Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive


Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday / Random House

US Hardcover

ISBN 0-385-50447-0

Publication Date: 09-17-2002

260 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: 09-12-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



General Fiction, Horror, Science Fiction

09-20-02, 09-30-02, 10-08-02, 01-07-03, 06-12-03, 08-22-03, 10-22-03

William Burroughs, the source of more than a few famous quotes, once said, 'Language is a virus from outer space'. In 'Lullaby', Chuck Palahniuk takes that concept to its logical conclusion in a number of fashions. His plot concerns a linguistic virus, a death spell. It doesn't stop there. The language of the novel itself is viral, consisting of repetitive rhythms that are pounded into the readers' brains. It's positively rattling with ideas. Aphorisms litter its killing floor, and be advised there's lots of killing. The characters exist in language, not just in fleshy bodies, but be advised there's fair amount of flesh. 'Lullaby' uses all the tools of the supernatural horror novel, but it dissects a different corpse. In additional to the usual victims of the fluffy, friendly horror brick -- families -- you'll find culture, advertising, New Age bullshit and the oppressive presence of government control (without government, or actually control). Palahniuk shows a complete and very blunt control over every aspect of the language of horror. He uses the bat to bloody a different set of targets. If you can take it -- and some will not be able to -- you'll soon realize that you're in the presence of a viciously skillful writer.

In 'Lullaby', Palahniuk tells the story -- just the facts, ma'am -- of Carl Streator, a reporter who stumbles onto a story that reveals the power of language. Streator isn't a particularly likable guy, but he's not repulsive. He's maybe a bit tightly wound, a little overly dispassionate. But then, that's certainly understandable when his subject is SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Assigned by his editor to do a series on "the type of story that every parent and grandparent is too afraid to read and too afraid not to read", he finds a pattern where none has been seen before. After all, he's a details guy. A reporter. The deal is, is that there's a book, a collection titled "Poems and Songs from Around the World", and at each SIDS site he investigates, that book is open to page 27, an African "culling song". Once you've seen the song, once you've spoken the song, you can kill with it -- even by thinking it in someone's general direction. Streator finds that he has become a serial killer. Ordinary thoughts that usually are easily ignored become lethal weapons.

Investigating the deaths, he finds himself allied with Helen Boyle, a real estate broker who specializes in haunted houses, her secretary Mona Sabbat, and Mona's larcenous boyfriend Oyster. They set out on a quest together, the new "nuclear family" on a road trip across the new United States. Palahniuk the writer is hunting big game in 'Lullaby', not just the usual set of temporal thrills and chills. Interestingly enough, he provides plenty of the latter while lambasting the need for them, the use of them to anaesthetize a populace that needs no Big Brother to watch it. Big ideas are dropped in without any decoration. They're shaken about by Palahniuk's percussive language and hurled at the reader like a series of bricks from a particularly vicious brick-flinging machine. Palahniuk doesn't want to waste any of his characters' time or any of his readers' time. The writer has clearly spent his time wisely as well, breaking down the facts (He's reporter, remember? That important!) into the densest possible word clusters and repeating them often enough so that nobody can miss his messages.

There are quite a few of them battered about in 'Lullaby'. But Palahniuk doesn't dispense with his characters in the face of his linguistic virtuosity. He treats them harshly but with more than a little tenderness. Beneath the facts, ma'am, there's an abyss of longing and loss that he evokes with surprising ease. Every little regret, every little pleasure is teased about and circumscribed by language.

Readers of typical thriller and horror novels will find this novel compulsively readable and probably drier than they might wish, given the clarity of Palahniuk's grasp. Readers of literary fiction might find it grimmer and more evil than they would prefer. There's a flatness of affect that's fitting for a tale told by a serial killer, even one as reluctant as Carl Streator. Palahniuk's not playing this game for anyone's satisfaction but his own. If you've ever wanted to see a writer wield his words as if they were weapons then 'Lullaby' might be the book you're looking for. 'Lullaby' is a crafty and clever incantation in which sharp words do the work of blunt instruments.