“It would be nice to see words come back into power,” muses the narrator of Lullaby, a book that goes about said mission with savage poise and double espresso urgency. While the season’s murderous-media hit movie, The Ring, promises death by videotape, Chuck Palahniuk’s latest expulsion of pop-nihilist bile brandishes the threat of fatal language—William Burroughs’s word virus in a Buffy scenario.
Carl Streator, a reporter on the sudden-infant-death beat, finds the same children’s book at each cribside, open to the same ancient lullaby. With the mantra lodged in his brain, ready to uncoil at any moment, Streator turns ambivalent serial killer, seesawing between anger management and lethal telepathic hostility. He embarks on a nationwide disarmament campaign, tracking down every last copy, accompanied by an almost sitcom-perfect alternative family: bejeweled haunted-house realtor Helen Hoover Boyle, her Wiccan-ditz secretary, Mona, and Mona’s eco-punk beau, Oyster.
As the characters anticipate “a plague you catch through your ears,” this sardonic tract wonders if the end of mass media would be such a bad thing. Implicit in each of Palahniuk’s buff, exacting sentences is the charge that words are forever being stripped of meaning. He decries adjectival abuse (“According to Town & Country, strands of fat pearls are lustrous. According to Travel & Leisure, a private yacht anchored in the sunny Mediterranean is relaxing”) and contrives sneering parodies of descriptive prose, as in a running gag that suggests a paint-catalog copywriter in breathless distress: “It’s the blue of a robin’s egg you might find and then worry that it won’t hatch because it’s dead inside.”
Lullaby may envisage the revenge of the oral tradition on a riotous technocracy, but it has an unabashed movie-rights-presold quality. (David Fincher’s Fight Club adaptation ensures that Palahniuk’s percussive beats have ready cinematic analogues—comma as swish pan, paragraph break as jump cut.) Climaxing in spellbook one-upmanship, the novel itself becomes an incantation—or an arena anthem. Slogans, factoids, rallying cries, all recur with gathering force, each repetition a pinging elastic band alerting the reader to the emergence of a cosmic pattern.
Palahniuk has never shied from grandiosity, and Lullaby is yet another redemption fantasy starring a God complex, pumped up with Kierkegaardian dread, Cartesian doubt, and Malthusian panic. He shows again how fuzzy ideas connect via hard right hooks, but subtler word games rule here. Lullaby hones its shut-the-fuck-up misanthropy into something like poignant despair: a plea to reclaim language from the perverting miasma of white noise.