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Reading this is like watching gonzo porn: the context is totally forgettable, but there's parts you tend to watch over and over again because it's outrageous, it's something you'd probably never or could do, and it's just downright titillating naughtiness. Porn is a genre based solely on stimulation, usually of the solitary kind. Horror, the claimed genre of this novel, is interested in scaring you, or at least putting some creepiness in your life by illustrating acts of inhumane insanity or supernatural machination. Lullaby is more porn-like than horror-like on the surface because, while it shines up its gravemarkers with diabolical insight, it is peeping in on audacious acts for vicarious quivers. It's not so much the who, what, where, how of things. It's more the because for what I'll call Palahniuk's Oildrips of Desperation.
These doom-oholics. These hope-ophobics.
The plot is quite clever. Carl Streator is a reporter investigating crib deaths. Helen Hoover Boyle is a real estate agent who specializes in haunted houses because the turnover and monetary gain is very, very high. Mona, her secretary, is a wanna-be, New Wave witch with a boyfriend named Oyster who supports himself by placing ads in the newspaper inviting class-action lawsuits thereby extorting the accused businesses. Things move quickly when Streator discovers the same book of lullabies at every crime scene. It contains an ancient African culling song, which, when read or directed at someone, kills them instantly. The four characters hook up on a road trip to find all copies of this powerful chant. Along the way, lots of people fall down dead, because, as one character confesses, “no matter how many people I kill, it's never enough” (Doubleday, ISBN 0385504470, 1 st Trade Edition Hardback, c.2002, p.195).
Although they seek different results, powermongering seems to addict them all to this maniacal quest. There are a number of comedic sidebars like following the media miracles of the Flying Virgin with a French manicure and Bug-Off insect defogger, the resurrections of the Roadkill Jesus also known as the I-84 Messiah, or the antics of the talking Judas Cow, who moos “reject your meat-eating ways” (p.192). The deaths and post-sexual violations of fashion models by a necrophilic paramedic adds to the sick humor, while the witches' gathering where everybody practices “ritual nudity” (p.96) and brings a hors d'oeuvre is just plain hilarious.
Most of these incidents or murders lead to or emphasize the Oildrips.
Like the warehouse furniture store where the antique and beautiful “armoires are the cockroaches of our culture” (p.51), because, unlike the rich and successful women who gazed into their surfaces over the years, they do not age, lose their value or fade into meaninglessness. Objects are coveted, dead people are, well, dead.
When color is used to describe clothing, it is associated to epicurean objects of rank and power and discernment, as “green . . . but more the green of avocado bisque topped with a paper-thin sliver of lemon, served ice cold in a yellow Sevres soup plate” (p.82). People are, ah, food. Or, as Oyster muses, “ever wonder when God's coming back with a lot of barbecue sauce?” (p.140).
Streator greases his neighbors because “either an ancient cursed Egyptian mummy has come back to life and is trying to kill the people next door, or they're watching a movie”. This “siege of noise” (p.16) causes him to postulate the Niagara Falls of Oildrips:
This adds an icy bite to the novel's title Lullaby, which essentially is a tranquilizing noise to put you to sleep. The curse becomes the cure as Streator considers releasing the deadly culling poem to scare away misuse of all media, until realizing he'll create a world where “the deaf shall inherit the earth. And the illiterate” (p43). If Orwell set the bar on brainwashing, Palahniuk just might be the first to clear it.
Oyster's contribution to the Oildrips reads like a catalog of ecological griefs. He talks rabidly about cheatgrass, the European starling, and Dutch elm disease, calling them “franchised life-forms” because, when introduced by Man for his selfish purposes of exploiting the environment, they strangle out all native species. “'The only biodiversity we're going to have left,' he says, 'is Coke verses Pepsi'” (p.115). Meanwhile, Mona, his partner-in-crime, mindlessly crafts a Navajo dream catcher, adding I Ching coins to “superenergize it” because primitive art “put[s] you in touch with all sorts of ancient energies and stuff” (p.112). She is “the ruins of Western civilization” (p.188) tumbling along with Big Brother's babble.
If you are gumshoeing for solutions, walk elsewhere. Palahniuk is not dyking the flow of misery and discontent here. He is providing viscosity for these Oildrips so you can identify them as they leak from the machines of the tyrants and opportunists. Cynically, he despairs that “history is filled with brilliant people who wanted to fix things and just made them worse” (p.231). It is the punk in him that is screaming at you, or, as Oyster says, “trying to destroy the existing culture by spreading our own contagion” (p.116). But he recognizes the self-serving flaw of Nihilism when he states that “every generation wants to be the last” (p.160). Poetically, his vision is a direct hit, but his solutions have about as much refinement as the Unibomber's. Or, as Sarge says at the end, “I have a badge and a gun and a penis . . . How about we just kill them the old-fashioned way?” (p.259-60).
These opine-oholics. These tolerant-ophobics.