Doubleday, 2002, 260 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50447-0
The newest Chuck Palahniuk novel is here, and as you may expect, it’s a blend of weirdness, hypnotic prose, self-loathing characters and strong images. What’s new is a fascinating premise and a willingness to delve into supernatural horror.
It starts out with a washed-up journalist investigating Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. There is one catch, though: He knows what causes it. And it’s not anything rational: Merely reading a specific poem, a culling song (page 27 of a library book that happens to be at each victim’s bedside), will kill anyone.
The journalist ends up memorizing the poem. Tries it on his editor. Finds that he now has the power to kill anyone by the power of his voice. It gets worse; he realizes that his bottled-up anger is so fierce that he is actually able to kill people remotely, merely by thinking the poem.
In typical Palahniukian fashion, a blackly comedic sequence follows, as our protagonist commits a mini murder spree against everyone who annoys him. Serial killing has seldom been more amusing. It gets funnier when he gets annoyed by radio announcers.
What’s not so amusing are the consequences of his discovery. In an hypnotically terrifying passage, (Chapter 7) Palahniuk imagines the effects of “a plague you catch through your ears.” [P.41] It’s not an entirely new idea (see, oh, David Langford’s “comp.basilisk FAQ” for a similar premise) but it’s still a good one, and Palahniuk is willing to play it for all it’s worth, not even once mentioning “memetic epidemiology”.
Eventually realizing that he’s completely out of control, our protagonist decides to destroy all copies of the book which contains the fatal lullaby. In order to do so, he enlists the help of a realtor who specializes in haunted houses (because you can sell those again… and again… and again…), an eco-terrorist and a Wiccan girl. A motley crew, or an ultramodern nuclear family? Turns out there isn’t much of a difference.
Killing library clerks, burning down used bookstores, scamming restaurants and sight-seeing a bit, the protagonist’s quest eventually uncovers something even more sinister, a spell-book that promises to unleash even more devastation if it falls in the wrong hands.
Which it does.
There’s always been a sub-theme of apocalyptic renewal in Palahniuk’s fiction (from Tyler Durden’s ultimate goal in Fight Club to the fist-fight climax of Survivor) and this fascination is magnified here. Indeed, elements of previous novels pop up here and there, like Choke‘s scamming or Invisible Monsters‘s road trip and -naturally- the hip and rhythmic prose of his entire oeuvre.
This time, Palahniuk leaves weird-but-realistic fiction behind and imagines a warped tale of urban fantasy. Charles de Lint on acid, in one way. While Choke already showed signs of dipping in the fantastic pool, Lullaby jumps right in with magic spells and haunted houses. Add to that the strangely altered universe in which the tale takes place, and it gets a bit messy.
But messy fun: This is probably Palahniuk’s most enjoyable novel since Survivor. Whereas Invisible Monsters was trashy fun, Lullaby has more unity and content than Choke while offering a more interesting reading experience. All the usual Palahniuk elements are there, so fans know what to expect. Newer readers, on the other hand… should expect something weird. But good.