Reading Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Lullaby over the course of a week is like coming home, night after night, to a house where someone had a dinner party and never cleaned up afterward. The elements that make any novel worth reading are all in there somewhere–theme, character, plot, humor, pacing and suspense, not to mention a winning way with a turn of phrase. But like a house full of detritus–dishes collecting mold in a sink, soiled laundry strewn about on the floor–nothing’s where it’s supposed to be, and everything’s filthy and used.
It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such squalor. As you might wish that a crew of elves had restored order while you were at work, so too might you fantasize, before picking Lullaby up from your bedside table, that finally, in tonight’s chapter, Palahniuk is going to clean up the extraordinary mess he has made.
But just as housecleaning elves don’t really exist, novels with this many problems don’t usually recover. Which is really too bad: Lullaby starts off ambitiously and–for a while, at least–seems like it might fulfill its early promise as a clever satire of the information society disguised as a supernatural thriller, and a dry commentary on the communicability of dangerous ideas.
Readers had been hopeful, since Palahniuk also wrote Fight Club, the darkly comic novel from which the Brad Pitt–Edward Norton movie was made. Fight Club was, in the end, a pointed indictment of consumer culture’s paralyzing stranglehold on the typical working stiff. The movie suggested what might have resulted had Stanley Kubrick taken a crack at directing “Dilbert.”
But Lullaby lacks Fight Club‘s focus. The novel is never exactly sure what it’s satirizing, besides the already somewhat exhausted topic of media oversaturation. As it is, Palahniuk’s surreal fable about information run amok feels a bit like a boorish latecomer to a party that Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and William S. Burroughs already left.
Palahniuk doesn’t preface his novel with the Burroughs epigram, “Language is a virus from outer space,” but he might as well have. At the center of Lullaby is a kind of deadly language virus, an ancient chant that, once uttered or even repeated silently in one’s head, has the ability to destroy anyone at whom it is directed. Carl Streator, a newspaper reporter assigned to write a story on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, discovers the chant’s role in a number of the crib deaths he’s investigating. Once he learns the chant itself, he’s unable to control its lethal energy. Whenever someone pisses him off, he can’t help but sing the “culling song” to himself. The bothersome someone ends up dead within a matter of seconds.
Horrified by his newfound powers, Streator launches a private investigation into the culling song’s history, in hopes of silencing it forever. The problem: The song’s printed lyrics appear in a book called Poems and Rhymes from Around the World, copies of which are sitting in public libraries all across America.
Streator’s investigation leads him to Helen Hoover Boyle, a real estate agent who specializes in haunted properties. (She simply turns the same houses over and over once the new residents discover blood dripping down the walls or headless torsos gliding through corridors at midnight–it’s a never-ending cycle of commissions.) Years ago, Helen lost her husband and son to the culling song; now, at Streator’s urging, she agrees to help him track down all the remaining copies and burn them.
Together they hit the road, along with Helen’s assistant, Mona (a moody Wiccan), and Mona’s boyfriend, Oyster, an anti-globalist/environmentalist/anarchist of the G7-protesting, Starbucks-window-smashing variety. For a while, Palahniuk has some well-deserved fun with this po-mo updating of the Rockwellian nuclear family on a cross-country trip–Mom and Dad in the front seat, Junior and Sis in the back. But people aren’t who they seem to be, of course, and before too long Norman Rockwell gives way to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as suspicions mount, trusts are betrayed and secret allegiances are formed.
Up to this point, Palahniuk has provided all the makings of a great novel. His characters (especially Helen) are well-drawn, his tone is suitably ironic, and the MacGuffin that sets everything in motion is certainly compelling enough to invite suspension of disbelief.
Then, about halfway through the book, the threads that tie this story together begin to unravel, quite marvelously. Palahniuk loses control of his action, and Lullaby loses its satirical nerve, dissolving into an absurd supernatural potboiler. Suddenly our wry, McLuhanesque fable about memetic contagion becomes a Dean Koontz thriller, overloaded with all the genre’s leaden tropes: levitation, “occupation spells,” and a struggle over an apocalyptic “book of shadows” that will allow its possessor to rule the world.
Oh well. Lullaby turns out to be a noble effort at black-humored cultural commentary that can’t sustain the weight of its own device. Satire is always a delicate balancing act between idea and plot. Once you shift too much weight in the direction of plot there’s no going back–you lose everything. Lullaby certainly does.
Chuck Palahniuk: Go home, clean those dishes, wash and fold those clothes and mop that floor. Get your storytelling house in order. Then invite us back over.