Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby asks the question: what would you do if you discovered the power to make you a god? Suddenly, the command of life and death, sickness and health, growth and destruction, is in your hands. Do you want it? Will you use it? Can you control it? 

Carl Streator, the main character and narrator, is a journalist who stumbles upon the mysterious powers of a Culling song, an ancient spell that, when read aloud or focused on in the mind, has the power not only to put people to sleep but also kill them. As he discovers the vast reach of the song, he meets another, Helen Hoover Boyle (a real estate agent), who knows this secret and who has been using it to assassinate people all over the world. The two quickly come together, both hoping to find the Book of Shadows, an ancient spell book where the Culling song originated; Streator so he can destroy it and Boyle so she can become even more powerful and invincible. The two will be hunted down by time, by witches, by police detectives, and by each other, until the Book of Shadows falls into the wrong hands and, suddenly, the two realize they must become the hunters. 

In Palahniuk’s books, characterization, I find, is typically the weaker element, much less dynamic than the prose and plot. That is not the case in Lullaby. One of the most fascinating elements in this book is its characterization; how will different people react to the power they find? What do our actions tell us about human nature and the nature of power? Perhaps the reason the characters are so interesting is because they are based on people in Palahniuk’s own world; perhaps the reason their stories are so powerful is because Palahniuk wrote this book when mired in a deep, personal struggle (his father and father’s girlfriend had recently been murdered by the woman’s ex-husband), which directly relates to the plot of the story: How do we decide who lives and who dies? Does any one of us, regardless of circumstances, have authority over another’s fate? All-in-all, the dark personal circumstances of Palahniuk’s life create great tension and allow for extraordinary character growth and development. Each individual in the book, from the main characters, Streator and Hoover, to their friends and rivals, Mona and Oyster, down to a necrophilia-obsessed paramedic,  has a back story, a history, and a purpose, which makes them all equally interesting and dynamic, particularly in relation to the others. 

There is no doubt that Palahniuk is a master of the macabre. He explores the darkest, most dangerous elements of human nature, in transgressive style. The book is structured by a temporal ending, which frames the story and is interspersed throughout the traditional, linear plotline. As with most Palahniuk books, there is a plot twist near the end of the story, which brings the temporal ending into focus with the linear plot. The temporal segment chapters are italicized, which creates an enigma of sorts, as the reader cannot be entirely sure whether or not the narrator of both the present and future stories is the same person, or even whether or not the future narrator is alive (thus putting the “present-linear” plot into a past tense, without expressly doing so in the linear style). The story progresses quickly and is well-paced, but the plot twist at the end, which was hinted at throughout the story by those temporal-future segments, could likely have been achieved without those interruptions. 

The best thing about great books is that they are more than just a good story. While Lullaby is entertaining, mysterious, and bizarre, it is also highly psychologically exploratory. The story is meant to make the readers think: think about power and how one should (or would) wield it; think about capital punishment, its merits/effectiveness or lack thereof; think about sacrifice, self-worth, penitence, forgiveness, mourning, and recovery. So much of what happens in this story is deeper than the story itself, but that these themes and elements are delivered within the realm of such an interesting, disturbing, and quite terrifying story just makes it all the better. The gothic writers would be proud of what Palahniuk achieves here.

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”

“When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy them, but now they call this free will.”

“You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound.  You don’t win with a lot of treble. This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume. This isn’t about music. This is about winning.”

“The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

“These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics.”

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Thoughts: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This is the first formal review I’ve written for Roof Beam Reader in five months, when I reviewed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven in February. As with that book, I find, this time, that I’m unable to move onto other reading until my thoughts and reactions about this one are evacuated. It’s just one of those books. This post is bound to be lengthy, so I apologize in advance for that. But, as I set out to write my thoughts on this peculiar and devastating book, I find that I must clarify my position on two points that have significantly influenced my reaction to the novel.

Two Major Issues:

First: the book has been heralded as the long-awaited “great gay novel.” This description is not only maddeningly inaccurate, it is dangerously wrong. Despite appearances, this is not a novel about gay life, about homosexuality or coming out; it is not about sexuality or sexual identity at all. This is a book about friendship and love battling to save the life of someone who is haunted by memories of pedophilia and rape, sexual and physical abuse, psychosis, emotional trauma and sadism, and who cannot escape except through self-criticism and self-harm.

While any of these terrible things could be relevant to gay life, they are also relevant to straight life. The problem is: calling this book the “great gay novel” and then expecting readers to equate homosexuality, gay identity, with child sexual abuse and pedophilia as some kind of post hoc ergo propter hoc relationship is what gay rights activists have been fighting against for so very long. Jude St. Francis does not end up in a gay relationship because he was abused, as a child and an adult, by men. Jude St. Francis is not even gay: he is sexless; no, he is de-sexed.

