Lullaby: A Novel
From the author of the New York Times bestseller Choke and the cult classic Fight Club, a cunningly plotted novel about the ultimate verbal weapon, one that reinvents the apocalyptic thriller for our times.
Carl Streator is a solitary widower and a fortyish newspaper reporter who is assigned to do a series of articles on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. In the course of this investigation he discovers an ominous thread: the presence at the death scenes of the anthology Poems and Rhymes Around the World, all opened to the page where there appears an African chant, or “culling song.” This song turns out to be lethal when spoken or even thought in anyone’s direction—and once it lodges in Streator’s brain he finds himself becoming an involuntary serial killer. So he teams up with a real estate broker, one Helen Hoover Boyle–who specializes in selling haunted (or “distressed”) houses (wonderfully high turnover), and who lost a child to the culling song years before–for a cross-country odyssey to remove all copies of the book from libraries, lest this deadly verbal virus spread and wipe out human life. Accompanying them on this road trip are Helen’s assistant, Mona Sabbat, an exquisitely earnest Wiccan, and her sardonic ecoterrorist boyfriend Oyster, who is running a scam involving fake liability claims and business blackmail. Welcome to the new nuclear family.
On one level, Lullaby is a chillingly pertinent parable about the dangers of psychic infection and control in an era of wildly overproliferated information: “Imagine a plague you catch through your ears…imagine an idea that occupies your mind like a city.” But it is also a tightly wound thriller with an intriguing premise and a suspenseful plot full of surprising twists and turns. Finally, because it is a Chuck Palahniuk novel, it is a blackly comic tour de force that reinforces his stature as our funniest nihilist and a contemporary seer.
The consequences of media saturation are the basis for an urban nightmare in Lullaby, Chuck Palahniuk’s darkly comic and often dazzling thriller. Assigned to write a series of feature articles investigating SIDS, troubled newspaper reporter Carl Streator begins to notice a pattern among the cases he encounters: each child was read the same poem prior to his or her death. His research and a tip from a necrophilic paramedic lead him to Helen Hoover Boyle, a real estate agent who sells “distressed” (demonized) homes, assured of their instant turnover. Boyle and Streator have both lost children to “crib death,” and she confirms Streator’s suspicions: the poem is an ancient lullaby or “culling song” that is lethal if spoken—or even thought—in a victim’s direction. The misanthropic Streator, now armed with a deadly and uncontrollably catchy tune, goes on a minor killing spree until he recognizes his crimes and the song’s devastating potential. Lullaby then turns into something of a road trip narrative, with Streator, Boyle, her empty-headed Wiccan secretary Mona, and Mona’s vigilante boyfriend Oyster setting out across the U.S. to track down and destroy all copies of the poem.
In his previous works, including the cult favorite Fight Club, Palahniuk has demonstrated a fondness for making statements about the condition of humanity, and he uses Lullaby like a blunt object to repeatedly overstate his generally dim view. Such dogmatic venom undermines the persuasiveness of his thesis about mass communication and free will, but thankfully, Palahniuk offers some respite here by allowing for sympathy and love, as well as through his razor-sharp humor, such as his mock listings for Helen’s possessed properties: “six bedrooms, four baths, pine-paneled entryway, and blood running down the kitchen walls….” At such moments, Lullaby casts a powerful spell. —Ross Doll