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The basic freedoms that you've taken for granted are those that Palahniuk reveals as false. Every liberty in 21st-century America becomes a scam for the materialistic heartbeat of society. The world, as Palahniuk sees it, is one that is destroying itself through its own purchasing power, corrupting itself within its malls and theme parks. Palahniuk's fascination with the consumer culture in which we live is the backbone of his novels. His fourth and most recent offering, "Lullaby" (Doubleday, $24.95), is no different.

After Carl Streator, a reporter doing a report on crib death, comes across a poem with which you can kill people just by reading it out loud to them, he realizes the world around him is thick with magic. When Streator recognizes that the poem has been unwittingly used to kill thousands of babies, he begins a quest to rid the world of every existing copy of the poem. After teaming up with a bizarre group — Helen, a realtor who gets rich reselling haunted houses; Mona, an aspiring witch; and Oyster, an eco-terrorist — Streator also understands that he can't help but wield the power of the poem to kill anyone who presents him with the most minute annoyance. Through the story of these wayward do-gooders, Palahniuk shows just how little control anybody really has. "What I'm talking about is free will. Do we have it, or does God dictate and script everything we do and say and want? Do we have free will, or do the mass media and our culture control us, our desires and actions, from the moment we're born?" In the end, Palahniuk's "Lullaby" depicts a world in which we are all sorcerers — and victims — of a black magic that imprisons us.

— Francis W. Decker

Alphabetic Acrobatics

Wary of wrestling with words like cenotaph, posteritified and lucubrating? All three make an appearance in "Ella Minnow Pea" (Anchor Books, $12) — in the first seven pages, no less. But don't allow vocabulary temerity to discourage you from picking up this short and delightful novel — there's no friendlier, or funnier, foray into the eccentricities of the English language.

"Ella Minnow Pea," the first novel from playwright Mark Dunn, is a collection of letters exchanged by inhabitants of the imaginary island of Nollop — named for Nevin Nollop, creator of the famous phrase "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" (which includes all 26 letter of the alphabet). Nollopians consider writing an art form of the highest order, as evidenced by their impeccable prose.

In the center of town stands a statue of the great Nollop, his sentence engraved on ceramic tiles. One day, the Z tile falls and shatters. The island's council decides this means the long-dead writer, in his infinite wisdom, has commanded them to make do without the letter. Henceforth, they decree, no one shall use Z in speech or writing, on pain of banishment or death.

The islanders decide they can find other names for horizons and bulldozers — it's only one letter, after all. But day after day, more tiles fall, imprisoning the islanders in ever-tightening constraints of censorship. In the end, it is up to one young woman, Ella Minnow Pea, to stop the lunacy by inventing a sentence neater than Nollop's that still contains all 26 letters, and thus proving the revered man is no more than a charlatan.

The concept may sound like an excuse for a master of language to flaunt his ability, but Dunn's elegant fable delights without pretension. His characters are witty, not cutesy. And the reader will be amazed at how Dunn continues to write eloquently even toward the end of the book, with less than half the letters of the alphabet at his command.

You don't have to be a word nerd to understand and enjoy "Ella Minnow Pea." (I've already forgotten what exactly lucubrating means.) In a time when e-mails have usurped epistles and high-schoolers unthinkingly substitute instant-messenger abbreviations for real words, a book that celebrates language is a rare treat. — Melissa Scott Sinclair

The Flip Side

We know it as the day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. But if you want to look through the other end of the telescope, check out Martin Cruz Smith's "December 6" (Simon & Schuster, $26).

Harry Niles is a gaijin who grew up as the son of missionary parents in Japan. As the country he knows better than the United States is preparing for war, Harry is in Tokyo, specifically a bawdy district-that-never-sleeps known as Asakusa, where you can get anonymous sex, eat street food, go to risqué theaters and drink at neon nightclubs — especially at the Happy Paris, which Harry owns.

Considered to be something of a rogue by the other English-speaking expats in Tokyo, Harry sees war coming inexorably and is ready to abandon the country he loves more than his own, hopefully on the last flight out with the wife of an ambassador — he's been sleeping with her for some time. But there are problems. He's persona non grata at his own embassy, his Japanese acquaintances are already treating him like the enemy, and he's being followed wherever he goes by an old childhood friend seeking revenge for a bet Harry won during the Rape of Nanking. And his lover, Michiko, is threatening to kill herself, to kill him if he tries to leave, or both. Moreover, Harry appears to be a spy. But for whom? The United States? Or Japan?

Moving his novel with breakneck speed through a time when Japan was about to roll the dice on a grand and shocking long shot, Smith does what his fans love. He creates meaty characters, evokes tumultuous circumstances, and tortures events until there seems to be no way out for anyone. Then he ends with an unforeseen twist that simultaneously leaves his audience full of doubt about what they think they know and a particle of understanding of what they didn't. "December 6" is a breathtaking study of what the approach of World War II looked like from the other side of the Pacific. It delves remorselessly into the Japanese Empire's character and holds up a mirror so the reader can better grasp his own. — Don Dale


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