Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Damned’ Is a Hell of a Good Read
Walking the hallways of the average high school can be a hellish experience. Compared to that, toiling in eternal darkness may not seem so bad to some teens, especially if you’re already a little bit off and the brainchild of Chuck Palahniuk. The man who brought the world Tyler Durden creates another tale of wacky nihilism in Damned.
Thirteen-year-old Madison Spencer has never had an average life. As the offspring of two of the biggest names in Hollywood, she’s gotten used to unusual situations, and living in exotic locations. It’s never been a life she’s particularly enjoyed, but she’s not one to complain, even when she finds herself in the most commonplace scenario of all: death.
And though the afterlife that’s in store for her doesn’t involve clouds and winged people playing harps, being condemned to Hell is nothing like she would have pictured either — a constant loop of boring movies plays at all times and the ground is littered with the remnants of old candy unfit for consumption. Oh, and the screams of millions of souls echo across the land, but it’s not too hard to tune it out. Ending up in Hades at such a young age wasn’t what Madison had in mind for herself, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have a better time in death than she did in life.
With a mother who rates as one of the top actresses of all time, being chunky, bespectacled, and prepubescent is already difficult enough having to be shunted to the side, while your parents live the jet-set life. But it makes good practice for being stuck in a world of perpetual suffering. Madison’s indifferent attitude to her tortuous new surroundings shows just how much you can mess up your kid when you ship them off to boarding school and roll back their age so you seem younger.
This is business as usual from the man who continually insisted in his first book that none of us is a unique and beautiful snowflake. Rather than succumb to the modern-day vanity of her folks, our heroine tends to emulate classic literature like that of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and Judy Blume, evidenced by every chapter of her story beginning as a journal entry, “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.” An inability to fit in with her peers in life doesn’t hinder her as she finds some new companions in the Netherworld, becoming the Ally Sheedy to a Breakfast Club type quintet that includes queen bee Babette, religious zealot football player Patterson, über nerd Leonard, and Mohawk-wearing rebel Archer.
Dante Alighieri, John Milton, Alice Sebold, all the people who have tried to capture life after death have got it wrong. Or at least they’re neither as funny nor outrageous as Palahniuk. Who else would create a vision of Hell that includes places like the Dandruff Desert, the Ocean of Wasted Sperm or the Swamp of Partial-birth Abortions? Likewise, who else would force his readers to imagine a disembodied head performing cunnilingus on a 30-foot tall demoness?
The author of Invisible Monsters, Haunted, Survivor and more manifestos of pure madness has always toyed with the concept of reality in his books whether it involves time travel, a song with deadly powers, or a man who believes he’s been cloned from the foreskin of Jesus Christ. Here we see him cast off the shackles of his usual craziness and transcend mortality itself in the most irreverent route possible.
Besides confirming our suspicions that Internet pornography and telemarketing are both the work of the devil, Palahniuk crafts his newest protagonist with a mold that differs slightly from his typically detached style. Sure, Madison refers to everyone by monikers like Harlotty O’Harlot or Pervy Vanderperv, and is of the opinion that she knows better than everybody who’s ever lived. A 13-year-old girl who thinks she knows it all, what will they think of next? However, she’s also much more flesh and blood than any of Palahniuk’s recent creations. With the promise of life and her parents’ wretched hypocrisy behind her, anything is possible and only a special kind of girl could face damnation with a sense of optimism, purpose, and even love. What makes it all the more personal is the writer’s claim that his inspiration was the death of his mother.
The problem with many of Palahniuk’s novels lies within the denouement. Not everything can have the mind-blowing reveal of Fight Club. Sadly the climax of Damned is its weakest point despite a build-up that gets better and better. Though it fails to deliver in the final pages, the preceding 85 percent is right on track for any of the scribe’s fervent fans. Or somebody who wants to know what it’s like to meet Adolf Hitler and give him a black eye.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars