Doubleday - copyright 2002
dust jacket cover art (left) by Judy Lanfredi
Book read in December 2002
Rating: 9/10 (Very Highly Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
On 2002 Bram Stoker Award Final Ballot
The protagonist of Lullaby is a newspaper reporter named Streator. (For most of the book, Streator is referred to only by his last name, and you wouldn't even know his first name until 200 pages in, except that the twits at Doubleday put in on the dust jacket.) As the book opens, Streator is researching a series of articles on crib death. In several of the infants' former homes he observes an anthology of poems, opened to an ancient African "culling song." Streator has seen this book before, back when he had a wife and child.
Reciting the culling song to another person is lethal. To Streator's horror, he finds that even thinking the words of the song is enough to do the trick, and the song has gotten stuck in his head. Streator has unwittingly become a serial killer.
He comes in contact with a series of people who richly deserve culling. Ironically, he has better luck restraining himself with them than with innocent people he encounters. The guy who bumps into him on the street, the neighbor whose stereo is too loud, the annoying talk show host on the radio, these are Streator's victims.
Streator teams up with pink-haired real estate broker Helen Hoover Boyle, who also learned how to use the culling song after losing her child to it. They go on the road with Boyle's assistant Mona Sabbat, a soft-spoken Wiccan, and Mona's boyfriend Oyster, an anything but soft-spoken environmentalist-cum-nihilist. Their mission is to find and destroy every existing copy of the culling song. They also want to discover if there exists a grimoire, a book of spells from which the culling song originated. Whether the grimoire should be destroyed or put to good use is a question on which they have not reached consensus.
The culling song is a neat premise, and Palahniuk uses it to brilliant effect, on both humorous and serious levels.
Palahniuk is one of the leading practitioners of black humor today. As chilling as the idea of the culling song is, you can't help but laugh when Streator unintentionally strikes down a radio evangelist in mid-sentence, or when you realize how Helen has channeled her ability - she is a high-priced hit man for various governments, taking out drug kingpins and other unsavories from very long range. There are many other funny touches, unrelated to the culling song. Helen focuses her real estate business on haunted houses because of the great turnover. To shake consumer confidence and to generate a little revenue from extortion, Oyster runs classified ads such as: "ATTENTION PATRONS OF THE APPAREL-DESIGN CHAIN OF CLOTHING STORES. If you've contracted genital herpes while trying on clothing, please call the following number to be part of a class-action lawsuit." If you fancy yourself as having a twisted sense of humor, you should be reading Chuck Palahniuk.
But there is much more to this novel than Palahniuk's dark humor. He uses the culling song effectively to create moral dilemmas and to examine patterns of human behavior. We start with Streator's quandary as a reporter who has discovered a huge story, but one he feels is too dangerous to print. Imagine the consequences if the public learned of the existence of the culling song. Palahniuk makes this into a metaphor for the problem of information overload in our society. He says Orwell got it wrong - Big Brother isn't watching us; we're watching him. We are all too busy watching to experience our own lives. Which in turn is exactly why Streator became a reporter, to lose himself in his observations of others.
In an era when long, bloated novels are in vogue, Palahniuk is refreshingly economical with his prose. We see what Streator sees, and Palahniuk trusts us to appreciate the significance of it all without spoon-feeding. Streator spots the book of poems at crib death scenes and the clear implication is left unspoken - there is no melodramatic line where Streator's "blood runs cold" as he realizes what's happening. We are not told how much Streator misses his wife and child, but in a powerful scene we watch the way he copes with his loss, and realize through that how profoundly it has affected him.The dark humor notwithstanding, this is not a feel-good book. Palahniuk doesn't use the premise of the culling song to set up an adventure thriller, but rather to pose tough questions about the human condition in the modern age, questions to which he offers no pat answers. The novel has some unpleasant moments, notably a scene of necrophilia that is as disturbing as anything you're likely to read. Thankfully, such passages are not gratuitous, but always serve an important purpose. Lullaby is not quite as fun to read as Fight Club, but I found it even more rewarding.
What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
Copyright © 2002 Aaron Hughes
front cover of the boards of the book itself (right)
The words coming out the chimney of the house: "Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, but Words Will Never Hurt You"