The sentences that carry us through “Lullaby,” Chuck Palahniuk’s fifth novel, are clear and direct. Unfortunately, nothing else about the novel is worthy of these adjectives.
The prologue introduces us to what the third-person narrator describes as “our hero, Helen Hoover Boyle.” “Our hero” is a such a constant tag that in the prologue it works almost as a “Mrs.” would. Clearly, this is either pretty heavy-handed foreshadowing, or even heavier-handed irony. Helen is a real estate agent. But rather than negotiating the transactions of typical suburban homes or offices, she deals exclusively in haunted houses.
“Lullaby” narrator Carl Streator is a journalist assigned to a five-part series on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
As might be gleaned from Helen’s atypical real estate dealing, Palahniuk demands that the reader either believe in magic or that the reader take it as a necessary device for the telling of his story and just accept it. The first option, believing in magic, seems impossible and is not up for discussion either way. The second option, though not necessarily problematic, is mandatory in this particular situation.
There are plenty of examples in literature in which the author asks the reader to go along with the supernatural (Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” for one). Which is to say, the going-along is not the problem here, it is that the entire story, essentially from first to last sentence, is an exercise in accepting the impossible for no apparent reason (except authorial laziness).
“Lullaby’s” narrator is Carl Streator. Streator’s most recent assignment is to write a five-part series on SIDS. He discovers, rather quickly, that the cause of SIDS is the reading of a culling song found on page twenty-seven of “Poems and Rhymes from Around the World.” The culling song is thought to be a lullaby; unsuspecting parents read it to their children, killing them. The method of discovery is painfully simple – Carl finds the book either open to page 27 or a copy of the book that falls open to this page at the scene of the various SIDS death scenes he is using for his articles.
It is difficult to accept a lot of this – that a lullaby kills babies, that this lullaby can be checked-out of your neighborhood public library (and remains undiscovered), and that ghosts exist and haunt houses. Unfortunately these are just some, and some of the less extreme, instances of Palahniuk stretching and ignoring reality for the sake of his story.
Part of Palahniuk’s motivation, it seems, in using these devices is as metaphor for his overt social commentary. A seemingly innocent lullaby being the cause of SIDS seems to reflect the narrator’s obsessive irritation with society’s addiction to sound – the sound of televisions, stereos – and fear of silence.
“These music-oholics. These calm-ophobics,” Carl refers to the sound-obsessed.
The reading aloud of a lullaby exists as a sound, a disturbance of the calm before sleep and, in Carl and Helen’s world, a murder weapon. The metaphorical link is not hard to discern here. Besides this function, the inclusion of the supernatural acts to tie all of the many the loose ends together.
Neither of these motives seems justifiable. When Palahniuk avoids the supernatural, which he does do for certain side streams, it works quite well. His writing is much more powerful, his social commentary more biting. The loose ends are a clear fault. Excusing them with the supernatural only exacerbates their obviousness and the problems they create in the story.
Palahniuk is an excellent crafter of clear, brief sentences. He is talented at creating unusual and interesting characters. And, clearly, he is an imaginative storyteller. In this story’s case there is simply too much tugging on the bounds of reality. The inclusion of some of these supernatural twists would not be unreasonable, but “Lullaby” is simply a case of taking it too far, making these twists too prevalent and too important.