The only real knowledge I had about Chuck Palahnuik was though the film Fight Club. (Which a terrific flick and excellently directed and photographed. It’s gotta be in my top 25-50 of all time.) I had never read one of his books before. Until now. I checked Lullaby out of the library as I was browsing around looking for something new and interesting. The librarian who checked me out remarked that he is one of her favorite authors and she owns all of his books. So I was intrigued. And this book?
Imaginative, bold, and seething with scathing commentary on contemporary American society and its willingness to be governed by consumerist culture, and content in its indifference and ignorance, Lullaby is a richly padded and darkly nihilistic parable about morality and power, with a dash of hopelessness sprinkled in.
Carl Streator is a solitary widower and a forty-ish newspaper reporter who is assigned to do a series of articles on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. In the course of this investigation, he discovers an ominous thread: the presence on the scene of these deaths of the anthology Poems and Rhymes Around the World, all opened to the page where there appears an African chant or “culling song.” This song turns out to be lethal when spoken or even thought in anyone’s direction and once it lodges in Streator’s brain, he finds himself becoming an involuntary serial killer. So he teams up with a real estate broker, one Helen Hoover Boyle, who specializes in selling haunted (or “distressed”) houses (wonderfully high turnover) and who lost a child to the culling song years before, for a cross-country odyssey. Their goal is to remove all copies of the book from libraries, lest this deadly verbal virus spread and wipe out human life. Accompanying them on this road trip are Helen’s assistant, Mona Sabbat, an exquisitely earnest Wiccan, and her sardonic ecoterrorist boyfriend, Oyster, who is running a scam involving fake liability claims and business blackmail. Welcome to the new nuclear family.
from the official site
It may sound like a downer but Chuck Palahnuik‘s charm lies in his use of languauge. He has a gifted hand, aided by a thoughtful mind. Reading it, each word seems deliberate. The book isn’t so much nuanced as it is direct. Carl Streator tells it like it is. How he sees it. How he feels about it. Unusual in its tone and unapologetic in its message, Lullaby is narrative that is strangely pleasurable despite the nightmare it weaves.
The novel is also peppered with repeated phrases, slightly altered each time it appears. They begin to take on a sort of sing-song quality in and of themselves. And how appropriate for a story named after a kind of song. “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words _____.” — “These _____-oholics. These _____-ophobics.” — “For whatever reason, I thought of _____.” Another repeated technique is that as Streator describes color–what someone is wearing for instance–he assigns it the color of a fine dining dish. It’s really kind of cool.
Since the film Fight Club was about all I knew about Chuck Palahnuik, I must admit that the themes and overt messages of Lullaby are familiar. Like the narrator in Fight Club, Carl Streator rants on about people. Their irritating manners. Their rude behavior. Their sick minds. But it still feels fresh and relevant. You respect the viewpoint because you can understand it. Streator is a lonely man, a bitter man. He does little more than exist until his life is forever-changed by the power a single poem holds. This story is an adventure.
There’s a high body count. He can’t control himself. But he wants to. All he has to do is think the poem the person that has inflamed his annoyance drops dead. He practices counting exercises to direct his death wishes away from unknowing victims. “Counting 345, counting 346, counting 347…” Hmm, yet another repeated phrase.
The book is a lot of things. Thrilling. Depressing. Satisfying. All at once, and not necessarily in that order. The ending leaves you contemplating the new world order that now exists in the Lullaby world and I found myself thinking, now that would be an interesting television show! This story is filled with a variety of vividly imagined characters, each with their own views on modern life and morality. And they are all chasing the power of magic, hoping to wield it for their own uses.
This was a fascinating read. Even a fun one. The words themselves are lyrical and flitter off of the page in a wonderful melody.
Sticks and stones may break your bones but these words are quite astounding.