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Goats On A Deserted Island: A Crash Course In Seeding, Showing, And Withholding Information When Telling A Story


I usually don’t offer commentary on great book quotes or passages, but some pieces merit an exception.

For example, this passage from the novel Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk:

‘Centuries ago, sailors on long voyages used to leave a pair of pigs on every deserted island. Or they’d leave a pair of goats. Either way, on any future visit, the island would be a source of meat. These islands, they were pristine. These were home to breeds of birds with no natural predators. Breeds of birds that lived nowhere else on earth. The plants there, without enemies they evolved without thorns or poisons. Without predators and enemies, these islands, they were paradise. The sailors, the next time they visited these islands, the only things still there would be herds of goats or pigs . . . The sailors called this “seeding meat.”‘

Right there, Palahniuk tells a number of stories all at once, embedding a number of messages in the narrator’s words.

But it doesn’t end there. A couple of lines later:

‘Does this remind you of anything? Maybe the ol’ Adam and Eve story?’

Upping the ante. The story of Creation instantly redefined.

It gets better. A couple of lines after that:

‘You ever wonder when God’s coming back with a lot of barbecue sauce?’

Right there, the realization that the concept of an all-beneficent God is claptrap — it doesn’t exist, Palahniuk’s narrator suggests, not in the way we pretend it does. An entity with godly powers can never be truly benevolent, not without a great deal of blowback involved. There can be no absolute comfort in its presence, no true deliverance. If someone or something rules above you all mighty and divine, that something has tremendous power over you in ways no benevolence can bridge.

One could call the presiding entity a demon, but the religious connotations in such a term are biased and misleading, offering false impressions. At best, one may call this creature — and any ‘godly’ entity at large — something similar to what humans are to animals and plants; an entity which, at best, treats those below it as pet dogs, or pigs and cattle, if not orange trees, coriander and sweet potatoes, if not algae and bacteria.

See, it pays to look around and draw conclusions from the world around us and everything we know about it.

Best case scenario, pet animals! That’s the deal. Dogs, cats, birds, fish. That’s what we can expect to be. Or maybe just bacteria, yeah, those pesky little creatures that seem to have a one-up on any entity regardless of its size or power. Bacteria are so far removed from most creatures’ immediate sphere of perception, they get away with being who they are, often thriving in and around giants AKA gods, despite the overarching presence of said gods, maybe even killing a few gods in the process, as bacteria are prone to do, durable motherfuckers that they are.

It raises the issue, who are the real gods? The monumental giants with their almighty presence, or the microscopic creatures that infiltrate everything?

A story for another time.

In terms of God being something gargantually larger and more complex than us, we will suffer — are suffering — a fate similar to animals and plants in Its hands. Palahniuk has set up this argument through his opening thesis, turning the screw with each line. He doesn’t spell it out for us, he simply implies it through a combination of what he says and what he withholds.

The rest of the chapter unfolds in typical Palahniuk style, with thoughts and inner monolog intermingled with dialog, aphorisms, and multiple points of focus on the backdrop of this opening. Carl, Helen, Mona and Oyster, driving along, talking deities and nature and anti-advertising and invasive species and farming and mass death. The whole scene takes place by a Great Lake where the stink of dead fish lingers for miles on end. It becomes the setting for a great exchange between the story’s characters, who build on previous statements about how cheatgrass has spread all over the North American continent at the expense of other life forms and to the detriment of equilibrium (see previous Lullaby post).

In the end, after going this way and that, discussing carp, starlings and alewives, the chapter comes full circle, playing with the possibilities of what the writer has insinuated in the chapter’s opening — ‘If God exists, our relationship with Him/Her/It is going to resemble humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature, starting with a couple of goats left on an island,’ or something along these lines — a thesis insinuated ever so ominously, and now brought full circle. Palahniuk closes the chapter by offering a couple of takeaway scenarios, a pair of steely parting thoughts to make sure we pay attention to the implications. The final two paragraphs:

‘Looking out the car window, Oyster says, “You ever wonder if Adam and Eve were just the puppies God dumped because they wouldn’t house-train?”

‘He rolls down the window and the smell blows inside, the stinking warm wind of dead fish, and shouting against the wind, he says, “Maybe humans are just the pet alligators that God flushed down the toilet.”‘

It could be.

From your nutritiously creative Spin Doctor,

Eyes open, mind sharp.