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Textual Unreliability, Trauma, and the Fantastic in Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 620-637 | 10.1353/sdn.2014.0008

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A detailed analysis of Palahniuk’s early novels, from Fight Club (1996) to Choke (2001), shows the existence of a number of motifs that are systematically repeated from book to book. A pattern emerges with one or several traumatized protagonists who willingly inflict pain upon themselves; the resulting effects of such action are understood by the characters as a necessary ritual of passage to rid themselves of their previous identities. Furthermore, Palahniuk’s protagonists choose to rebel against social conventions and embrace the old ways of the questing hero, a mythic figure now filtered by contemporary American culture, especially by its patterns of video clips and the road movie genre. Accordingly, his main characters begin a journey of initiation, either psychic or physical or both, hoping to develop a new identity (compare Campbell 45-233). But always at the end of the novel the reader is left with the impression that, in contrast to the old mythic models, good has not finally overcome evil, and that everybody, actual reader or fictional character, still remains trapped in a condition of ethical inconclusiveness. Nihilism is frequently counterbalanced by the new, apparently better identity but it is never clear that the hero’s new identity is leading her or him anywhere. Strategically, the inconclusive condition of his protagonists’ quest keeps readers questioning the writer’s ultimate moral aims.

The early novels also elicited strong reactions from readers and critics on account of the excessively grotesque and sordid nature of some scenes and themes. Additionally, Palahniuk’s books seem to follow his self-imposed norm to write a type of fiction that fits within the literary parameters of realism and minimalism. On several occasions, the author has described his minimalist style as necessary for the “transgressional” quality of his fiction. He has praised Amy Hempel’s works explicitly and also confessed his attraction to Tom Spanbauer’s “dangerous writing,” a style that demands the author express his own fears of embarrassing sentiments and themes by adopting a minimalist approach (Stranger Than Fiction 141–46).

However, in 2002 Palahniuk published Lullaby, the first in a sequence of novels that incorporates overt fantasy elements. The writer describes in it an unnerving, fantastic reality, opened to the manifestation of ghosts and magic spells, supernatural features unknown so far in his fiction but which will reappear in later books such as Diary (2003), Haunted (2005), and more recently in Damned (2011). This paper analyzes both the narrative techniques and the main themes the writer deploys in Lullaby with a double aim: first, to describe the structure of the novel and evaluate whether the intrusion of explicit fantastic elements in Lullaby really represents a departure from Palahniuk’s earlier fiction; and secondly, to interrogate the importance that critics, readers, and Palahniuk himself have given to the deadly power inherent in language as the central theme in this novel. The following analysis shows that the power of language to kill is only one of the two main subjects of Lullaby. Eventually this power gives way to the spell of occupation, an attribute from the fantastic that symbolically condenses narrative anxieties about free will, identity, and ethics in contemporary society. In order to carry out the analysis, the following features will be examined: the narrative structure of the novel, the role of the narrator as traumatized personage and his use of well-known critical and cultural theories, the function that unreliability and uncertainty play in the narrator’s understanding of reality, and the significance that magic and witchery achieve in the qualification of Lullaby as a socially committed novel that pursues a moral aim.

The condition specifically new that distances Lullaby from realist fiction is not the protagonist’s traumatized distortion of a believable reality in his role as narrator—an elusive gothic trait that Palahniuk has used before—but the presence of some elements both in the story world and in the act of narrating that intrude visibly from the gothic and, more specifically, from the fantastic mode.1 These new features combine with the author’s stylistic use of the grotesque in a narrative that some critics soon qualified as neo-gothic. In fact, Lullaby became a best...

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