Oyster Boy Review 16  
  Winter 2002
» Cover

» Feature
» Art
» Poetry
» Fiction
» Essays
» Reviews
» Contributors

» Oyster Boy Review
» Levee 67



Kevin McGowin

Chuck Palahniuk is an authentic American genius, and his book is a masterpiece. The book, it's called Survivor, and also goes by the titles Fight Club, Choke, and now Lullaby—but it's a really great book, and if you haven't read it before, you should go pick it up the first chance you get. Which title it happens to appear under is not really important, though you'd do well to start with the other ones, the ones that have the other titles.

This is a review about the book by Chuck Palahniuk. By the time you have read it, 235,982 people worldwide will be dead. They will not get to read the book by Chuck Palahniuk. Unless they already read one of the copies that has one of the different titles.

Go figure.

The book by Chuck Palahniuk, this is what it reads like.

It's a brilliant American social satire, one that rings true—it begins with a clever premise, hilarious even, and proceeds to interweave the most improbable associations into a cutting acerbic acuity, a cohesive narrative whose bass line, the one that finally at the end comes forward to drown out all the other voices in the book, sounds a bit like . . . this.

Like you. Like you the way you wished you had the courage to be.

But we all run out of societal platitudes to rag on, especially those that, like most platitudes, contain an eerie grain of truth. Absurd American preoccupations.

Even Chuck Palahniuk.

I'll admit it—Lullaby almost lulled me to sleep (haha). And irked me with its trendy pretentiousness. His tropes are tired here, the seams in the writing too obvious, the syntax too forward, and the key "ideas" rehash—for example, Carlin came up with a variation on the "most of the people you hear on laugh tracks are now dead" idea about 30 years ago. Yes, it has some good lines, some quality passages—but I've come to hold Palahniuk to a much higher standard. After all, this is the man I've considered (and stated in print) to be "the most vital literary voice of his generation." This is why I'm disappointed in a book that reads like the self-parody of a man parodying DeLillo's Americana or White Noise (the latter title a phrase he mentions in the book, and in part the purpose of all the tirelessly-researched details about colors and furniture and foliage) and what with all the repeated lines ("The more people die, the more things stay the same," "Constructive destruction," and the idea that Maybe it's not what we Did that Counts, but what we Didn't Do).

Krishnamurti for Generation X. Visa, MasterCard, American Express. Who will die first?

—Y'know, I'll bet that Chuck, pissed at me though he and his fans may be as they read this, that Chuck knows goddamn well that Lullaby is not by a long shot the best installment of the Palahniuk Book. Which began with Invisible Monsters, introducing the themes of vanity and hypocrisy that permeate the others: Fight Club, the excellent film of which made its author a Star, and Choke, which hit the bestseller lists (as I suspect Lullaby will too, for two or three weeks) and established Palahniuk for real in the world of literary fiction, and which I championed for the National Book Award (it deserved it). I wish I'd published my review of that one in these pages, but the timing was off. Email my publisher. Ask him to send it to you.

And then there was his real masterpiece, Survivor, especially poignant after 9/11, which hammers the reader with profundity after profundity. You could highlight the whole thing and put it in Bartlett's.

And now, this. To say it's writing for a public with a short attention span, mimicking the culture, well, they call this the "pathetic fallacy."

The man's unofficial Web site (chuckpalahniuk.net) had announced that this was to be a "horror" novel, suggesting that C. P. was up to taking risks, branching out, extending his range. But Lullaby is not a horror novel. The others, they are horror novels, and they contain what is sorely lacking in this slight, short volume—real character development and a real story. Now that DeLillo seems to have passed the torch as Apocalyptic Postmodern American Novelist, hey! He was always fresh. And it seems that Palahniuk is in danger of not just turning into the next Tom Robbins or Quentin Tarantino, but worse—he's running the risk of turning into everything he affects to despise.

On his website, a raffle is underway—buy a Chuck Palahniuk T-shirt (you can do so multiple times) and, if you win, he'll use your real name in an upcoming book. And he's written a blurb explaining why this action is tenable from a literary perspective. Well, it's already been done—but when I did it, I did it for free, though. And he's more than welcome to name his next Bad Guy Kevin McGowin. Knock yourself out.

You're not your fucking khakis.

—I'm both a novelist myself and a critic, but as a critic, it's my job to be honest. You read the book and loved it? Swell! But the seams are so loose they're unraveled—characters' actions are unexplained, and the rest reads like outtakes from his Survivor notebooks, counting 1 . . . counting 2 . . . counting . . .

Or maybe you are Chuck Palahniuk. Hey, pal, I respect you, I really do, and you know it. But take some time off. Read some Thomas Hardy or some James Purdy, Jung or something. Try a stage play. Write in 3rd person. And next time, surprise me.

And Lullaby? Well, maybe it's not what you did that matters, it's what you didn't do.

But it'll make a great film.