After Shackleford's arrest, Chuck Palahniuk was asked to be part of the decision as to whether or not Shackleford would receive the death sentence. Palahniuk has worked in a hospital and as a crime reporter, but nevertheless struggled with where he stood on capital punishment. Over the next few months, he began working on Lullaby. According to him, it was a way to cope with the decision he had to make regarding Shackleford's death. In the spring of 2001, Shackleford was found guilty for two counts of murder in the first degree. A month after Palahniuk finished Lullaby, Shackleford was sentenced to death.
Lullaby starts with Mr. Streator talking to the reader, narrating where he is today and why he is going to tell us the backstory that will give us perspective on his current situation.
Still, this isn't a story about here and now. Me, the Sarge, the Flying Virgin. Helen Hoover Boyle. What I'm writing is the story of how we met. How we got here. [p. 9]
This present tense information that makes Lullaby a frame story is incorporated every few chapters as its own chapter, entirely italicized. Palahniuk uses these segments as a way to set up his "hidden gun" and as a means to foreshadow where the story is going. His present seems disconnected from the past that he narrates throughout the rest of the novel. The final chapter concludes in the present, providing the puzzle-piece that strings together all the events and makes sense out of the backstory and their current workings searching for "phenomenons."
Lullaby is the story of Carl Streator, a newspaper reporter who has been assigned to write articles on a series of cases of sudden infant death syndrome, from which his own child had died. Streator discovers that his wife and child had died immediately after he read them a "culling song," or African chant, from a book entitled Poems and Rhymes Around the World. As Streator learns, the culling song has the power to kill anyone it is spoken to. Because of the stress of his life, it became unusually powerful, allowing him to kill by only thinking the poem. During his investigations into other SIDS cases for his article, he finds that a copy of the book was at the scene of each death. In every case, the book was open to a page that contained "culling song." Streator unintentionally memorizes the deadly poem and he semi-voluntarily becomes a serial killer (killing, for example, annoying radio hosts and people who elbow into an elevator when he is late for work). He then turns to Helen Hoover Boyle, a real estate agent who has also found the culling song in the same book and knows of its destructive power. While she is unable to help him stop using the culling song, she is willing to help him stop anyone else from being able to use it again. The two of them decide to go on a road trip across the country to find all remaining copies of the book and remove and destroy the page containing the song. They are joined by Helen's assistant, Mona Sabbat, and Mona's boyfriend, an eco-terrorist named Oyster. Streator now must not only deal with the dangers of the culling song, but with the risk of it falling into the hands of Oyster, who may want to use it for sinister purposes.
In addition to tracking down and destroying any copy of Poems and Rhymes Around the World, the foursome hope to find a "grimoire", a hypothesized spellbook that is the source of the culling spell. Streator wants to destroy it while the others in his group want to learn what other spells it contains — partly in the hope that there is a spell to resurrect the dead. Mona eventually figures out that the datebook Helen had been carrying throughout the trip is the grimoire they had been looking for, written in invisible ink. Helen had acquired it years earlier in the estate of the publisher of Poems and Rhymes Around the World whom she had killed with the culling spell. In the end, the grimoire is used and misused until Helen's body ends up dead with her mind in a police sergeant's body. This connection is made in the final chapters and concludes with the present; Streator and Helen (in the police sergeant's body) are together, searching for Mona and Oyster who have the entirety of the grimoire with the exception of the "culling song."
Another problem is the teller. The who, what, where, when, and why of the reporter. The media bias. How the messenger shapes the facts. What journalists call The Gatekeeper. How the presentation is everything.
The story behind the story.
Where I'm telling this is from one cafe after another. Where I'm writing this book, chapter by chapter, is never the same small town or city or truck stop in the middle of nowhere. [p. 7]
The details of Nash are, he’s a big guy in a white uniform. He wears high-top white track shoes and gathers his hair into a little palm tree at the crown of his head. [p. 25]
At the same time, his attention to detail is one of his downfalls. Because he notes everything around him, he is unable to escape the chaos that is everyday life. He believes that people have become ‘noise-aholics’ and he builds up a resentment towards humanity. This eventually plays a role in his quickness to kill after unconsciously memorizing the culling song. His annoyance with Society causes him to lash out at the small things that his journalistic mind quickly attacks, causing numerous deaths that he seems regretful of later in the story.
