With his trademark pitch black humour and cultural eclecticism, Chuck Palahniuk returns with his latest novel The Invention of Sound. Did this dark tale of Hollywood horror leave me screaming though? Read on to find out…
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With a gleefully madcap premise, The Invention of Sound certainly won’t be labelled unmemorable. Foster is a desperate father attempting to uncover the fate of his young daughter, missing for years, living in the morbid hope of finding her in the clutches of perverts. Meanwhile, foley artist Mitzi is a slave to her art, creating the best screams in the business in grisly fashion. It soon becomes clear that there might be even more at stake than she realises though, as she stumbles upon a scream with such horrific power that it’s contagious – it could even have the power to bring about a seismic event.
Foster’s story is far from ordinary, as he attempts to uncover his missing daughter’s fate, convinced the answer lies in the network of child trafficking rings operating on the dark web. But Mitzi’s story is the real hook here. Her job is interesting enough as it is, with her making the point that while everything else in cinema is faked and enhanced with computers, her work is still primitive and tactile. Watermelons covered in crackers simulate the sound of a head being split open. Snapping frozen celery stands in for breaking bones. Mitzi, of course, goes one step further than that, grabbing unsuspecting acting hopefuls and subjecting them to various grisly fates in the pursuit of her art. Mitzi’s screams are perfect, with her reconstructing the conditions of the scenes she’s required to dub as closely as she can, consequently earning her vast sums of money as studios fall over themselves to buy her work.
Of course, it soon becomes clear that Mitzi has inadvertently created the perfect scream, causing others who hear it to mirror it – with potentially catastrophic results. As with previous Palahniuk titles (2003’s Diary and 1996’s Fight Club in particular) there’s a strong theme of mass manipulation here. It’s a playful idea for him to return to, with a basis in the kind of science that doesn’t sound completely beyond the realms of possibility – he establishes in the opening to the novel that limbic resonance (which is what causes dogs to all howl together) is going to play a key part. This is also the first instance of the expected wide-ranging trivia Palahniuk likes to seed his novels with, with plenty of others scattered throughout. You might already be aware of the Wilhelm scream, for example, but you can look forward to finding out about some more famous movie sound effects. Hardcore film buffs might not learn anything particularly new here, but it all helps to give things that veneer of authenticity, placing this firmly in our world before warping things through his unique vision.
That vision is particularly incisive and vital here too. A gym is referred to as an assembly line where people manufacture themselves. Mitzi admits to herself that she is invested in the “commodification of pain,” before the narrative switches back to Foster as he’s hounded by those eager to get a viral video of him. It’s not as bleak as some of his previous output, with plenty of fun to be had, and in truth he doesn’t allow himself quite as much license as he could to savage the Hollywood set. They still draw some of his fire, with extracts from the memoir of supporting character and gem-obsessed actress Blush Gentry providing entertaining colour and changes of pace. But it’s more a gentle nudge than a full-on poke for the most part.
Happily though, this means that the pace is lightning quick, with two lean and taut narratives intertwining and tying (almost) everything up cleverly by the final page. There are some moments where you might question just how watertight some of the plot points are, with the odd liberty taken with logic and a few plot holes skated over as the various mysteries are resolved. Certainly, some key parts of Mitzi’s story will require a few suspensions of disbelief towards the end. But there are more than enough individually memorable and entertaining moments to propel this to its rather ghoulish and slightly schlocky finale.
With thrills and spills aplenty, The Invention of Sound is pitch perfect Palahniuk. Anyone familiar with his previous work should enjoy themselves here, as this is a well plotted and immensely readable horror, told with his characteristic wit, intelligence and skill.
The Invention of Sound is out now, published by Corsair. You can order your copy through this affiliate link.