrators don’t fully understand how it works, but one character who calls himself Green Taylor Simms claims to have done it himself. As Buster’s father describes it, Simms visited Buster and explained that one could achieve immense power and even immortality by going back in time and impregnating their female ancestors. The purity of the bloodline would turn the traveler into some sort of superhuman, according to Simms.
Then, in a Fight Club-esque twist, Simms reveals that he’s actually Buster, and Buster’s father, etc., and that Buster is his (Simms’s) heir; an alternate timeline version of himself. Simms also explains that his process involves returning to the past and murdering his female ancestors once they’ve served their purpose. It is then supposed to be Buster’s job to repeat the directions he’s been given by Simms and achieve immortality; except that Buster chooses to defy Simms’s plan and instead attempts to travel back in time to rescue his mother from Simms.
It’s unclear whether Buster succeeds in traveling through time and killing Simms, succeeds but arrives too late, or merely dies in a burning wreck, as most of the characters in the book assume happened. One of several interpretations posited by writer Marvin Sanchez has Buster trapped in an endless cycle of traveling back in time and arriving a minute too late to stop Simms, then living as his own father and raising himself as a son, over and over into infinity. Naturally, where time travel is concerned, the possibilities are literally endless.
Whether you love or hate Palahniuk, it would be difficult to argue that the plot is not ambitious. In many ways, Rant seeks to investigate characteristics of the same sick visionary psyche that saturates the pages of Absalom, Absalom. Thomas Sutpen and Green Taylor Simms, the protagonists, if they are protagonists, each attempt to create the same thing by the same means: rape, violence, and incest. Sutpen’s immortality may be a good deal more figurative than Simms’s, but both believe that their pure bloodlines will produce perfect offspring and preserve some sort of lasting legacy. However, Sutpen’s children end up murdering one another, and his eventual heir is Jim Bond, a mentally handicapped mixed-race child: sort of an ultimate failure for the elitist, racist Sutpen. Buster similarly defies his father’s predetermined future for him, in an even more direct manner: he travels through time to thwart Simms at the very beginning.
In Rant, we’re treated to a close look at the environment and upbringing from which Buster/Simms came: Middleton, an impoverished wasteland somewhere around the Bible Belt. Sutpen’s background is significantly hazier. It is described to us by narrators, who heard it from people who heard it from other people. Since Sutpen’s intention is to leave his past behind and recreate himself as someone powerful and worthy of respect, it is reasonable that he would try to avoid spreading information about his time in Haiti, especially his miscegenous marriage and mixed-race son.
“…A dispossessed and exiled Southerner, Sutpen marries into the Haitian plantation, gaining thus access to class and wealth, but he repudiates his wife and son on racial grounds. In exchange, he receives the slaves and the money that provide for his new beginning on the Mississippi frontier…” (Broncano 109).
It’s worth repeating here that despite Faulkner’s sentiment, Sutpen may not be the best candidate for protagonist in Absalom. There is certainly an argument to be made for Quentin: “…the text, if I read it at all correctly, shows that the heart in conflict with itself is that of Quentin” (Adams 181); and possibly for Jim Bond. Palahniuk’s book is no different: Buster is asserted to be the protagonist, but this presents problems with his relationship with Simms (since they are in a sense the same person), not to mention the fact that the book occurs in real-time after his alleged death. Sanchez argues that perhaps the actual protagonist is Echo Smith, Buster’s girlfriend and the only significant interviewee in Rant who doesn’t appear in the book’s “contributors” section. Additionally, by traveling back in time herself and aiding Buster’s efforts not just to eradicate Simms, but also the technology that would allow boosting—the root cause of the dystopian society in the novel—Echo could have changed the present in the novel to the one we currently live in: the world in which Rant is merely fiction.
In Sanchez’s words, “…Palahniuk wanted to present the novel as a real piece of history that had turned into fiction because the events that transpired [couldn’t] be proven anymore.” This description is particularly reminiscent of analyses of Absalom, Absalom. Quentin and Shreve have no way to confirm the veracity of any of the information they’ve accumulated, beyond what Quentin actually experienced.“There is an impenetrable pattern of relatedness and non-relatedness: those who were actually involved in the events were too involved to be objective; those who were capable of objectivity were too remote from the events” (Longley 210).
