Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/10/2002.
Chuck's still writing, of course. If Lullaby was the first in his series of horror novels, then his time in the genre hit some sort of peak with Haunted in 2005, which contained a short story called Guts that frequently made people pass out during readings. (Download it now as a 10MB MP3. Go on. Dare ya.)
"So this guy wants to know -"
(And no, it's not me. I'm stuck at the back of the Freedom bar's basement during author Chuck Palahniuk's only scheduled London public appearance for 2002, and I'm in no position to ask him impertinent questions. Besides, I'm too preoccupied with what's going to happen when I approach him during the subsequent signing session with a slightly dubious request.)
"- this guy wants to know why all of my books are exactly the same..."
OK, so Chuck was paraphrasing for comic effect. The hapless questioner had asked about certain quirks of structure that reappear in Palahniuk's novels, and the author was man enough to admit that it's true: they tend to start with the main character in a situation of utter chaos, and then flash back to explain how they got there. The narrator of Fight Club, with a gun in his mouth at the top of a building that's about to explode. Tender Branson, the eponymous Survivor of Palahniuk's second novel, narrating his life story into the black box of a crashing aeroplane. The heroine of Invisible Monsters standing in the middle of a blazing building, one of her two worst enemies having just blasted the other one in the chest with a shotgun.
But beyond that surface level, there are a lot more similarities to be spotted. Palahniuk books are a treasure trove of arcane knowledge, primarily because most of his characters are. (If you need to know how to eat a lobster or how to get cum stains out of upholstery, Tender Branson's yer man.) They throb with catchphrases and verbal riffs that bleed into your everyday conversation if you're not careful. ('Cliche' isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind, as Vic Mancini from Choke would tell you.) And invariably, they focus on the way that a disgruntled narrator's life is turned upside down when a dangerous woman walks into it. (Brandy Alexander is admittedly one operation away from full womanhood in Invisible Monsters, but the template still applies.)
So the inevitable question to be asked now that Chuck Palahniuk's fifth novel Lullaby is on the shelves, is this: has he written the same book again? And the short answer is yes, kinda. He's done it incredibly well, but you've got to hope that he'll take a different tack next time.
Last year when Palahniuk was in London promoting Choke, he was asked about his next book. And in the same way that a one-sentence non-spoiler summary of the plot of Fight Club (guys rediscover their masculinity by hitting each other) could put many people off, his description of Lullaby being driven by the plot device of cot death didn't sound like an immediate goer. But as ever, there's more to this than meets the eye.
One interesting point that came out of his Lullaby talk was an insight into his writing process. For a start, it's changed recently: he used to write part-time while holding down a variety of jobs, but Lullaby is the first book he's written in a single dedicated stretch. He tends to write in crowded public places, avoiding the traditional seclusion that writers seek: the theory being, if you can't concentrate on a book you're writing in an airport departure lounge, then someone trying to read it in the same environment isn't likely to do much better.
Most interesting is the fact that all of his novels start out as short stories, which Palahniuk puts down to his "seven page attention span". His thinking is that if he can't express an idea fully in a couple of pages, then he hasn't thought it through sufficiently yet. Lullaby started out as a short story, and if you read chapters 2, 4 and 6 back to back (as Palahniuk did at his London reading) you'll get a fair idea of how it all came together.
Carl Streator is a journalist working for an city newspaper. His scumbag editor has sent him out on research for a series of articles on the touchy subject of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which means he has to visit lots of recently bereaved families. Inevitably, his instinct is to try to deduce some sort of link between the deaths. He finds one, but it's not one you'd expect: all of the families either owned or had borrowed the same book of poetry at the time of the death.
Specifically, there's one poem in this anthology which seems to be key to the epidemic: whenever Streator finds the book, it's open at that particular page. The poem's an African culling song. It was used by tribes whenever they were having problems with over-population or illness: basically, you read the poem to someone, they go to sleep, and they never wake up again. As an experiment, Streator reads the poem to his scumbag editor. By the following morning, he realises that he has the biggest story in the world in his lap.
Palahniuk's short story ended at that point: or, more precisely, with Streator saying to his editor "maybe we can talk about it in the morning". But Lullaby the novel takes this as a starting point and runs wildly with it. Because Streator decides that it's his responsibility to track down all the remaining copies of the poem and destroy them before it's too late. And with the aid of a bizarre surrogate family - the estate agent Helen Hoover Boyle, her assistant Mona, and Mona's boyfriend Oyster - he sets out across America to do just that. Trouble is, for all his idealism, there is the small problem that Streator now has a totally untraceable murder weapon stuck in his head.
