Damned – Chuck Palahniuk
October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
There came a time, several years ago, when I renounced my affection for Chuck Palahniuk novels. As he quite explicitly acknowledges on his website, Palahniuk readers form a cult of sorts. The cult-followers, and not the author himself, are the reason that I stopped reading Palahniuk. I have met one too many hipster-types who cite Chuck as their favourite author. These cultists can often be heard remarking that most people “can’t handle his stuff”, and describe Invisible Monsters as “kind of off-the-wall”. Cue the Tumblr devotees espousing their overly defensive opinions, interspersed with Palahniuk quotes and flashes of their their hilariously ironic tattoos… I’m out.
Yes, I let hipster culture ruin Chuck Palahniuk for me. And after reading Damned, I have come to deeply regret this.
When Chuck Palanhiuk’s AMA hit the top post on Reddit, I had a look at the synopsis for his upcoming new release, Doomed. The overview told me that it was about a thirteen year old girl living in Hell, about to bring about the end of the world. Naturally, interest was piqued, and not just because it was bound to stray into my favourite genre. Chuck writing from the perspective of a thirteen year old girl? This, I had to read. No sooner had I inquired about its release date in Australia than I realised that Doomed is actually a sequel, to the 2011 release, Damned.
Damned is a really strange book, even by Palahniuk’s standards. I don’t think I ever expected Chuck to write a novel from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old girl, and I know I never expected him to do so with compassion. I spent the weekend reading about Madison Spencer – precocious child of obscenely wealthy celebrity parents, and one of Hell’s newest inductees.
Madison finds herself in Hades after she dies, presumably from an overdose of cannabis (she’s not too sure on the details). She’s locked in a cage, and there are ravenous demons roaming about, but she’s determined to see the bright side in this situation. For example, she was wearing her sturdy, reliable loafers when she died, so at least she’s got her footwear sorted. In the filth-encrusted cell next to hers is Babette, who is polishing her counterfeit Manolo Blahniks when she introduces herself to Maddy. Clearly, the heels aren’t holding up in Hell, and so score one for Maddy. Soon after, Maddy meets Patterson, Hell’s resident teenage jock; Archer, a punk kid with a safety pin through his cheek; and Leonard, token dweeb and demonology expert.
Together, Madison and her newfound friends traverse the landscape of Hell. They encounter a giant demon, determined to eat them, and manage to diffuse her appetite through teamwork and creative thinking. Exploring their surroundings, they cross lakes of blood and saliva to reach their destination – Hell’s headquarters. Madison takes up a job as a telemarketer, phoning the living from Hell with the sole purpose of frustrating the living as much as possible. Instead of infuriating the unsuspecting living, Madison finds that she has a knack for convincing people of Hell’s good side. In fact, she’s so good at this that Hell sees the biggest increase in numbers of the Damned in…well…ever!
Taking its structure from Judy Blume’s Are you There God, It’s Me Margaret, Damned is a bizarre twist on the coming of age story. Now that she’s deceased, Madison is forced to come to terms with the fact that she will never mature into the person she thought she would be. She comes to this realisation via satirical, one-sided conversations with Satan, who she petitions in much the same way Margaret did God.
While musing about all the things she won’t become, Madison begins to accept all the things that she was. Despite never being able to reach physical maturity, Madison finds that Hell is exactly the place she needed to experience in order to mature as a person.
…despite so many options, I chose to be smart – the intelligent fat girl who possessed the shining brain, the straight-A student who’d wear sensible, durable shoes and eschew volleyball and manicures and giggling.
In Hell, it’s our attachments to a fixed identity that torture us.
Isn’t that sweet? Uh, no, it’s not really. No matter how compassionately he may write about the trials and tribulations of being a thirteen year old girl, this is still Chuck Palahniuk we’re talking about. This book is gory, grotesque and most definitely R-rated. It’s a sick and purposeful of inversion of The Lovely Bones. Where Susie Salmon longs to be back with her family on Earth, Madison successfully lures the living down to Hell to be with her. Where Susie was innocent in so many ways, Madison’s former-hippie parents have “liberated” (read: corrupted) her well beyond her years. And, obviously, while Susie was enjoying Heaven, Madison finds that she begins to appreciate Hell. Damned is so closely related to The Lovely Bones that one could even go so far as to call it a companion piece. I certainly think that if you’ve read the former, you’d enjoy the latter much more!
Madison is a fun narrator to read. In his most vulnerable character yet, Palahniuk encapsulates the contradictory mix of self-consciousness and absolute certainty that is the mindset of thirteen year old girls.
My biggest gripe is still hope. In hell, hope is a really, really bad habit, like smoking cigarettes or fingernail biting. Hope is something really tough and tenacious you have to give up. It’s an addiction to break. Yes, I know the word tenacious. I’m thirteen and disillusioned and a little lonely, but I’m not simpleminded.
Damned is often funny, occasionally awful, predictably extreme and unexpectedly tender. It’s far from the explosive masculinity of Fight Club, but it retains Palahniuk’s signature quotability. As with most of Chuck’s books, Damned is raw and harsh, but it’s also insightful. And it ends with a cliffhanger…I fully expect Madison Spencer to continue to raise Hell in Doomed.
Disclaimer: my final submission for high school art class was a collage storyboard of Fight Club. I know, I know. I’m a hypocrite. And I have a tattoo on my wrist.