A Legacy of Annihiliation

May 23, 2009

Palahniuk takes an expansive approach to the culling song in his book Lullaby. For those who have not read the book, it features a bedtime poem, the recitation of which kills the listener. If word got out that this poem can kill, it would  create mass panic, leading to restrictions on sound and limits on anything that could carry this killer spell. Things would get very quiet.

That puts him within the thematic legacy of annihilation. Gilgamesh and Noah are part of that tradition – one could say they are its progenitors, at least in the scope of Western Literature – while Kurt Vonnegut’s ice-nine in Cat’s Cradle is a 20th-century take on the classic end-of-the-world conceit. What would you expect of literature from a century of nuclear technology, catastrophic wars,  and environmental decline, when we perfect our ability to blow up the world?

For Palahniuk, the annihilation is numbing. Big Brother controls through noise, something that winnows its way into your head like the Ceti eels in Star Trek II, and there is no big explosion, no gore … people just drop. Sort of like the people who watched the movie An Echo of Wolves in my serial Martin Garvin. Except I had not yet reached such broad societal implications as Palahniuk.

So, from the first time time we’ve put writing implement to writing recipient, we have been trying to imagine and predict the cause of our annihilation. And we generally imagine it to be our fault. From the early days – when rampant sin prompted the powers in the sky to cleanse the earth – to now, when rampant consumption threatens to make the world uninhabitable. The Bible even warned us that the end of the world is coming (expedited by the flaws in our human natures).

This literary legacy of annihilation makes for an interesting companion to the Socratic tradition on the limits of our knowledge – or if you prefer Shakespeare – “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” (As You Like It, Act V, Scene I). Truth is, we probably won’t see the killing blow until it is too late. Take, for example, the species disappearing from our planet today. Conservationists have fought for years against hunting and poaching, only to see species, even the most protected species (apes, tigers, cheetahs, rhinos), on the brink due to habitat loss and deforestation. The end is not as dramatic as once envisioned, it is much more gradual, a cancer that is slower, more internal, but just as ugly and arguably more difficult to avert. And one we did not see until, in many cases, we were past the tipping point. Seriously, did anyone expect a bedtime poem to cause the end of the world?

Snowmobiles of Doom

April 25, 2009

“Every generation wants to be the last.” That is one of the many mantras repeated throughout Lullaby (like I said before, Palahniuk’s literary strategies would fall flat from the pen of a lesser writer). I hear that aphorism, and I can’t help but think of snowmobiles in Yellowstone, four wheelers through national parks. Maybe we do want to destroy the world, to trundle through the trees and undergrowth belching smoke and sound, to make such a deep and indelible mark on a place that others have to notice. We want to intrude on their experiences, now and for the forseeable future.

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Damn that Palahniuk

April 10, 2009

Chuck Palahniuk can do things that elude us lesser writers. There is a quality to his writing that is prima facie absurd. It shouldn’t work. Kurt Vonnegut was the same way. It is absurd to think you can end multiple paragraphs and sections with the refrain “So it goes.” But Vonnegut does it, and it works. If anyone else tries the same thing (or at least a similar convention), the work falls apart. They read like a poor copy of Kurt Vonnegut.

Regarding Palahniuk, who else could offer up the refrain, “I am Jack’s Raging Bile Duct” without sounding like a boob? That struck me as I was reading Lullaby the other day (and yes, I know that previous quote is from Fight Club). He has that same Vonnegut-like quality – he does things on the printed page that should not work. And I know. I’ve written lots of things that haven’t worked. And I’ve read a few short stories from the bizarro genre, which has tried to associate itself with Palahniuk, but (to me, at least) most of the “bizarro” stories come across as self-indulgent, with a Mad Libs approach to the profane. In contrast, Palahniuk’s work is complete, organic, where lesser writers sound trite and derivative.

And speaking of derivative, Lullaby has that same theme of “deadly art” that I was using in Martin Garvin, except he has a killer poem (or culling song) and mine was a movie. Damn you, Noosphere! Not that I ever thought that plot point was original.

Monty Python has a classic skit with “the deadliest joke in the world,” which the allies used as a weapon of mass destruction (and that was the motivation for the government agents in Martin Garvin Part 2).

Lovecraft imagined a world of ancient tomes where reading the words of certain ancient texts would drive one mad.

Del Close and John Ostrander told the story of a root that gives the ultimate high before killing you, in the unfortunately named “Foo Goo,” from the comic-book anthology series Wasteland #1. (How’s that for an obscure reference?)

The Ring had a killer videotape. In keeping with the limitations of that analog world, one has to wait a few days after watching the videotape to meet one’s demise.

Original ideas are hard to come by, so says Ecclesiastes. I don’t think that should be a deterrant to creating. But still, I also noticed some similarities between Palahniuk’s character Oyster (in Lullaby) and a character in one of my short stories. No wonder that damn story keeps getting rejected…