His past, which we know little about until the end, explains a good portion of his character. He begins to notice the book Poems and Rhymes From Around the World at each scene of infant death where he has been assigned to report. Streator soon makes the connection and begins a quest to rid every library and home of the culling song, which at first seems to be a philosophical journey to do what is ultimately right. But, we soon learn that Streator is motivated by a dark past that has changed him into the cynical, dark reporter he is today. The death of his wife and child, a direct result of the reading of the culling song, had distanced him from reality for nearly twenty years. He makes no direct comment about this history until Chapter 29, wherein he talks about his unknowing postmortem sexual intercourse with his wife Gina and the perfect quiet of his baby Katrin,
That was my last really good day. It wasn’t until I came home from work that I knew the truth…Gina was still lying in the same position…Katrin was still quiet. [p. 179]This reveals the true motivations behind Streator’s actions, a man in search redemption and closure. In Chapter 36 Streator seems to find a measure of self-awareness when he calls his dad,
I tell him where I’m living. I tell him the name I use now. I tell him where I work. I tell him I know how it looks, with Gina and Katrin dead, but I didn’t do it. I just ran…I say, I don’t know what to do. I say, but it’s all going to be okay. [p. 218]
In the end, he seems content in his mission alongside the police sergeant (aka Helen) to chase after the story.
The setting of Lullaby is constantly changing. In both the present tense narration and the story he is reflecting on, Streator is constantly moving in pursuit of something. He works in a big city atmosphere and lives in an apartment surrounded by other tenants who become symbolic of everything Streator hates. Soon after he meets Helen, they start their cross-country mission. Most of the towns they end up in are small, nowhere places that seem to represent the emptiness that the culling song creates in people lives. Similarly, the trucker stops that Streator and Helen drive through in their present day adventure are representative of how the stories that they are chasing are temporary. The idea that a story is always told ‘after the fact’ seems to hint at a bigger picture: humans are a victim of their future.
Imagine a plague you can catch through your ears. Sticks and stones will break your bones, but now words can kill, too. [p. 41]
Palahniuk hints that Man has become addicted to the media and perhaps has a false sense of ‘free will;’ a will dictated by the corporations and commercials. The culling song, or the lullaby, is symbolic of this idea. Humanity can have all the best intentions with their words, but the distorted perception of reality that determines their ‘free actions’ have resulted in a slow deterioration of society.
On one level, LULLABY is a chillingly pertinent parable about the dangers of psychic infection and control in an era of wildly overproliferated information[.]
Palahniuk suggests to his readers that the world is becoming addicted to its own destruction:
These distraction-oholics. These focus-ophobics. Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing…With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world. [p. 18]
He commonly uses a few choruses in Lullaby:
These _____-oholics. These _____-ophobics.
These days, this is what passes for _____.
For some reason, _____ comes to mind.
Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words _____.
Each of these deal with the world around Streator. The blanks are filled with a variety of different things throughout the novel, but they all speak towards a similar concept: the degradation of our culture. In the first ‘chorus,’ Streator often references our obsession with noise and distractions. In the second, he suggests that society has adapted to Man’s faults, rather than maintaining a constant, high standard. In the third ‘chorus,’ Streator expresses the increasing power of words throughout the novel, eventually coming to the conclusion that they are more powerful than any other tangible object.
The culling song would be a plague unique to the Information Age. Imagine a world where people shun the television, the radio, movies, the Internet, magazines and newspapers. People have to wear earplugs the way they wear condoms and rubber gloves. In the past, nobody worried too much about sex with strangers. Or before that, bites from fleas. Or untreated drinking water. Mosquitoes. Asbestos.
Imagine a plague you can catch through your ears.
Sticks and stones will break your bones, but now words can kill, too. [p. 41]
Around here, this is what passes for reality. [p. 43]
Palahniuk uses incomplete sentences and new paragraphs to mimic the retelling of story. At the same time, this format allows for many of Palahniuk’s own ideas to bleed through his writing. His statements are often logical, but philosophical; futuristic, but relative to the present. His style could be described as asyndetic; he often omits conjunctions in favor of shorter, to the point sentences.
Some people still think knowledge is power. [p. 179]
This line, which is repeated a few times throughout the novel, perhaps best represents the tone that Palahniuk creates in Lullaby. Again, the idea that people have good intentions, but have collectively bad actions. It expresses the sad, unavoidable end that negates everything humanity has worked for; knowledge without action is powerless. Even more disturbing is that knowledge is, quite possibly, the reason for our destruction. Our own obsession with innovation and selfish improvements left us corrupted by power and blind from the greater good.
It’s called a culling song. In some ancient cultures, they sang it to children during famines or droughts, anytime the tribe had outgrown its land. It was sung to warriors injured in accidents or the very old or anyone dying. It was used to end misery and pain. It’s a lullaby. [p.255]
The title represents one of the core themes in Lullaby; the aims of each generation are positive, but the reality is the result of negative actions.