The Short Version: Carl is a reporter on the trail of a story about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. As it turns out, he once had a child die from it too – and he notices a strange coincidence: a particular lullaby from an innocuous book of songs & poems from around the world. Except this song isn’t so innocuous: it’s a culling song, able to kill the person who hears it. So Carl sets out, with the help of a haunted-house realtor, an earnest Wiccan, and her scuzzy boyfriend to destroy all the copies they can.
The Review: I read all of Chuck’s early work in a rush in the span of late high school to my sophomore year of college, when I finally caught up. As a result, there’s a chunk of his work that doesn’t stick with me at all: Lullaby and Diary. I remember the vaguest of outlines of both, but not really many of the details – and so, as I pick up hardcover copies at Strand to replace my old paperbacks, I thought it’d be worthwhile to refresh my memory. Remind myself of just what it was that made me love Chuck so much from so early on.
Except I’m a little older now. I’ve read a lot more. And it’s funny to look at this earlier novel and say “oh, yeah, there are those quirks that I guess have actually always been there… I’d just forgotten.” Quick, go pick up any Palahniuk nearby. Read a chapter and then tell me: is there some kind of repetition you discover? A repeated phrase with a few things changed each time, usually proper nouns? If you read the whole thing, does the plot accelerate exponentially with maybe 20 pages left? Indeed, friends: you’re in a Palahniuk novel.
That said, my love for Chuck’s work – especially this earlier novel, one of his scarier creations – is not extinguished, simply diminished and returned to more realistic understandings. Lullaby is just fine: not exceptional, not as bad as some of his more recent output. The thing is, I remembered it as having been great… so what happened?
For one thing, I’d forgotten that Chuck doesn’t actually do horror that well. Haunted, sure, has its scary moments… but most of the scary stuff in Chuck’s work is just gross or repulsive-scary. It’s not straight-up spooky scary. This book feels like (although I seem to remember a King-ian sense to Diary…) it could be his “scariest”: the culling song is a shudder-inducing invention. Imagine a song that, if you heard it, it would kill you. Hell, you don’t even have to hear it if the person who thinks or hums or sings it is screwed up enough – it’ll get you anyway. And Palahniuk’s social commentary has rarely been more on point, as I reflect on Carl’s considerations of a world with so much less sound. Have we become scared of silence? Is that why, for example, my neighbors blast music at all hours of the day and night, with bass waves so large they start in their apartment and end in mine? The thought of policing sound because the simplest word could kill… that’s a strong reaction, a strong course-correction to our rapidly loudening world.
And that’s where the book fails, I think. Palahniuk has, for one of the few times since Fight Club, landed on important social commentary… but he seems hamstrung by it. In fact, everything about this novel feels a little held-back. For example, Helen Hoover Boyle spends her days constantly selling (and re-selling) haunted houses. (Here’s the repetition thing in this book, by the way.) But this doesn’t ever go anywhere. We’re told that this is a world full of ghosts, okay. And we see the culling song, so “magic” must be real. But nothing else really progresses for much of the book – until, as I said, those last 20 or so pages. Suddenly magic has come out to play in several different ways and we’re faced with the prospect of a violent struggle between two couples. Super interesting, right? Too bad that’s essentially where the book ends.
So why is this book any good? And the sheer fact of the matter is, I can’t really explain it. The social commentary only gets you so far, as does Palahniuk’s typically entertaining and snappy prose. Is it the idea of the culling song? That’s certainly interesting, but shouldn’t I (as the reader) expect more? And yet the whole thing, its twists on noir and horror and thrillers… it all works for me. Not in the way that Chuck’s best work (Rant, Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters), er, works – but it’s like watching a second-tier Alfred Hitchcock film. You know all the details already, what to look for and who will work out as what. The fun is in that comfort, actually; that comfort of knowing exactly what you’re going to get.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I thought I was going to like it more – and I’m tempted to give it a half a point extra for the jacket and the hardcover, which are both really gorgeous objects. But the idea, strong as it is (and creepy… man, the culling song sounds terrifying), doesn’t quite land as much as you expect it to. Palahniuk engages with the idea of how we, as a culture, have become noiseoholics… but the commentary doesn’t get much further because it gets caught in the plot… which doesn’t get all the way to where it needs to go for reasons I don’t understand. Still, it was fun to go pick up a Palahniuk where, at least, you knew it was going to be at-least-good.