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Review: Palahniuk's 'Lullaby' a dark melody

By L.D. Meagher

By Chuck Palahniuk
256 pages

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(CNN) -- In a world choking on its own din, what could be more appropriate than a plague of words? To Chuck Palahniuk, author of "Choke" and "Fight Club," lethal verbiage is the perfect antidote to the contagion of noise.

In "Lullaby," his latest novel, Palahniuk spins a darkly twisted yarn that demonstrates the pen is not only mightier than the sword; it's more powerful than a nuclear warhead.

Carl Streator, a reporter for an unnamed urban daily, is writing a series about crib death -- the mysterious malady that claims the lives of infants. It doesn't take him long to find a link between the victims. It's a poem, an ancient African "culling song" that was designed to ease the transition from life to death.

But Streator realizes it's more than a message of comfort. It's a deadly weapon -- one he finds himself wielding inadvertently.

On the rampage

His path crosses that of Helen Hoover Boyle, a real estate broker specializing in haunted houses. She claims to know nothing about the "culling song," but Carl doesn't believe her.

Before long, they team up, along with Helen's assistant Mona, a devout Wiccan, and Oyster, Mona's scam-artist/eco-terrorist boyfriend, in a quest to rid the world of the fatal rhyme. At least, that's the stated purpose of their journey. Yet each member of the odd little band seems to be operating from a personal agenda.

Palahniuk uses the black crepe fabric of his narrative to fashion a wicked satire of life in the early 21st century. From Helen's relentless defacement of priceless antiques, to Mona's naively earnest belief in the spirit word, to Oyster's attacks on the corporate infrastructure through bogus newspaper ads, the author skewers conventions, trends and institutions without mercy.

'Look for the details'

Even Streator's profession isn't exempt.

"The best way to waste your life," Palahniuk writes, "is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch. Look for the details. Report. Don't participate."

"Lullaby" seems to be a fable about good and evil. But the author shuffles the deck, leaving the reader to wonder just who the good guys are -- or if there are any.

It's a fairy tale in the classic sense, one where the witch might just end up in a stew pot and the hero goes "happy-ever-after-ing" with blood on his hands. Palahniuk has succeeded in crafting a story that is taut and compelling, insightful and scathing, deeply disturbing and deeply disturbed.

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