Chuck Palahniuk: Damned
Author of Fight Club, Choke cooks up a hallucinatory vision of hell
Published: November 9, 2011
By Chuck Palahniuk
If you don’t find yourself called out, torn up, or stomped on in Chuck Palahniuk’s 8 millionth book Damned, you’re probably a blade of grass or a hydrogen nucleus or a file cabinet. Everyone gets their share—gay, straight, fat, skinny, young, old, alive, dead—and pretty much everyone ends up in hell, so let’s just stop pretending we’re all so high and mighty and get on with it, OK?
Palahniuk has one of the most recognizable voices in fiction today, and everything readers know and love (or hate) about him is here: the slightly altered repetition of phrases and sentence structures, the caustic who-gives-a-fuck disregard for anything PC, the signature sense of humor, the grand, warped parodies of people you might find in real life. He could probably write on autopilot by now, and may very well be. But he seems to still be having fun, and fans of his probably will too.
In Damned, Palahniuk inhabits the chubby body of a dead 13-year-old girl who’s found herself in hell after what she initially tells you is a marijuana overdose. Hell, of course, is not your average hell. It’s full of demons and fire and torture, yes, but it’s also home to landmarks like the Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm and the River of Steaming-hot Vomit; the dead, once they decide to pick the locks of their cages, possess a great freedom to wander and behave as they will; and many work at a calling center where they bother the still-alive with marketing surveys timed precisely for the dinner hour. (Of one person who answers the phone, Palahniuk writes: “I can tell from her 410 area code that she lives in Baltimore, so even if she dies and goes straight to hell and gets immediately dismembered and gobbled by Psezpolnica or Yum Cumil, it won’t be a huge culture shock. She might not even notice the difference. Not at first.”)
The girl is Madison Spencer, and she’s the only child of two new-agey rich and famous Hollywood types who keep their daughter stocked with Xanax and walk around naked at home to encourage sexual freedom. They own houses all over the world, and her mother spends much of her time toggling lights and curtains and door locks remotely with her laptop. Smart little Maddy goes to hell on the night of her 13th birthday, which is also the night her mother presents an Academy Award, which is why Maddy is in a hotel room with her adopted brother Goran when it all goes down.
It’s difficult to condense any Palahniuk work down to a nutshell, but some recurring themes here are the new-wave green movement and the hell that life on Earth seems to have become. He calls out hippie vegetarians who support violence through the drug trade, and uses Maddy’s parents as an extreme example. If you were going to pick a thesis statement, it’d have to be this:
More and more I see that Hell isn’t so much a punitive conflagration as it is the natural result of aeons of deferred maintenance. Frankly put: Hell amounts to nothing more than a marginal neighborhood allowed to deteriorate to the extreme. Picture all the smoldering, underground coal mine fires expanding to rub elbows with all the burning tire dumps, throw in all the open cesspools and hazardous-waste landfills, and the inevitable result would be Hell, a situation hardly improved by the self-absorbed tendency of the residents to focus on their own misfortune and neglect to lift a dead finger in defense of their environment.
Palahniuk’s always used his books as soap boxes—riddling them so thoroughly with metaphors that one could dissect any phrase and find a deeper meaning—but the pontificating is usually accompanied by a page-turner of a plot. This time, the momentum is missing; he seems to be wandering into the abstract. He actually uses a metaphor to call himself out on his metaphors, a tip to the reader that he knows he’s being ridiculous but here he is anyway:
And, yes, I might be a dreamy, romantic, preadolescent girl, but I can recognize a metaphor when one batters me over the head: a young budding lass perched frozen on the threshold between sheltering girlhood and the frigid wasteland of her impending sexual maturation, only a sacrificial layer of her tender, virginal skin holding her captive, blah, blah, blah . . .
What keeps you reading is Maddy: watching her transform from a meek rule-follower to an angry preteen stomping around hell in fake heels, collecting talismans like Hitler’s mustache on her way to confront the devil himself. She begins to find she has more going for her in hell than on Earth, and must decide if she should exercise her right to appeal and go to heaven. As unseemly as all this is, you find yourself rooting for Maddy, and that, if for no other reason, is why you’ll probably pick up the sequel clearly promised on the last page. Cheap trick as usual, Palahniuk, but you got us.
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