Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
Carl Streator is a reporter, investigating cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. He discovers many of the cases are correlated with a book titled Poems and Rhymes Around the World that contains a poem called a “culling song,” and those who hear someone else recite the song die. Carl comes to believe all this because of his own experiences from decades ago and decides the best course of action is to find all copies of the book to destroy the poem. He is joined in this effort by Helen Hoover Boyle, a disreputable realtor of distressed properties, who has also suffered from the “culling song.” They crisscross the country, joined by Mona, a young woman with a deep interest in the occult, and her boyfriend, Oyster, a cynical ecoterrorist. While they all have similar motives, they ultimately have different designs that don’t fully match with Carl’s plan to eliminate the poem from existence.
Lullaby has some surface similarities to stories of The King in Yellow and how everyone who sees that play is driven mad and/or dies a gruesome death. While the novel does not fall strictly into any subgenre of horror, it does have an undercurrent of it along with the magical, occult elements and the sometimes surreal quality of the cross country road trip to destroy copies of the poem while tracking down the original. Of course, these parts don’t come across as any less bizarre to Carl than Moan’s Wicca meetings or Oyster’s polemics about the evils of modern agricultural practices.
Another question that becomes central to the novel is the same as the exploration of the nature of justice in Plato’s Republic when considering the Ring of Gyges. In that myth, a man finds a ring that makes him invisible, allowing him to do anything he wants without fear of being caught or suffering the consequences. The question in considering the story is whether or not someone with unlimited power can be good. Lullaby brings this idea to bear on its central characters, where even the ones who want to be good are drawn to their darkest impulses because they can wield the power of life and death. Carl wonders if anyone with the ability to painlessly kill everyone else can even retain their humanity and what would become of the world where everyone comes to fear hearing anything because it might kill them.
Throughout the novel is an exploration and advertising and media and how it distracts and prevents people from having their own thoughts or authorship of their own minds and actions. Carl even draws a parallel to Ancient Greek belief about thought coming from external sources like the gods and how modern advertisements convinces people they desire the products rather than being convinced to want them (20). Similarly, the relentless flood of media “content” is meant to keep everyone docile and placated, so they won’t cause trouble to prevent other people from making more money. The grim assessment here is that people are living much closer to the dystopias of George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than might be comfortable to consider.
Alongside this look at a kind of hypnotism is the repeating visual and language motifs, such as Carl counting to try and calm himself, the details about antique furniture and jewelry, Carl’s complaints about the constant need for noise and distraction that everyone seems to have, and recurring images such as tiny model buildings. There is sometimes a sense as though just like everyone around the characters, the reader is being lulled into a pattern or distracted from what is important.
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While the repetition can be thematically potent it can also be irritating to read. Sometimes the details concerning furniture, clothes, gems, or models can sound as though it could be recited by Patrick Bateman from American Psycho with his fixation on the details of clothes, high-end restaurants or business cards. While Lullaby doesn’t exactly become dull in the same way that American Psycho is, it certainly risks it for anyone just wanting to experience the story. On a similar note, a novel with such an interesting premise, it takes a long time to get into gear, which is a shame because the nature of the plot is such a strong selling point. Introducing the audience into the goals and complications would seem like a good idea because several of the main characters are intentionally unlikeable if not insufferable. The nihilism and aggression of many of them can be wearisome, but they are at their most interesting when they are actively engaged in some task.
There is information about Carl’s past that is withheld until late in the novel, but the effect is uncertain. The revelation may change the how the audience judges him, but it isn’t clear why this knowledge was reserved until nearly the end of the book. Sections of the story are told intermittently out of order to help tease the ending with a type of framing device. Palahniuk has played with chronology before in his stories, as seen in Fight Club. It’s done fairly well here and gives readers something to ponder as they move through the novel.
Anyone looking for a dark, satirical novel, can deal with unlikable characters, and enjoys a minimalist writing style should read Lullaby.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Lullaby. Doubleday, 2002.
© 2021 Seth Tomko
Chrish Canosa from Manila Philippines on April 10, 2021:
Great examination Sir. Awesome execution. When me and my sister argue about what she called obnoxious character, I dive in and correct her no, they are a misunderstood character. While she is a minimalist I dive deeper. Then she would count me as one of those lol. Blessings
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on April 10, 2021:
This was a good review and the and the premise of the story is an interesting one of those who hear “the culling song” die. Your closing statements however would probably make me think twice about reading it, however. I need a no=el to capture me in the first chapter and not dilly-dally, and too many unlikeable characters can be a drag.