Ian Mond Reviews The Invention of Sound by Chuck Palahniuk

The Invention of Sound, Chuck Palahniuk (Grand Central Publishing 978-1-538-71800-1, $27.00, 240pp, hc) September 2020.

Chuck Palahniuk’s outlandish new novel, The Invention of Sound, toggles between two very different individuals. Mitzi Ives is a foley artist who, following in her father’s footsteps, special­ises in screams so devastating and true-to-life they almost sound real. Gates Foster is an investigator who spends his days hunting through child-pornography sites for a glimpse of his daughter, Lucinda, missing for more than a decade. When we first meet Mitzi, she is explaining to her dead-head boyfriend, Jimmy, that she intends to record a death-rattle that “will make everyone in the whole world scream at the exact same time.” When we first meet Foster, he has boarded a plane to accuse an innocent man, in tow with his daugh­ter, of being a child pornographer. Everything changes for Mitzi when she records a scream so irresistible that anyone who hears it can’t help but scream in response. Everything changes for Foster when he is sent a hyperlink (by persons unknown) of a scene from a slasher film where his daughter’s terrified screech – “Help me! Daddy, please, no! Help me!” – has been dubbed over the cries of a B-movie starlet. As Mitzi reckons with her past and the consequences of her work, Foster begins to piece together the truth of his daughter’s final day, and, more importantly, the foley artist who recorded her last words: Mitzi Ives’s father.

If you read my Locus review of Adjustment Day back in 2018, you’ll know I wasn’t keen on the book. While it did have some terrific ideas and set-pieces, for the most part it read like a cranky old man’s take on wokeness and the culture wars. The good news is that The Invention of Sound harks back to the Chuck Palahniuk who wrote spiky, gruesome, satirical works like Choke, Survivor, and Haunted. Mitzi’s perfect scream, amplified by anyone who hears it and reducing cinemas across America to rubble, is an inspired idea that recalls the Monty Python sketch “The Funniest Joke in the World”. It allows Palahniuk the opportunity to take a swipe at Hollywood, including the jaded producers who hire Mitzi because her work elevates their shitty films, never questioning how she produces screams that are so authentic; or the Academy who ridiculously nominate Mitzi’s recording for “Best Sound,” not because it’s good but because “the industry needed to prove they hadn’t launched a horror flick that had already smashed dead with concrete almost three thousand teenagers.” The scenes of actors death-marching to the Oscars, where the scream will be played live, some with a brave face, others blubbering to the camera, is Palahniuk at his satirical best. When it’s not taking the piss out of Hollywood, The Invention of Sound, like many of Palahniuk’s earlier novels, is about broken people who exist on the fringes of society. What I found surprising is that Palahniuk is kind to Mitzi and Foster. Don’t get me wrong; they’re not likeable, and they both do awful things, but you can understand how they became the people they are. For plot-related reasons, it takes a little longer to understand Mitzi’s motivations; but with Foster, it’s clear that he has never come to terms with the loss of his daughter, that it will always haunt him, even after he’s solved the mystery of her disappearance.

The Invention of Sound also has those trademark Palahniuk flourishes that I fell in love with when I first picked up Fight Club so many years ago. It’s not as visceral or violent as his infamous short story “Guts” (which appears in Haunted), but it still features several uncomfort­able, confronting scenes, especially early in the novel where Foster is viewing “crimes against children just the witnessing of which would send him to prison until he was an old man.” And who else other than Chuck Palahniuk (and maybe Ottessa Moshfegh) can, on the very first page of the book and in the same paragraph, seamlessly transition from Mitzi’s disgusting observation that a blister “festered” on her boyfriend’s drooping penis – “It looked ready to burst, a lump swol­len with pink-white pus” – to her laugh-out-loud realisation that the boil was, in fact, an Ambien, which she plucks and slugs down with a glass of white wine. This one moment – which cleverly turns out to be pivotal to the plot, as the Ambien is more than just a prop – is Palahniuk in a nutshell. You either love this stuff, or you find it crass and unfunny. I’m clearly in the former category, and it’s wonderful and even exhilarating to see an old friend back doing what he does best.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the September 2020 issue of Locus.

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One thought on “Ian Mond Reviews The Invention of Sound by Chuck Palahniuk

  • December 9, 2020 at 6:26 pm

    I think “Adjustment Day” is his best work, and I’ve read pretty much all of his books. But, then again, I would rate “Pygmy” as his second best, so I obviously have different tastes.
    Re-read the first of those twice this year because it seems to resonate with our times. With being sent home to work after March 15, had tons of reading time as I don’t have to do all the getting ready and commuting stuff every day, so my list has included books on Ulysses S. Grant, Stalin, Khrushchev; re-reads of “Salem’s Lot” and “The Stand”; half of Vonnegut’s novels; some Tom Robbins; “Frankenstein”; Vladimir Sorokin’s “Day of the Oprichnik” and “The Blizzard” and a number of others, and of those “The Stand” and “Adjustment Day” were seemed the most in tune with our world.
    The latter, obviously, as we had idiots armed with rifles crowding into the Michigan legislative building to protest masks and shout in cops’ faces and also a plot uncovered of some of our Y’all Queda home-grown domestic terrorists to kidnap the Michigan governor and put her on trial — which was very reminiscent of the plot in Paluhniuk’s novel.
    The ending seemed rushed and choppy, what with the burning of the Antebellum house and parade of the white idiot lords and escape from the gay holding camp and the removal of the prince’s wiener via brown recluse bites. But the end of “Huckleberry Finn” leaves a lot to be desired and it’s still one of the greatest works by a U.S. writer.
    On the nonfiction front, the re-reading of Richard J. Evans’ trilogy about the rise and fall of the Third Reich also seemed to speak to today’s world.


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