"I found Shirley."
Chuck Palahniuk, rummaging in his bag, has come up with an antique pillbox containing some ashes of legendary horror writer Shirley Jackson (the one who gave you nightmares in middle school with her short story "The Lottery"). Asked why he is carrying such an unusual item, The 40-year-old author of such cult favorites as Fight Club and Survivor, as well as last year's surprise bestseller Choke, explains that it is a gift for his editor, whom he sees at the 2002 BookExpo, where he signed promotional galleys to prime the pump for his novel Lullaby, due out this month from Doubleday. The handsome, well-mannered and extremely likable Palahniuk (darling of countless tragically hip rags) enjoys this part of his job. Lullaby (whose title is a suitably twisted play on words) completes a trajectory begun with his 1999 paperback Invisible Monsters, which signaled Palahniuk's settling into the horror genre. It had previously been rather difficult to classify Palahniuk's work—consider the Library of Congress description of Fight Club: "1. Millennialism—US—Fiction. 2. Young Men—US—Fiction. 3. Apocalyptic fantasies."
"It's my attempt to reinvent the horror novel," Palahniuk says. "I'm 40 years old this year, and I just can't be the angry young man for the rest of my life. I've gotta make the transition to something else. And I understand, too, that since 9/11, transgressional novels really have lost favor. People don't see the Monkey WrenchGang in the same light that they saw it before 9/11. They don't see any form of pranking or terrorism in the same light. So you just can't hit that note again and get the same response."
The author claims the decision to settle into a genre was his own, and his particularly scatological brand of satire marks Lullaby as the first in a unique addition to the category, one in which humor plays a particularly strong role. "I don't really see a lot of things anymore that frighten me," he says. "The last book I read that frightened me was [Mark Z. Danielewski's] House of Leaves. I want there to be the humor, because I think that people rely on the humor, and I don't think I could write without undermining myself and being self-effacing on the page and eventually making everything funny. But at the same time, you need humor to contrast and counterbalance the horror. I see them working together for better effect, rather than undermining each other." Lullaby demonstrates this duality rather well, through scenes with the protagonist, Carl Streator, casually discussing murder with a friend and then committing murder over finger food
Like Palahniuk's previous novels, Lullaby follows a disintegrating protagonist through an absurd modernity on the road to reinvention. Unlike its predecessors, Lullaby features a sympathetic protagonist. Palahniuk seems to be listening to his audience a bit more. A good example of this is the return of his insane road trip motif: "It's really deliberate in this one because several readers told me they were disappointed in Choke because there was no road trip. The road trip is the perfect second act. Get people together, put them on the road, get them off the road. It's a perfect dynamic montage of scenes."
Lullaby (for all its haunted houses and deadly magic spells) also offers the most prominent love story (of sorts, considering its author) since Fight Club. Carl falls for a witch named Helen Hoover Boyle, a sort of cross between Jackie O. and Lady Macbeth, set in a kind of Dungeons and Dragons landscape in which magicians and witches mingle with the rest of us. The mix of different realities is deliberate. "It's getting people from one place to a new place, and it's not necessarily a better place, but at least they're all together," Palahniuk explains. "Before they were all separate, living their subsistence lives, and now at least they're bonded together in pairs.
"That's what all my books have been about, bringing people who are not in community back into a form of community and giving them a cause that keeps them together. I think any kind of relationship needs a cause, a dynamic to keep it together, and for so many people it's that moment when the rabbit dies and you have that child, because that becomes your mission, and it keeps you together.
"I love meeting empty-nest couples and finding out what the dynamic is that keeps them together. I just interviewed a couple in Oregon who are ghost hunters. Their kids are grown and gone, they have all the money they need and their relationship would just crumble away, because it's just about the two of them now. But they made it instead about exorcisms and seminars and investigating paranormal phenomena. And maybe that's all crap. But what's important is that it keeps them together. It gives them that dynamic that will support their commitment to each other. If nothing else, this is just another romance. It puts Streator and Helen together."
The form of togetherness they share is, ah, unconventional, and probably won't be seen in a potential film adaptation. But it is an utterly Palahniukian resolution, sure to revolt his critics and thrill his growing legions of fans.