The narrative techniques in both novels necessitate wariness from the reader; we have no way of discerning who is misinformed, and who is deliberately misinforming. Although the following quote was written about Absalom, Absalom, it applies to both: “An act of imagination is needed if we are to get at lifelike, humanly meaningful, truth; but to gain the lifelikeness we sacrifice the certainty of the publicly demonstrable” (Waggoner 152). The story must lose the absolute certainty of capital-T Truth in order to be told in a way that does justice to the intensity of the events within. Many modern tabloids would agree.
In both Faulkner’s fictional world and Palahniuk’s “real” (but actually just barely fictional) one, there’s maybe some actual Truth beyond what is filtered down to us by the narrators, but it is as unattainable to us as it is to Quentin, Shreve, or to any of Buster’s acquaintances, except Simms and perhaps Echo Smith. It’s mostly accepted that Faulkner did this on purpose as some sort of statement on reality (or perceived truth) versus Truth, but there’s not an overwhelming amount of evidence to suggest that Palahniuk had the same intention. As a result, the ambiguity at the end of Absalom, Absalom feels like a result of Faulkner’s decision to withhold information, whereas in Rant, it is simply the outcome of Buster’s and Simms’s actions to empower themselves and to destroy one another. The “true” ending has been shrouded in mystery by those involved.
According to Hosam Aboul-Ela, much of Absalom, Absalom’s uniqueness comes from what he calls “the poetics of peripheralization,” which express a relationship between the way Faulkner constructed the novel, and his use of an anti-Eurocentric history of coloniality. “This relationship is manifested in the structure of the novel. The resulting narrative is fragmented, jumbling time by presenting counterintuitive beginnings and endings and multiple flashbacks, flashforwards, and jump cuts. It uses multiple perspectives to emphasize the multiplicity of histories and realities and eschews the unified subject in favor of split narrative foci” (Aboul-Ela 136).
Perhaps Faulkner would describe his colonial history as anti-Eurocentric were he alive today, but it is just as likely that this interpretation, from 70 years in his future at the time he was writing Absalom, is merely applying a modern lens to a technique that Faulkner meant only to serve his trademark technique of delayed revelation. 40 years before Aboul-Ela’s analysis, Longley wrote: “The sheer magnitude of Sutpen’s grand design requires a matching magnitude of form and content: locale and time-span, geographical spread, and analysis of the meaning of history” (209). Maybe Faulkner adopted this anti-Eurocentric historical method without realizing it in order to do justice to Sutpen’s sinister “design.” We can never know; we can only accept or deny each interpretation as we read them, same as Quentin.
-Aboul-Ela, Hosam. Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh, 2007. Print.
-Adams, Richard P. Faulkner: Myth and Motion. Princeton: N.J., 1968. Print.
-Broncano, Manuel. “Reading Faulkner in Spain, Reading Spain in Faulkner.” Ed. Annette Trefzer and Ann J. Abadie. Global Faulkner. Jackson: U Of Mississippi, 2012. N. pag. Print.
-Longley, John Lewis, Jr. The Tragic Mask: A Study of Faulkner’s Heroes. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1963. Print.
-Sanchez, Marvin. “Interpreting Palahniuk’s ‘RANT:’ Splintered Time Theory.” The Comfy Chair Massacre. N.p., 01 Feb. 2010. Web. 28 Nov. 2015. <https://moonwalkerwiz.wordpress.com/2010/02/01/a-long-long-rant-about-palahniuks-rant>.
-Waggoner, Hyatt H. William Faulkner: From Jefferson to the World. Lexington: U of Kentucky, 1966. Print.
-“Faulkner at Virginia.” Interview by Frederick Gwynn, Joseph Blotner, & Unidentified participants. Faulkner at Virginia. University of Virginia, 13 Apr. 1957. Web. 02 Dec. 2015. <http://faulkner.lib.virginia.edu/display/wfaudio06_1>.