Entertainment & the Arts, Sunday, October 6, 2002
“Lullaby” by Chuck Palahniuk
Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times
Ranting against consumerism and all the noise of the material world may seem passe, but what doesn’t these days? Chuck Palahniuk’s novels are here to say that alienation and despair and general weirdness are never really out of fashion.
This is Palahniuk’s fifth novel in six years, and his herky-jerky prose makes Stephen King seem like F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he knows how to spin together whacked-out stories particular to our times.
Carl Streator, a middle-aged journalist, is researching a story on SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. He discovers that children are dying when they’re read a bedtime poem, a “culling song” contained in an anthology.
Streater further learns that this poem is so lethal he can kill people simply by reciting it in his mind. Bodies then start dropping: his boss, a neighbor, a stranger, anyone who annoys him is in danger.
“But, no, I’m never going to use the culling song again.
“But even if I did use it, I wouldn’t use it for revenge.
“I wouldn’t use it for convenience.
“I certainly wouldn’t use it for sex.
“No, I’d only use it for good.”
The power of knowing this poem initially appeals to Streater, of course.
“In a world where vows are worthless. Where making a pledge means nothing. Where promises are made to be broken, it would be nice to see words come back into power.
“In a world where the culling song was common knowledge, there would be sound blackouts. Like during wartime, wardens would patrol. But instead of hunting for light, they’d listen for noise and tell people to shut up…. It would be a world where each word was worth a thousand pictures….
“The upside is maybe our minds would become our own.”
However, he comes to recognize that the poem can’t be controlled and must be wiped out – the survival of civilization depends on it and all that.
So he teams up with Helen Hoover Boyle, a real estate agent with pink fingernails who also knows the secret of the poem. They are joined by her secretary Mona, a Wiccan, and Mona’s idiot eco-terrorist boyfriend. The four of them embark on a apocalyptic roadtrip, conning and murdering their way through libraries and houses, searching for the remaining copies of the anthologies that include the killing poem.
So there’s the setup for the story, which develops a few nifty twists, but the story line sometimes seems to exist primarily to carry along Palahniuk’s many rants.
“Old George Orwell got it backward.
“Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed….
“Big Brother filling me with need.
“Do I really want a big house, a fast car, a thousand beautiful sex partners? Do I really want these things? Or am I trained to want them?
“Are these things really better then the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?”
Palahniuk also proposes a few pet theories such as “Maybe humans are the pet alligators that God flushed down the toliet,” and “Too many advertising jingles comingling could be behind global warming,” and “Too many television reruns bouncing around might cause hurricanes. Cancer. AIDS.”
Throughout the ranting and theorizing, Palahniuk employs a playfullly perverse wit and a good eye for repellant details. Though the world may be plagued by information overload, as Palahniuk suggests, the richness of his imagination in the face of this proves that the plague isn’t fatal or even debilitating, at least not yet.