November 2002

Michael Farrelly

fiction

Lullaby By Chuck Palahniuk

Kids who like books better than sports tend to get beat up quite a bit. We rationalize it of course, explaining that brains conquer brawns and that the muscle-bound jock of today is the oil-change guy of tomorrow. But secretly, in the dark hours, we wish that our reading gave us some kind of tangible ability to fight back, a way to even the score with bullies. Sticks and stones can break our bones, but wouldn't it be nice if words were deadly?

Chuck Palahniuk has written a novel that gives the answer to that very question. Palahniuk is most famous for his cult, literal and metaphorical, novel Fight Club. To describe Palahnuik's style is to describe his manic plots for it is in weaving the most disparate of elements together that Palahniuk works his craft. A split personality that becomes an icon (Fight Club), a messiah on a suicide mission (Survivor), and a con man who shills personal redemption through the Heimlich maneuver (Choke) and show off Palahniuk's maddening ability to take the most maddening of concepts and spin them into clever narrative.

In Lullaby Palahniuk takes his already wild ideas to a frantic new level. The book is ostensibly about a 'culling song' that can kill simply by recitation. This song is discovered by a reporter, Carl Streator, doing a series on Sudden Infant Death syndrome who inadvertently becomes a serial killer. Added to this is Mona, a Wiccan, her scheming boyfriend Oyster, and Helen, a real estate agent who specializes in properties with high turnover rates, mainly because the walls of the lovely homes have a tendency to bleed and have ghostly messages scratched in them. These characters are brought together to destroy every copy of the culling song, a task which takes them on a cross-country road trip filled with dark magic, mediations on the media and an explanation of why tumbleweeds weren't really part of the old west. Palahniuk's attention to detail is intense, bordering on the obsessive, but rather than sidetracking the plot it adds lush detail to this strange pseudo-fantasy world that Palahniuk's writing invokes.

The mark of a potent author is that in describing their work you can't help but emulate their style. Palahnuik's prose is infectious, a fact that only heightens his central idea of a psychic virus. Palahniuk's favorite stylistic trick is the build-up, where and event is viewed through agonizingly small and slow details for pages at a time finally resolving in the most maddening of twists. Lullaby features this in a scene where Carl Streator slowly assembles an immaculate and tiny model home in the dark of his apartment, only to smash it to pieces just to see it destroyed.

There is a tendency in some criticism to look at Palahniuk's work itself in a magical vein. Like Hermetic incantations and Voodoo chants Palahniuk relies on repetition of theme and idea to create mood. The obsessive nature of his characters, Carl trying to find some redemption for his accidental serial killing while Helen has been using the Culling song to act as a psychic Assassin to feed her diamond fetish.

Road trips in books often take on the feel of On the Road or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas because of the psychic impact those books have had on American writers. Palahnuik takes certain elements; his prose has the energy and vibe of Hunter S. Thompson but without the drug-addled comedowns, and weaves a strong story about a group of people whose common goal creates a sort of dysfunctional family unit.

In reading Lullaby you should block out a good afternoon and evening to finish the book in its entirety. The rushing prose and wild characters are such that trying to portion out the book is nearly impossible. Like the dark incantation at the center of the novel Lullaby will lull you in with its siren song.

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday
ISBN: 0385504470
256 pages