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