By Ben Arzate
Gates Foster’s daughter went missing seventeen years ago. In his grief, he’s constantly on the look out for his girl and for child sex traffickers he thinks may have taken her. Attending support groups does little to help him. Mitzi Ives is a Foley artist who specializes in screams. The secret of her success is that she uses the real screams of her murder victims. When Foster recognizes his daughter’s voice in a scream dub in a B-movie, he embarks on a mission to find the people behind the film.
“Generations had watched so much fake death. Beautifully lighted, badly acted, underscored with music. Now nobody could believe in the reality of death.”
Most of Palahiuk’s novels in the past decade or so have read like spoofs and parodies. While dark humor was always a part of his work, Damned was a humorous retelling of Inferno, Beautiful You was a straight parody of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon, and Adjustment Day was a disjointed satire of modern politics. The desperation and sadness that characterized some of his best work like Fight Club and Invisible Monsters had been missing, but not in The Invention of Sound. It reads very much like his early work in that, despite the dark humor, the deep dissatisfaction of the protagonists is what ultimately drives the story.
Foster’s grief for his missing daughter has become all-consuming. Despite the fact his daughter is most likely dead after close to twenty years, he refuses to accept it. He takes to downloading child porn, even at his work, hoping he’ll find his daughter or, at the very least, find a way to put away the men in the videos. He even hires an escort who resembles what his daughter would look like as an adult to try to act out what still being with her would be like. He openly admits that he’s addicted to the grief.
Ives has been a serial killer since she was a teenager. At first, she told herself she killed for feminist reasons, but eventually moved on to seeking “the perfect scream.” Despite getting away with all her murders and the success she has selling their recorded screams, she finds herself needing to constantly drink herself numb, take Ambien, and having degrading, painful sex with her boyfriend to take her mind off of it.
Both characters are driven by an attempt to escape from their awful realities despite being forced to confront them at every turn. This is a sort of post-modern horror novel, commenting on the need to see revolting images as a simulacrum despite the reality of it attacking people every day. Audio recordings of real murders become unreal by being imposed over simulated images of murder. Exposure to the horrible things that may have happened to a missing child is more comforting than not knowing at all.
The novel works as a serial killer thriller, with Foster being the investigator and Ives as the villain, but still twists the plot threads enough to make it unique and unmistakably a Palahniuk novel. Despite knowing that the two will obviously eventually confront each other, it makes you want to see how it’s going to play out. Some of the twists at the end are kind of hard to buy and nearly push the book into over-the-top territory, but it manages to maintain enough emotional verisimilitude that the ending is still mostly believable.
The Invention of Sound is easily one of Chuck Palahniuk’s best recent works. Fans of his early work will certainly want to pick this up, and those unfamiliar with him will find this as a pretty good starting point. He tells a dark tale with a lot of social commentary, much like Fight Club, and includes his trademark dark humor without falling into being a satirical farce like Beautiful You. I can hardly think of a better time for such a return to form from Palahniuk than in Halloween season of one of the darkest years in recent history.
Ben Arzate lives in Des Moines, IA. His articles, reviews, short stories, and poetry have appeared in various places online and in print. He is a regular contributor to Cultured Vultures and is the author of two poetry books (the sky is black and blue like a battered child and dr. sodom and mrs. gomorrah, feel bad all the time), one book of short stories (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye, NihilismRevised), and two novels (The Story of the Y, Cabal Books and Elaine, Atlatl Press). Find him online at dripdropdripdropdripdrop.blogspot.com.