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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Lullaby by Chuck Palahnuik

"I need to rebel against myself. It's the opposite of following your bliss. I need to do what I most fear." Beleaguered reporter Carl Streator is stuck writing about SIDS and grieving for his dead wife and child; he copes by building perfect model homes and smashing them with a bare foot. But things only get worse: Carl accidentally memorizes an ancient African "culling song" that kills anyone he focuses on while mentally reciting it, until killing "gets to be a bad habit." His only friend, Nash, a creepy necrophiliac coroner, amuses himself with Carl's victims. Salvation of a sort comes in the form of Helen Hoover Boyle, a witch making a tidy living as a real estate broker selling-and quickly reselling-haunted houses. She, too, knows the culling song and finances her diamond addiction by freelancing as a telepathic assassin. Carl and Helen hit the road with Helen's Wiccan assistant, Mona, and her blackmailing boyfriend, Oyster, on a search-and-destroy mission for all outstanding copies of the culling song, as well as an all-powerful master tome of spells, a grimoire. Hilarious satire, both supernatural and scatological, ensues, the subtext of which seems to be Palahniuk's conviction that information has become a weapon ("Imagine a plague you catch through your ears"), and the bizarre love affair between Helen and Carl offers the lone linear thread in a field of narrative flak bursts.
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 "accidentally" 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.

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