“In a world where vows are worthless. Where making a pledge means nothing. Where promises are made to be broken, it would be nice to see words come back into power.”
When reporter Carl Streator is assigned to investigate and produce several articles on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, he uncovers an ominous connection between these deaths. Before they died, all the children had been read the same poem from the same poetry anthology, known as the “culling song”. Originally an ancient African spell for euthanizing the old or sick in times of famine and war, it is now being sung as a lullaby by unsuspecting parents.
Streator teams up with real estate broker Helen, a woman had who accidentally killed her own child with the poem twenty years before. With the help of Helen’s secretary, earnest Wiccan Mona and her eco-terrorist boyfriend Oyster, they embark on cross-country journey to destroy all remaining copies of the poem from the libraries.
>While I have taken care not to include any major plot points in this review, if you wish to avoid any minor spoilers, please skip ahead to the next section<
Lullaby offers a very Chuck Palahniuk take on the thriller novel, winding and unwinding genre conventions to warn readers about the dangers of psychic infection in a world which constantly floods us with information.
Control is a re-occurring theme in the novel. Power manifests itself as information that controls and dominates others. Sometimes that information is written down, like the book which holds the culling song, or the lawsuit “anti-advertisements” which associates negative (and disturbingly graphic) events with specific businesses. Other times, power is gained through verbal communication.
The use of sound to assert dominance is initially presented in Streator’s disdain for the modern obsession with meaningless noise. By repeatedly describing others as “sound-oholics” and “quiet-ophobics”, he is outlining their fear of silence, as well as their determination to be the loudest and drowning out others. (You can certainly see where Palahniuk’s frustration with a noisy neighbour has come into play within the book!)
The ultimate form of control – the power to end another’s life – is tied up in the culling song. Most of the characters who come across the poem do not realise that they have this power until it is too late. Even more hauntingly, this ability stays with them. Taunting them… tempting them to use it to their advantage.
“We’re all of us, haunted and haunting.”
Reciting the age old message “power corrupts”, Palahniuk is able to turn the detective narrative on its head and provoke the worst behaviour from characters who are supposed to act as the novel’s moral compass. The narrator, Streator is a primary example of this. Palahniuk encourages the reader to root for him, to perceive him as mentally stronger than those who are unable to resist using the culling song.
In the beginning, it is easy to compare Streator against his partner, Helen, a woman who has murdered her own son and knowingly sells unsuspecting buyers haunted houses without an ounce of regret. He is a more trustworthy, morally attuned character – but most importantly, he has been given the hero’s role.
And yet, as the story goes on, the reader soon learns that Streator and Helen aren’t as different as they first seem…
Conflict arising from the traditional values vs. the new and chaotic forces which threaten to take control is another prominent theme. This theme mostly plays out in the narrative as the tension between Streator and Mona’s boyfriend, Oyster. He is not only unable to hide his jealousy over Oyster’s youth and physical attractiveness, but is also threatened by Oyster’s opinions and attitudes regarding how society should behave.
“Every generation wants to be the last. Every generation hates the next trend in music they can’t understand. We hate to give up the reigns of our culture. To find our own music playing in elevators. The ballad for our revolution, turned into background music for a television commercial. To find our generation’s clothes and hair suddenly retro.”
The reader is continuously reminded of the fact that Helen and Streator belong to a different generation to Mona and Oyster. The former are given the roles of “Mom” and “Dad”, while the latter are regarded in much the same way as rebellious teenagers.
Dysfunctional families, I feel, is one of Palahniuk’s favourite motifs, and Lullaby is just one of his many novels which explore this feature (e.g. the cults in Survivor and Fight Club, Brandy Alexander and her entourage in Invisible Monsters). In this case, I believe the motif is used to further challenge and subvert traditional values by offering a twisted depiction of the nuclear family.
Chuck Palahniuk coming up with the idea for his next book…
If you’re wondering why I have decided to write about a book which is over a decade old (other than the fact that I am a big fan of Palahniuk’s work and this one has been sitting on my bookshelf for too long), I think it is important to revisit its messages in the light of recent technological advancements.
Palahniuk has a knack for writing a Dystopian and setting it in the modern day. His characters, though most often grossly exaggerated caricatures, are symbols of our very worst traits as human beings. Therefore, they are still recognisable in their resemblance to us. Like distorting mirrors at a carnival.
Lullaby is a cautionary tale for the Information Age. Now that social media has become such an integral part of our lives and the spread of free Wi-Fi means that internet access has gone mobile, it is so easy for us to be flooded with and overwhelmed by information.
Looking at some of the recently established news sites, like Buzzfeed, LADBible or UNILAD, and the way in which older platforms have adapted themselves to suit changes in consumer behaviour, it is apparent that these news companies are all desperately battling it out with each other, competing for our attention and our loyalty. This has led to the creation and quick spread of click-bait articles, with their eye-catching and controversial headlines, deliberately designed to get us commenting and sharing across social media platforms.
It is no longer enough to simply report on the facts. If online audiences cannot digest the truth, then it must instead be the more marketable and most interesting version of the truth. And the shorter the better, because the majority of internet users apparently have a non-existent attention span.
“The mass media, the culture, everything laying eggs under my skin. Big Brother filling me with need.
Do I really want a big house, a fast car, a thousand beautiful sex partners? Do I really want those things? Or am I trained to want them?”
Palahniuk does not hold back on his criticisms of modern society. If we apply the criticisms present in Lullaby to current society, we will see that meaningless noise and the desire to be louder than others constantly plays out in our social feeds. Moreover, we should ask ourselves how many of these messages (regardless of whether we think we’ve read them) has had an influence on our thoughts and opinions?
Analysis aside, I would like to end this novel by answering the one question you probably wanted to see at the beginning of this article:
Is it worth the read?
I would ultimately say that you should read Fight Club, Survivor or Invisible Monsters before you think about reading Lullaby. This is because these novels touch upon similar themes, but the narratives are told in a way which is much more captivating and I personally found their narrator easier to engage with.
Nevertheless, I would place this novel in fourth place on my list of favourite Chuck Palahniuk books. On closer reflection, Lullaby is easier to appreciate when you consider what themes has gone into forming the narrative.