Here in the rich West, we live in the age of Therapy World. The perverse is celebrated, and the highest status one can aspire to is some variation of victimhood. Society is viewed as an interlocking set of the walking wounded clustered in their therapy support groups where scabs are perpetually picked, and adult-like maturity is a hard-to-come-by commodity.
Outside these groups is a perceived sea of hate and indifference, and any normalcy is pilloried as unattainable and probably inauthentic anyway. We see it today in the sanctimonious narrow-mindedness of academic and corporate white privilege self-flagellation sessions, and in the bloated and preening LARPing of Black Lives Matter and Antifa rioters.
One writer who has had a perverse radar for Therapy World since the mid-1990s is Chuck Palahniuk. But Therapy World is a mind-narrowing construction that inevitably crumbles in a Palahniuk novel, as the human condition is revealed as far too complex and weird to be codified in such simplicities. Palahniuk wants to wake us up to the obsessions that rule much of our lives, whether they be psychological, political, or emotional, and to consider them from a perspective outside ourselves.
When lightning strikes sand just the right way, a kind of glass called fulgurite can be formed. These clumps of glass are sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre, and often both simultaneously. Palahniuk’s many, many works often feel like a collection of fulgurite sculptures whose medium is not glass, but the neurotic subconscious, with the lightning in the analogy provided by Palahniuk’s curated collection of fixations.
They can seem like found art. Like fulgurite, sometimes the stories are mere lumps, glyphs seemingly assembled in an ancient cultural alphabet whose Rosetta Stone has been lost. Sometimes, though, Palahniuk strikes the balance between gothic horror, Beatnik tone-poem, satire, and noirish grit that made “Fight Club” resonate. Palahniuk’s latest novel, “The Invention of Sound,” mostly gets there.
Palahniuk’s first book was “Fight Club,” which appeared in 1996 and became a cultural phenomenon after the hit 1999 David Fincher-directed film. Since then, his rate of production has been impressive, if very much variations on a theme.
Like “Fight Club,” a portion of “The Invention of Sound” plot revolves around modern therapeutic psychological doubletalk gone terribly sideways in the main character’s head. In this case, the protagonist is Gates Foster, a Los Angeles area cubicle schmuck whose “fantasy career would be to torture these men who torture children.” Foster is a member of a therapy group that specializes in helping its members deal with the disappearance or death of a child.
Seventeen years before, Foster lost a daughter, Lucinda. He put the eight-year-old into an elevator for a ride to the street, and never saw her again. Lucy’s disappearance destroyed his marriage and sent Foster spiraling down a dark path of post-traumatic stress disorder and obsession with finding her.
Because of certain hints from Lucy’s disappearance, he has descended into a world of child pornography and snuff films, which he obtains on the dark web. He’s convinced his daughter was taken by a child trafficker, and hopes to catch a glimpse of her in one of these horrific productions so he can either know she’s dead or perhaps find and rescue her, even after all these years. He struggles to imagine her as the woman she would have become instead of the second-grade girl he last saw getting into the elevator.
Foster is consumed by guilt and loss inside, but the other characters see him as a borderline creep for being obsessed with rescuing young girls when they don’t need or want saving. Foster’s sheer mawkish pathos would be impossible to take for a whole chapter, much less an entire book, but after a scene or two with Foster, Palahniuk syncopates his point of view with that Mitzi Ives.
Mitzi is a foley artist for the movies. She specializes in providing inhuman, soul-tearing screams overdubbed on dying characters in horror films, for which she is paid handsomely. Her job, Mitzi says, “is to make everyone in the world scream at the exact same time.”
The human limbic system needed community to reach its peak highs and lows. . . Everyone felt self-conscious expressing emotion alone. They needed a scream that gave them permission to scream.
Where does Mitzi get the screams she sells to producers? Not from herself, or at least so she believes. We learn early on in the story that Mitzi might possibly be a serial killer, and certainly is one in her own mind.
She’s been selling harvested screams to the movies since she was a teenager, and now she takes orders for screams of particular varieties. To get the perfect scream, she will select a victim, capture and drug him or her, then give each a torturously crafted death to produce just the sort of emanation of terror Hollywood is looking for in any given season.
Mitzi justifies her psychopathic activities by calling herself a “Last Wave Feminist.” She takes pride in the fact that she is so good at what she does. The leering and perverted producers of Hollywood treat her as an equal and don’t objectify her, or at least they don’t once they hear her latest recorded scream. Then, their eyes rise from her breasts and body to become saucer-like pools of contemplation of all the money they’re about to make.
Meanwhile, Foster makes an aborted attempt to lay his daughter to rest via a bizarre therapeutic ritual involving signing names with Sharpies to a white-painted child’s coffin and burying it. Far from giving him closure, Foster ends up threatening to gun down his whole therapy group.
By this time, Foster has gone deep down a rabbit hole of gloomy perversion, and has taken to hiring drama students to impersonate a Lucy who might have been and hold conversations with him. He knows he needs to reestablish some sort of life, but even as he makes the attempt, he finds Lucy, his Lucy—in a horror film.
It isn’t her dying in the kill scene, but an actress playing a terrified babysitter. Yet Foster is certain it is Lucy’s voice that is screaming as the character dies: “Help me! Daddy, please no, help me!”
His obsession once again stoked to flames, Foster crashes a party and manages to meet the actress from the film. Her name is Blush Gentry, and excerpts from her after-the-fact celebrity tell-all “Oscarpocalypse Now” form a final portion of the narrative structure. At first Blush claims never to use a “scream double,” but finally confesses the scream was overdubbed. What’s more, she knows where it came from.
Meanwhile, Mitzi, who labels her screams for what they literally are, is going for her biggest score ever, a masterpiece scream she calls “Gypsy Joker, Long Blonde Hair, Twenty-seven Years Old, Tortured to Death, Heat Gun” and simultaneously contemplating what professional use she might make of her oblivious boyfriend, with whom she’s growing bored. After her playing of the scream sends a room of producers into paroxysms of alarm and greed, she announces that “Bidding stands at a million two.”
Reality Warping Reversals
It is still relatively early in the story, but we are deep, deep in Palahniuk-land, and the author begins peeling back cabbage-like layers of reality and unreality in much the same manner he did with “Fight Club.” Is Foster’s therapy group real, or some sort of dark web conspiracy? What made Mitzi into a psychopath who, she notes of herself, isn’t capable of catching other people’s yawns? Are any of her memories real?
I found Tyler Durden’s clichéd critique of consumerism in “Fight Club” the weakest part of that book, and here Palahniuk’s satirical point-scoring against the Hollywood culture that glorifies savagery and violence gets a bit tiresome, as well. Tell us something we don’t know. But the good thing about Palahniuk is that he’s more interested in artistic expression than in exploring some didactic point, and he’ll often use a subversive plot twist to undercut his own sanctimoniousness.
He does exactly this in the final third of “The Invention of Sound, using similar reality-warping reversals to what he did with “Fight Club.” Palahniuk’s fulgurite oddities all look pretty similar when you consider them side by side, but every few books he produces a gem that’s well worth a read when you want your mind warped for a few hours by a master of the bizarre within us all. “The Invention of Sound” is one of these beautiful monstrosities.