“This sounds sexist, but I’ve always wanted a penis”
“You can’t love me…because I’m a woman and I have more power than you.”
Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Lullaby is as disturbing as anything else he’s ever written. It has a cast of only four character, two couples, and its plot hinges on a culling song. Its an ancient Zulu spell, sung to children during famines or to injured warriors: anytime someone needed to die gently. Somehow it ended up in a book of children’s lullabies.
The plot is driven by the need to stop this song from spreading any more, and the need to contain the damage done by the man and woman who already know the song by heart, who can cast it just by thinking it.
WARNING—SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT, PALAHNIUK’S NOVELS JUST HAVE TOO MANY TWISTS AND TURNS TO AVOID THEM.
From a gender analysis perspective, Palahniuk’s novels are curiously almost post-gender. All his characters are despicable people, whether they’re men or women. They behave in gendered ways, such as when the leading lady of Lullaby collects fabulous jewelry, but even something as seemingly feminine as that turns out to be distinctly un-womanly—the jewels are her payment for several hundred professional assassinations. The male main character of Lullaby is overwhelmed by his emotions, his life is completely ruled by them, and he lacks ability to control the power of the culling song. The female character, on the other hand, has complete control over almost every single situation.
The scene recounted at the beginning of this post takes place very near the end of the book, as everything starts to fall apart Palahniuk-style. For complex reasons, at this point the heroine (although she is called the hero in her introduction) is in the body of an old Irish white man. The inherent absurdity is heightened by a sudden invocation of gender roles, as she becomes hyper-emotional and starts to sob while uttering the above phrases.
As mentioned, the scene above takes place at the climax of the novel, when the shit is hitting the fan at high speeds. The most striking thing about this scene (which tells you something about exactly how insane this novel is) is that the heroine has never exhibited this sort of stereotypical femininity. Lullaby is in the end about the things that come from outside and enter our heads, what songs and advertisements and ideas funneled into our brain do to us. When confronted with this, the instinct is to huddle back under the guise of familiar ideas, to abandon our selves and embrace what others tell us. In this insane situation, it is gender roles that the heroine is falling back on. And throughout the novel, this curious mixture of masculinity and femininity, the mad combinations of traits that make up Palahniuk’s utterly reprehensible characters, people who tumble through the world and usually leave death in their wake, the only thing that the reader can be sure of is that whatever is being told to her is just a way of saying something else. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, I know—but it’s hard to be coherent about the terrifying awesomeness of Palahniuk.