Palahniuk has said all along that this is the first in a series of horror novels (apparently the next one will be more conspiracy based, and inspired by the work of Ira Levin). If Lullaby can be compared with any recent piece of horror, it's the Japanese movie Ring. In Hideo Nakata's film - and, presumably, in Gore Verbinski's forthcoming Hollywood remake - a series of random, mysterious deaths can ultimately be traced back to a single videotape whose contents kill the viewer seven days after they watch it. That piece of information is got out of the way fairly early on, and most of the film is spent following one character through their last seven days, and discovering with them how one small piece of VHS came to be so dangerous.
In Lullaby, the revelation of the culling song is again done early - this isn't a whodunnit or anything like that. But Palahniuk's approach is to play down the whole business of how the song came into existence, or why it does what it does, and to concentrate on the implications of it existing. And ultimately, as Streator comes to realise that just thinking the song hard at someone can kill them, the novel becomes an examination of the viral nature of information today. The most extraordinary sections in this book are where Streator considers the precautions society would have to take if something like this got into the public domain. "Imagine a new Dark Age. Exploration and trade routes brought the first plagues from China to Europe. With mass media, we have so many new means of transmission... The kind of security they now have at airports, imagine that kind of crackdown at all libraries, schools, theaters, bookstores, after the culling song leaks out. Anywhere information might be disseminated, you'll find armed guards... After that, any music, books, and movies will be tested on lab animals or volunteer criminals before release to the public."
The viral terror in Ring had to be physically transmitted by means of videotape: Lullaby's is infinitely worse, because it's just an idea. And one of the main themes of Palahniuk's books ever since Fight Club has been what happens when Bad Ideas happen to Damaged People. One of the key lines in his debut goes "I don't want to know this, but..." followed by a hideous piece of information (how to make a computer monitor explode) that you'll wish you didn't know either. If there's a flaw in Lullaby, it's that this has become a somewhat predictable theme in his novels: granted, he covers it here in the most exhaustive manner he's ever attempted, and the results are terrific to read, but you hope he realises he's done this idea to death by now.
Similarly, all the things we've come to know and love in Palahniuk novels are here to enjoy in Lullaby. Again, there's a lovely running verbal riff, this time involving a series of subvertisements placed in local newspapers. ("Attention Patrons of the Oracle Sushi Palace. If you experience severe rectal itching caused by intestinal parasites, you may be eligible to take part in a class-action lawsuit.") Again, Palahniuk wickedly sticks it to authority figures, frequently dismissing them with a single line of description: "His computer password is 'password'." Again, there's a strong female character who ultimately drives the plot: though Helen Hoover Boyle was somewhat spoilt for me by Palahniuk's revelation in his talk that a famous Hollywood actress had already turned down the role for the movie. (If you don't want her face popping up in your head when you read the book, do not click on this link here.)
That's a few too many "agains" for my liking, I'm afraid. Mind you, there are some new elements in here too. Lullaby is more character-driven than Palahniuk's earlier books, and as a result isn't quite as dependent on outrageous narrative twists as usual. Instead, we get a climax which contains some of the most horrifying imagery I've seen in a book since Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory: which bodes well for Chuck's stated intention of becoming a horror novelist, as on this evidence he can definitely do the payoff at the end of the buildup. On balance, definitely worth reading, but hopefully he'll mix the ingredients up a bit more next time.
Oh, and that dubious request for Mr P I was nervous about at the start? Not a problem. It turned out he's such a nice bloke, he will sign a book with the dedication "To Spank The Monkey" and not even bat an eyelid. Which makes him all right in my book. Being a monkey, and all.
Lullaby has had an official site for a while now, supplied by the good people at Random House. It's more for advance publicity than anything else, hence the offer to email you an exclusive extract of the book prior to publication. It still works though, if you want to try before you buy. [Update: doesn't actually work any more.]
Chuck Palahniuk's official site is a fan site that grew and grew until it got official approval from its subject. News and info by the ton, plus some fun things too: a Which Chuck Character Are You? [dead link] personality test, and a raffle [dead link] to win a walk-on role in Palahniuk's next book (enter before October 25th 2002).
Foyles was always notorious for being the most unhelpful bookshop in London, but since Christina Foyle carked it they've loosened up a bit. They've recently put on a series of rather good author events: the Chuck Palahniuk reading described here was one of them. Unfortunately their bastard website won't let you link directly to the list of future events, but I'm sure you can find it from here.