I’ve been meaning to reassess the work of Chuck Palahniuk for awhile now. As a teenager, I was really into his stuff, but as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to question that affection. I’ve started to doubt his prowess as a story teller, because when I think about his work it rarely has anything to do with the actual stories or characters themselves. Which is odd because, on their face, the concepts themselves are always incredibly interesting and eye catching. You read a dust cover or two, and I’d imagine that it would peak most people’s interest.
They’re always titillating and always provocative. So I guess the real question is then, are they anything more than that? When I was young and lacked any real life experience, that’s really all it took most of the time, as the simple act of reading one of his novels felt like a transgressive act. It felt like I was joining in on some sort of edgy experience. I probably felt like it made me cool, just like I thought it made me cool when I was 12 and I saw Fight Club for the first time. Like I said, it felt transgressive.
Speaking of youth and Fight Club, at the age I experienced that movie, I obviously didn’t get the subtext. I was 12, so sue me. I didn’t understand that it was about the trappings of modern masculinity, consumerism, not assigning personal self-worth through things owned, and how the suppression of male expression is potentially volatile. It’s actually a pretty sensitive story, it’s just delivered with bravado and a punch to the face, which is the entire point and is thematically consistent. The craziest thing about the story, though, is the fact that the movie adaptation is able to make its’ points in a way more salient fashion than the novel. It’s one of the rarest occasions when a film version of a book is better than the source material. That’s not always the case, as the second film adaptation of one of his books, Choke, pretty much entirely drops the ball, and strips the story of all of its’ complexity in service of a dark and quirky romance. That’s certainly present in the novel, but it’s not really the point.
So I got to wondering, as I am one to do, and I started thinking about whether or not any of his stuff would stand up to the scrutiny of my “adult” brain. Was Palahniuk more than just a provocateur, confronting white suburban malaise, or was his work ultimately just a shallow exercises in titillation? Hell, was he even a good writer? With these questions clanking around the old gray matter, I decided to read some of his stuff that I had missed back in the day. It’s been since about 2010 since I’ve read anything of his, the abysmal Snuff which started my current train of thought. So I’ve decided to check out one of his earlier novels that always sounded interesting to me, Lullaby.
Lullaby is the story of a rag-tag group of modern social stereotypes that travel around the country trying to stop an ancient culling song, of which causes the listener to die within 24 hours. See? Pretty interesting concept for a story but, this being a Palahniuk story, nothing is quite so simple, and the conceit isn’t really what the story is about. It acts like more of a hook, but the meat, or the “fish” I suppose, is really about how the characters exist with the knowledge of the culling song, rather than being about the culling song itself.
There’re not many moments of deep character introspection. Everything is mostly literal events that are literally reacted to. Yeah, there’s a few diatribes about who the main character supposes the other characters are, and what their motivations might be, but none of it really adds up to much. To be fair, though, it doesn’t really have to.
If Palahniuk is good at doing anything, it’s getting you, the reader, to make your own assumptions about character motivations, and even when it seems clear that he as the author doesn’t particularly care for a character, he never makes it easy for us to completely dismiss them and write them off. He seems to want you to make your own conclusions about the characters that populate his stories. He’s incredibly non-judgmental in this respect, and even though his characters can often feel like modernistic archetypes, he is always able to use that against us. It almost feels combative at times. No one is especially “easy” to hate, and our feelings about them are all about our preconceptions concerning certain types of social stereotypes. He provides us with a skeleton, and we are supposed to bring the body.
Lullaby is more about its ideas than it’s characters, at the end of the day, and in that is the most interesting stuff. The question that is central to this yarn is basically, should we be able to decide who lives and dies based on our notions of justice, and what is just. For a little context, Palahniuk was asked to be a part of a panel that would decide whether or not his father’s murderer should receive the death penalty, and this made him seriously consider how he felt about capital punishment. It’s easy to take an altruistic stance on the issue when the concept is abstract, but once it becomes a reality, once it takes on corporeal form, it stops being so easy to even have a clear opinion on the subject, the soap box gets too high up to climb.
The story morphs from linear events to an existential debate. The main character, Carl Streator, acts as our storyteller, a narrator, and we see the “debate” through his eyes. He acts more as an author insert than as a real character. Yes, he is given a little bit of personal history, that acts as a mystery of sorts, but the reveal is so obvious that it kind of betrays itself. It doesn’t add much beyond providing an opportunity for Palahniuk to incorporate a scene involving Streator going down on his wife, who just so happens to be dead because of the culling song. Calm down, he doesn’t realize that she’s dead. I mean, she’s still warm… It still seems gross just for the sake of being gross, though, and doesn’t really deepen anything, but this is Palahniuk, so just the trauma of losing your wife and child wouldn’t be fucked up enough.
