Hell is what you make of it: A review of Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

If you’re a Chuck fan, you’ve probably already read Damned. If you haven’t read any Palahniuk before, I can’t recommend this one. While Hell itself is a great landscape and an interesting concept here, the story is dated and unfocused.

 

“My parents meant well, but the road to Hell is paved with publicity stunts.”
Damned, Chuck Palahniuk

Damned is an entertaining mess of a book. Told in the first person voice of thirteen-year-old Madison Spencer, daughter of a superstar actress and a Hollywood mogul, Chuck Palahniuk’s contemporary twist on Dante’s Inferno had me snickering in some places, rolling my eyes in irritation at others. I’m not a fan of Palahniuk’s—not that I don’t like him, but that I haven’t read anything other than Fight Club and Damned, so I’m not bringing the kind of author love to the table that a lot of readers are bringing (unlike, say, if I were reviewing a Neil Gaiman book).

Each chapter is introduced with a “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison” as Maddy Spencer chronicles her new existence in Hell, looks back at her brief tenure on earth, and mocks we readers for thinking that we will live forever, that our bran muffins and exercise regimens will save us from her fate. It’s a strong start and it challenges the reader to remember our own mortality rather uncomfortably. Palahniuk also nails the voice of his overly intelligent thirteen-year-old protagonist. She’s self-conscious of her body weight and her intelligence—though also sort of proud of how smart she is. She often uses big words and then defends herself for it: “Yes, I know the word convey,”… “Yes, I know the word absentia.” Her repeated use of slurs like “Miss Whorey Vanderwhore” and “Miss Slutty McSlutski” gets irritating fast but keeps her voice true. Maddy has deep self-esteem issues, and she’s a difficult-to-like protagonist, which is often interesting. Her parents’ total obliviousness about her social life (or lack thereof), her profound crush on her newly adopted brother Goran, and even their cluelessness in sending a child to “eco-camp” on a newly refurbished private jet adds to the story immensely. Their tragic sadness over her death juxtaposes well with the way her mother, when Maddy was alive, insisted her daughter was 8, not 13, so she herself wouldn’t look old.

Hell itself is a great landscape and an interesting concept here. Most definitely Judeo-Christian though it is, I like the idea that old, forgotten gods are relegated to Hell as demons (though again re: Neil Gaiman, forgotten gods are dealt with better in the seminal American Gods and its follow-up of sorts Anansi Boys). The idea, repeated a few times throughout, that Hell is Hell because the characters were expecting it to be heaven and are disappointed in what they got, that Hell is really what you make of it, is the book’s greatest strength. There are those who languish in their cells, being eaten and re-eaten by horrible (and well-described) demons, and there are those who get up, get jobs, and pass their time with friends.

I also like the geography Palahniuk creates. Hell’s terrain is made up of the detritus of earth: everything the living casts aside, including the souls of the dead, end up down there. A lot of tossed away candy (usually the crappy stuff that no one on earth actually wants) litters the ground. This is a great little device: the hell-dwellers love candy, and the good stuff is passed around as currency, like cigarettes in a prison. Hell is made up of mountains of toenail clippings, desserts of dandruff, the Sea of Wasted Sperm; and Vomit Pond. The godawful imagery of the Swamp of Partial Birth Abortions are evocative.

Which is to say, yes, there is a fair share of crudeness in this book. Palahniuk is known for it, and this will likely determine a lot of people’s love or hate for the book. Palahniuk likes crudeness for its own sake, perhaps for the way it busts down the literary form or reader expectations. And, I don’t know, maybe I’m desensitized, but that just doesn’t seem that important to me anymore. Maybe in the 80s you needed to shock the establishment, but what haven’t we seen now? What does this style accomplish? Consider the scene (which is, at the very least, memorable) wherein our plucky little Maddy climbs up the leg of a demonic giantess and thrusts the decapitated but still quite conscious head of her new punk friend under the giantess’s clitoral hood. The punk, Archer, pleasures the giantess until she has an orgasm, and everything is described in intensely graphic detail. It left me sitting there thinking, “Why?” It’s brazen, sure, but what purpose does it serve? Does it break down barriers or punch holes in old conceptions?  Does it use gratuity to make a statement? Or is it really any different from laughing at a fart joke? “Heh, gross” = entertainment. I’m not sure, but it definitely didn’t do anything for me. It didn’t outrage or scandalize; it was just…there.

And herein lies the problem. Damned reads like a manuscript that was written fifteen years ago and has been dusted off and published. Kids don’t say “way-cool” anymore. I’m not sure how many of them read Judy Bloom either, though I can let that one slide because Madison is incredibly well read and certainly could have picked up some 1970s kidlit at some point. The English Patient was certainly a long movie and possibly not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m not sure why the book goes on and on about how hellishly boring it is. (It came out in 1996! Surely we can mock something more timely, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or the Twilight franchise.) Yes, there are certain celebrities who adopt a lot of children. That’s been happening for a while. And yes, Mr. Palahniuk, it is annoying when those darned telemarketers call during supper. But stand-up comics have been making that joke since 1993, so the conceit that telemarketers are actually hell-dwellers and the only reason they call you is to irritate you during supper is just dated. If Jerry Seinfeld mentioned your topic of choice two decades ago, it’s not brilliant social commentary or cutting insight anymore (if it ever was).

Madison’s coming of age and sudden decision to kick butt and take names seems somewhat contrived, and the trophies she takes—I don’t want to include spoilers here—are over the top and again seem to be there for the purpose of shocking the reader. The revelation of how she really died (hint: not of the marijuana overdose she claims) underwhelms. But the plot’s final twist, which involves Maddy’s inevitable meeting with the big guy himself, Satan, is fantastic. The questions of who Madison really is and what amount of agency she has in her own life are what rescued the second half of this book for me.

If you’re a Chuck fan, you’ve probably already read Damned. If you haven’t read any Palahniuk before, I can’t recommend this one. It’s got its moments of humour, and at times it manages to be thought provoking, but on the whole, Damned is juvenile, unfocused, and dated.


Two out of five blue pencils

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk, published by Doubleday, © 2011.

Available at the Random House siteAmazon, Indigo, and fine independent bookstores everywhere.

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