Thursday, December 4, 2008

Lullaby - Chuck Palahniuk

Lullaby was published in 2002. It is the follow-up to Choke. Is it better than Choke? That's hard to say, but for me personally, Choke is better. It is certainly more arresting and consistent than either Diary or Haunted. Elements of it are quite similar to Rant. It deals in the fantastic. Many days I wish I knew the culling song that consigns the title of the book. A person can say the poem taken from Poems and Rhymes from Around the World and kill whoever is in their immediate vicinity. They can even say the culling song silently to themselves in their mind and focus their energy on a person and have them drop dead from far away. Some days I wish I could have someone say the culling song to me. A mysterious death is produced, without a known cause. It seems relatively painless.

Carl Streator, the protagonist of the novel, makes the connection between a series of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome occurrences and each family's possession of Poems and Rhymes from Around the World, opened up to page 27, the culling song. It is meant to help babies fall asleep. A lullaby. Palahniuk never reveals the actual words of the song. He only mentions that it is about animals going to sleep.

The main characters are Streator, Helen Hoover Boyle, a real-estate agent, Mona, her secretary, Oyster, her boyfriend, and John Nash, a paramedic. The novel gets started up relatively quickly, and by page 50 turns into something of a mass-market thriller, which still carries enough wit to keep it edgy. By that I mean it is a page-turner.

Helen sells haunted houses on a revolving schedule as soon as the new owners of each discover the fact. Carl is a journalist. Mona and Oyster are Wiccans, militant vegans, and not necessarily what they appear to be. Nash takes advantage of the recent spat of unsolved deaths. The book does have a moral center and once Carl and Helen discover that they are addicted to the power that the culling song gives them, they embark upon a cross-country road trip with Mona and Oyster in the backseat. This is where the novel really starts to hit its stride. This is where it becomes even more of a page-turner.

There is one problem with the novel. At one point, Streator mentions that Poems and Rhymes from Around the World was published eleven years ago. Soon after it is mentioned that both Hoover and Streator were in possession of the book twenty years before. Since this plot hole is never explained, I take it to be something of an editorial oversight--more and more of which I have been catching since I have started to work as a proofreader ("rememer" and "look" instead of "lock" are two particular typos I found in my copy of The New York Trilogy). I am willing to forgive Palahniuk though. It makes me feel better about myself. As one of my college professors used to like to say, "Even Homer nods."

In the way of larger social commentary that Palahniuk usually delivers in his works, there is much talk about how Big Brother has been infused into the manifold media we consume on a daily basis. There were not many easily quotable sections that I came across until near the very end, where some of the statements crystallized into a somewhat cogent philosophical position:

"I can't tell what I really want and what I've been tricked into wanting.
What I'm talking about is free will. Do we have it, or does God dictate and script everything we do and say and want? Do we have free will, or does the mass media and our culture control us, our desires and actions, from the moment we're born? Do I have it, or is my mind under the control of Helen's spell?" (228)

Lullaby is about power and the abuse of it. It is about supernatural practices and rituals and it provides enough trivia to make people who want to believe in that sort of thing investigate further. The Wiccan aspect is vaguely mocked, but taken seriously enough to potentially influence readers that might have hopes of learning real spells. The Book of Shadows is invoked and I kept thinking of the Blair Witch Project even though I never saw the sequel, and it seems like this could have been a fun but potentially maddening topic to research. In short, this is one of Palahniuk's better novels. And like I said before, I prefer Choke slightly more, because it's closer, even if by just a little bit, to everyday life.

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