I’ve never had a problem with old Chuck’s pension for the gross, but it suffers in Lullaby because it all feels so superfluous. In fact, that’s the story with most of the character sub-plots, and it makes the proceedings feel like they are meandering. You need to have some backstory, obviously, but in this case, it doesn’t add up to much. Beyond the fact that two of the characters have suffered loss by way of the culling song, not much of what we are told adds to the themes of the story, and in a story that is primarily concerned with the conversation those themes present to us, it can feel like a slog at times.
There’s a lot of interesting story strands that are brought up, but the way the story ends just as things start getting interesting is fairly frustrating. After I turned the last page, I was left wanting more, which is normally a good thing, but in the case Of Lullaby it had to do more with the fact that nothing felt like it had been accomplished. It’s interesting thematic questions had been thrown aside so that the characters could have a culling song powered superhero battle. Now, that is all well and good, and could have been interesting, but it seemed to do so at the cost of thematic cohesion.
The story has a light supernatural bent to it. Well, beyond the conceit of the culling song that is. It comes by way of two side characters that accompany Streator on his journey. They are vegan Wiccans, that lean towards being “eco-terrorists.” They are pretty much there to provide the story with the meat of its conflict. I mean, dramatic stuff has to happen, so they are definitely a welcome presence, as they vie for the power of the culling song so they can enact their brand of justice. The problem I had with the “magic” elements of the story is that it felt like it was used to do a lot of narrative heavy lifting towards the end. It became a series of contrivances rather than logical conclusions.
Having said that, though, he paces the book really well. He does it by keeping the chapters relatively short, never more than 6 pages, and by jumping forward and backward in time. He frames the story as one being told by the main character, and it affords him the ability to jump around. He uses the gaps in the story to present us with a little bit of mystery, as we are left to wonder how everything will add up in the end. But, just like everything in life, the answers are rarely as compelling as the questions.
There’s one structural element that I thought I was at conflict with while reading the book, and that was the issue of tediousness in the writing. There are whole passages that delve into the minutia of life, and spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the names of places, prescription drugs, and the names of serial killers that were couples. It felt like filler, as you more than get the point after a few lines. There were more than a few times that I got so bored that I just put the book down altogether but, in hindsight, it comes off as really clever.
One of the mantras of the story has to do with the dangers of tedium when making big, broad decisions, or when trying to grasp larger concepts. If you get too stuck in the weeds, there’s a chance you just might confuse yourself. I think that’s what Palahniuk is getting at here. Relative to the sub-text, who has the right do determine who lives or dies, he is steeping you in that difficult mindset by purposefully obfuscating the conversation. He wants you to lose track of the “big questions,” so that he can slap you in the face with them at his leisure. It was a neat writing trick that I, admittedly, kind of missed while reading. So, you got me, Palahniuk!
I could get into some more stuff, but I feel like all the problems I have with the story are born from the same place. It never intends to finish the story, really. So everything that happens never feels like it matters because it never amounts to much. The only other thing I can think of to comment on is that the writing is a little droll but, to be fair to Palahniuk, that’s more or less his writing style. So you can either get on board with it, or not. It’s not something that really bothers me, but I could understand if it turned people off.
It’s weird, thinking about Lullaby is way more enjoyable than actually reading it, and in that the novel finds some small success. Even though I understood the points that were being made, whether by surface story or subtext, I don’t think the book presents them very well at times, and it feels like he had run out of steam by the last 50 or so pages. But even after saying all that, I don’t feel as though I’ve wasted my time. There’s some good food for thought in there, and even if the ending kind of goes off the rails it still provides some silly fun. I wouldn’t recommended Lullaby to someone that is new to Chuck Palahniuk’s work, but if you’re like me, then I’d say give it a go. It’s pretty short, so there’s that.
Apparently, there’s a feature film version of the novel in the works, and I actually think that’s a pretty good idea. Just like Fight Club, it’s a pretty simple and straightforward story, and I could see it easily being adapted and maybe even improved upon, as a lot of the filler material would have to be cut out. Who knows?!
Next up during Summer of Palahniuk: Diary