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Author's Angry Worlds Have a Cult Following

In the novel 'Lullaby,' words can kill, but they're author Chuck Palahniuk's real-life 'coping mechanisms'

October 06, 2002|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"You scare me," a visitor recently tells Chuck Palahniuk, author of the newly released "Lullaby: A Novel," and, more famously, 1996's "Fight Club," a cult novel that was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. He looks shocked and wounded.

And he should. Palahniuk, 40, is not a scary person. He is neat, almost fastidious in his appearance and manner. He speaks clearly in complete sentences and fully formed ideas. But the eyes give it away. The eyes are wild.

They are the eyes of the man who wrote in "Fight Club": "Pounding that kid, I really wanted to put a bullet between the eyes of every endangered panda that wouldn't screw to save its species and every whale or dolphin that gave up and ran itself aground. Don't think of this as extinction. Think of this as downsizing."

They are the eyes of the man who wrote in "Lullaby": "Spraying blood, Helen says, 'No, No, No!' and crawling through the sharp slivers of broken color, her voice thick and blurred from her ruined teeth, she grabs all the pieces. Sobbing, covered in bile and blood, the room stinking, she clutches the broken blue pieces. The hands and tiny feet, the crushed torso and dented head, she hugs them to her chest and screams, 'Oh, Patrick! Patty!' "

These are the kinds of passages that upset Lynne Cheney. They are also the kinds of passages that make "cult" authors out of plain, old fiction writers. What does it mean to be a cult writer? It means you have Web sites dedicated to your work, people who try to re-create the world you created, people who dress up and act out and reinterpret again and again the meaning of your words as they apply to their lives.

"That's just my friends Amy and Dave," Palahniuk jokes of the myriad places floating in cyberspace where you can read about him.

Well, shucks. Critics love him too. Kirkus Reviews let its hair down in an uncharacteristically chummy review. "Outrageous, darkly comic fun." And from Booklist: "It's a fun ride, but what separates this novel from Palahniuk's previous work is its emotional depth, its ability to explore the unbearable pain of losing a child just as richly as it laments our consume-or-die worldview."

"Lullaby" (Doubleday) has a totally engaging, thoroughly ingenious plot: There is a book, "Poems and Lullabies From Around the World," that contains poems to quiet children so they can sleep. It contains one lullaby (on page 27) that also kills them. The mysterious deaths are attributed to crib death.

It turns out, mild-mannered reporter Carl Streator learns, it also kills adults. All you have to do is think it and bam, that person's dead.

This poses a dilemma for Streator, a fairly angry person who frequently feels he would like to kill people (but not really kill them). He is forced to count vigorously to distract himself whenever he feels the poem coming on. Helen Hoover Boyle is a highly coiffed real estate agent who knows the secret too. Her assistant Mona is a lovely hippie into Wicca. Mona's boyfriend is an obnoxious hippie named Oyster who is the novel's main pedagogue.

Streator tries very hard not to kill him but ultimately does.

The four team up to round up all existing copies of the book in libraries around the country so they can destroy page 27. If the poem were actually printed in the book, it would, no doubt, strike fear in readers.

Many of Palahniuk's five novels contain the idea that civilization must be destroyed before it can be cured of all its many evils. Palahniuk, who seems to have digested a lot of literary theory, attributes this to Foucault. "You have to offer a viable, spectacular third option somewhere between things remaining the same and violent change. Look at Y2K. Everyone was hoping something would change, but it didn't."

Palahniuk, who lives in Portland, Ore., grew up in a trailer in the Southern California desert, where train derailments were the only excitement. His mother worked in a nuclear power plant. His father was murdered three years ago.

"Writing is my chief coping mechanism," he says. "In a way, I'm just killing time, trying to distract myself. I like writing active stuff and anger is such an active emotion. Without it, there's depression. We have a real inability in this society to live side by side with our anger. That's why it explodes in places like Columbine. We need bursts of chaos. We need to be able to hurt each other in a consensual way."

Palahniuk discusses his theories on society's ills over a plate of lettuce at a Westside restaurant. The restaurant is quiet. An old woman eats alone. A clock ticks. On the hour, a little band comes out and plays a show tune. Palahniuk is wearing khakis and a short-sleeved shirt tucked in. He sits so upright and attentive that one is instantly aware of one's own bad posture.

"I was flying to Great Britain recently, and the guy behind the ticket counter at the airport was in a terrible mood. It turns out his back was killing him. I offered him a Vicodin, and he just beamed at me. 'Are you a doctor?' he said. 'No,' I said. 'I'm a writer.' "

Palahniuk adheres to the principles of minimalism, as outlined by writer and writing teacher Gordon Lish. Don't use adverbs. A reader should feel the writing physically. And it only takes one idea to drive a book. You use the same set of horses or ideas to get your characters from Michigan to Oregon and back again.

Which horses does Palahniuk use? "You mean what is my personal investment? We all think if we can just get away from the nest, we'll be OK. Then we find ourselves longing for community. By the end of my books, the main character has found community. The rest is just hamburger."

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