The comparison that these reviewers make are perhaps unconscious, but they are all the more dangerous for that (worse: a part of me wonders if this push is due to cultural realities: it’s “time” for the great gay novel, so this must be it). I prefer the description given on the book’s own inside-flap: “An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light.” Yes, that’s it, for the most part. Let’s hope later editions remain true to this description and not the disturbingly misleading ones that outside forces have attempted to place on it.

That being said, in an academic sense, calling this book a “great queer novel” makes a lot of sense. The difficulty is helping people understand the difference between a “gay” novel and a “queer” one. The book is wildly anti-heteronormative. There are some straight people in the book, major and minor, but the majority of the main characters are somehow “othered,” as are their histories and relationships. For example, one character is adopted as an adult, another is parentless; one character is bisexual, another is gay but struggles with it; one character is disabled, another seems able to change his body almost at will.

Gender and sexuality in this book are uncomplicatedly fluid: transgender issues come up, for instance, as does lesbianism and the cis-gendered. In this way, yes, call it a great queer novel. Call it a study of male friendship that refuses to be categorized. But do not call it the great gay novel, as the relationship at the heart of the story has nothing to do with sexuality: the main character is basically asexual and his eventual lover is basically heterosexual even though he ends up with another biological male. Most importantly, their love, their partnership, has far less to do with sexual identity than it does with non-sexual romantic friendship.

This is all my reaction to others’ descriptions of the book, however. There’s nothing the author or publisher have said (that I know of) which reflects such a flawed perspective on the story, and the story itself doesn’t presume to present itself that way, either.

Second: My personal experience reading this book might be far different from most, and that is because I intimately understand and relate to it. Because of the nature of this book, of Jude St. Francis’s life, and Willem’s, I can’t say any more than this. Suffice it to say, it is a deep struggle for me to separate myself from this story in order to review it objectively as a work of art. But I’m going to do my best.

Thoughts on the Book:

Essentially, this is a book about friendship. The characters are the heart and soul of this novel, especially the main character, Jude, who, despite his tragic past, is the core of the four friends’ lives. They (Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm) met as college freshman, although Jude was only 16 at the time. Each of the characters is special in some way: Willem the actor; JB the artist; Malcolm the architect; Jude the lawyer. They all struggle, at first, but each will eventually reach wild levels of success. One can imagine that they were able to achieve their successes only because of their friendship, although this is never specifically granted by the novel itself.

Outside their friendship are other characters, major and minor, some of whom arrive and remain (Jude’s adoptive parents, for instance, and his doctor) and others that serve a purpose and then disappear. There are not many women in the story, which has been a point of contention for some, but Yanagihara has already explained her reasoning for this (it’s a story about male friendship and the many varied ways that friendship can manifest itself) and I take no issue with the lack.

An interesting and admirable element, in my opinion, is the narrative voice which is at times third-person with varied relativity to one or another of the characters depending on whose story is being told at the time, and sometimes, much less frequently, in the first-person, as when a character is relaying things directly (usually in a kind of monologue, which I imagined as dictation or epistolary in nature, but could just as well be a character speaking aloud to himself). This narrative approach allows for two things: first, the mysterious, slow, painful revelation of Jude’s backstory; we the reader know as much about Jude as the other characters do, and only bits and pieces (first, hints; then, allusions; next, minor descriptions; finally, all of it) come through, in guesses made by other characters or in sections when the narrator is closely aligned with Jude himself. This can be vexingly frustrating, but it is also brilliant in its devotion to an honest portrayal of the main character. Second, it allows the reader to get closer to Jude in the same way that the characters do, to understand how this dynamic works, fails, strains, etc.

Less interesting, less creative, is the prose style. It’s surprisingly matter of fact. I haven’t read Yanagihara before, so I’m not sure what her writing style is in general, but I will say that I think it works well, here. Even though the prose and language aren’t particularly appealing, the pages still turn. There’s a balance, here, equal to the balance between the plot and narration. The raw, almost clinical style of writing is like the raw, almost clinical way that Jude lives his life. In moments of tension, the prose style will change subtly. In moments of affection, breakthrough, break down: the same. The reader gets to know Jude, as much as is possible, and begins to realize that Jude must make great effort, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to be the person he is: he is always, always inside his own head. Every thought has some level of darkness and pain attached to it; every action is planned, agonized over, debated.

