"The Web site for Chuck Palahniuk's latest calls the author a "postmillennial Jonathan Swift," a comparison that highlights everything that's wrong with "Rant" (Doubleday, $24.95).
Palahniuk, the author of "Fight Club," is renowned as a social satirist. But satire only works when the scenarios it describes seem horrendously possible, and nothing in "Rant" feels remotely real.
Swift's "A Modest Proposal" - about turning poor children into food - is as effective today as it was in 1729 because its deliberately doddering speculation about poundage and cooking techniques makes it seem not just sincere, but boringly sincere.
"Rant" is boring in the opposite way. Rather than ground his supposedly shocking scenarios, Palahniuk piles them on top of each other until they lose their capacity to shock.
The novel details the life of Buster "Rant" Casey, whose childhood exploits include seeking out bites from poisonous spiders, creating inflation by supplanting the Tooth Fairy's offerings with rare coins, possibly killing his grandmother, and fishing for rabies by sticking limbs into the lairs of infected rodents.
He moves to a city segregated by day and night dwellers, joining a crew of people called Party Crashers who conduct a kind of "Fight Club" on wheels.
There's lots about bodily fluids and various means of birth control thrown in to make readers squeamish, and finally a surprise twist that challenges the laws of physics the way the rest of the book contorts laws of biology.
Palahniuk never manages to turn his list of gross-outs into an involving narrative, in part because he tells his story in the form of an oral history, with different characters providing often conflicting accounts.
Palahniuk deserves credit for at least trying to maintain a constant, manic energy instead of pacing out the shocks so readers won't see them coming.
But the effect is desensitizing, making each surprise less jarring than the last. By the end, readers may feel like the young Rant, a boy with so many bites he stops feeling their sting. *