This has been one of the most intellectually and emotionally challenging reads for me. The complexity of the novel’s themes is matched by the intricacy of the narrative, the cerebral construction of story edifice and story time that allows the present and the past to unravel, slowly but significantly, so that, at a certain point about 400-pages into the book, I suddenly felt like I was just a part of this group. For me, it was like the flip of a switch.

At the half-way mark, I hated this book. I wanted to give it up.  It is painful, horrifying, depressing, and almost gratuitous. It is without hope, without joy. It is, as many have said, a type of exaggerated fantastic allegory, where the evils laid upon man are as persistent, unrelenting, scarring as can possibly be, and the goodness of friendship and true love are as pure, unwavering, angelic as can possibly be. It is a fairy tale where the only happy ending for Prince Charming is the ending every fairy tale necessarily leaves out.

There’s very little that is pleasant about this book: it is not a beautiful story and it will not be a beautiful read. I can’t recommend this book. But I can’t deny its power, either.

Suggested Reading for:

  • Age Level: Adult
  • Interest: Friendship, Sturm und Drang, Child Abuse, Self-Harm, LGBTQI+, Disabilities, Nontraditional Families.

Notable Quotes/Passages:

  • “The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.” (210)
  • “It is always easier to believe what you already think than to try to change your mind.” (369)
  • “He had forgotten that to solve someone is to want to repair them: to diagnose a problem and then not try to fix that problem seemed not only neglectful but immoral.” (517)
  • “You don’t visit the lost, you visit the people who search for the lost.” (656)

Review: Claiming One by E.J. Runyon

14576593Claiming One by R.J. Runyon
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 23

Full Disclosure:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Inspired Quill, with whom I have a working relationship; however, I was not in any way involved in the editing, publishing, marketing, proofing, or submission review process for this book.  In fact, I only received a copy because the editor-in-chief mentioned that this writer comes recommended by Catherine Ryan Hyde, who is a favorite writer of mine, so she thought I might like to take a look.

The collection is made up of seventeen short stories of varying length, some of which deal with the same characters and all of which deal with the same general region (southwestern United States / southern California) and the same type of people (struggling poor/working-class ethnic and sexual minorities).  Most of the stories are incredibly interesting and well-written.  There were a few stories in the bunch which did sometimes feel stressed or project-like, reminding me a bit of a bad hair day (not that the stories were bad, but that one starts with a good head of hair and, no matter how you tease it, yank it, or play with it, it just will not do what you want it to do).  That being said, these few stressed stories were definitely the exception, not the rule.  In fact, I wrote a ranking next to each story in the index (Poor, Good, Very Good, Great) and of the seventeen stories, only two were anything other than Good.

What struck me first about the writing is the narrative voice.  It is distinct, commanding, and engaging.  The first story, “The Giant Rubber Gorilla,” opens the collection with a perfect sense of what is to come. The reader quickly recognizes these people who will be explored, the situations that might be examined, and the tone which can be expected throughout.  Similarly, the collection closes with “Dandruff as Tall as Donald Duck,” which, in conjunction with the lengthier story which immediately preceded it, was a great way of wrapping-up the collection, reminding the reader of its major themes and the general determination of these people to survive, despite the perpetual road blocks placed in their way.

Some of the stories went even beyond good story telling.  “Mother’s Tongue” and “Secrets of the Days and Nights,” for example, were stand-outs in their creative approach and in the slight inkling toward hopefulness they emulated, which is not an overarching theme in this collection.  The stories work together the way a great fashion show should:  The collection has a primary theme, it starts with bang, and then has its lulls and explosions throughout, and finally ends with a reminder of what the collection was all about, leaving the memory of it strong in the mind.  Each story, like each piece in a fashion collection, simultaneously stands on its own and fits into the larger theme of the work.  In this case, the theme is a restless disappointment among a class of people on the margins.  There is a small, flickering light of hope that blinks throughout, meek but ever-present.

My personal favorites were the stories about Duffy and her family.  They were the most powerful and seemed to work almost like the back-bone of the collection. It would be very interesting to see Duffy and the others in her life appearing again in future collections.

With this first collection, Runyon is following in the tradition of the great regional American writers.   Flannery O’Connor, John Fante, Bret Harte, and Sinclair Lewis all wrote stories about a particular group of people in a particular region of the United States, and their stories stayed true to the people and their particular plights and successes.  The triumph of their stories was due in part to the writers’ craftsmanship and vision, but also to the honesty of the narrative which grounded the fictive worlds deeply in reality.

If Runyon continues to write about this world and these people, we might be witnessing the start of a very special body of work.  E.J. Runyon is a new writer to watch, and I applaud Inspired Quill for recognizing this talent and taking a chance on sharing it with the world.