Death is the One Big Mistake that none of us EVER plans to make. That’s why the bran muffins and the colonoscopies. It’s how come you take vitamins and get Pap smears. No, not you – you’re never going to die – so now you feel all superior to me. Well, go ahead and think that. Keep smearing your skin with sunblock and feeling yourself for lumps. Don’t let me spoil the Big Surprise.
In my early twenties I went through a Palahniuk phase. I loved Fight Club, raced through Choke (though the film was not as good), and couldn’t put down Survivor. I recall enjoying the rawness of Palahniuk’s writing, the unpleasant yet sympathetic characters, the very dark humour, and the steadily boiling underbelly of anger and anarchy. So when I picked up Damned last week I expected to be hooked from page one. I wasn’t. I’m still not sure whether my tastes have changed (I’m probably not as awkward and angry as I was at twenty-three) or Palahniuk has just missed the mark with this book. Either way I found Damned – while entertaining enough – to be ultimately disappointing.
Published in 2011, Palahniuk wrote Damned while his mother was dying of cancer. The author seems to have found some comfort in the plight of his thirteen-year-old protagonist Madison Spencer, a girl who has been consigned to hell after (we are told) dying of a marijuana overdose. Madison is the child of billionaire-celebrity parents, an awkward and irreverent pre-teen with “stubby legs … pop-bottle eyeglasses … crooked nose and flat chest.” Her experience of hell is a twisted mix of Judy Blume’s famous young adult novel and the 1985 film The Breakfast Club, with healthy portions of bodily fluids and demonic torture thrown in. Damned ends fairly abruptly, and Madison’s adventures continue in the 2013 sequel Doomed (which I have yet to read).
While Palahniuk is certainly not the first author to write about hell (Dante – The Divine Comedy – and Anthony McGowan – Hellbent – are just a couple of very different writers that come to mind) in Damned he presents a new and original interpretation. In Palahniuk’s hell the damned work as telemarketers, calling the living right on dinnertime to ask for their help with inane and endless surveys. The unfortunate inhabitants of Palahniuk’s hell are forced to endure repeated screenings of The English Patient, and are frequently devoured by wandering demons. Damned is also – like all of Palahniuk’s work – strewn with biting social satire, the most intense of which is aimed at Madison’s family and their hypocritical Hollywood lifestyle. In one passage Madison describes what it was like to go to Ecology Camp instead of Sunday School:
[E]very single kid got there on a separate private jet, burning through about a gazillion fossil-fuel gallons of dinosaur juice the likes of which this planet will never see again. Each child was borne aloft; provisioned with his or her body weight in organic fig bars and free-trade yogurt snacks sealed within single-use Mylar packaging designed not to biodegrade before the future date of NEVER …
But the most interesting and important aspect of Damned is the way it encourages us to confront death – “the Big Surprise.” As Madison – from her hellish phone bank – comforts the terminally ill on Earth and convinces them to accept their mortality, so too does she remind us – her readers – of our own eventual demise:
Earth is earth. Dead is dead. You’ll find out for yourself soon enough. It won’t help the situation for you to get all upset.
Madison’s openness about death is refreshing, and helps us to reframe our ideas about what it means to be dead (or alive). Both states are inherently neither good nor bad – they take on the value we give them.
While Damned offers a vivid setting and a humorous and likeable main character, the narrative as a whole doesn’t live up to its potential. As this article in the LA Times points out, Palahniuk has failed to build a good story around the details. I felt that the plot on the whole was choppy and confusing, and lacked focus. I didn’t understand why Madison ended up making two separate journeys across hell to reach Satan’s headquarters – the second trip felt redundant, and could have been merged with the first. Many of the more disgusting passages failed to further the plot or enhance the characters, and seemed thrown in purely for shock value. Characters were not fleshed out enough, particularly the members of the damned Breakfast Club, who end up serving as little more than mouthpieces for explaining the workings of hell. Even Madison felt somewhat inconsistent, resulting in her personal transformation not carrying the weight that it could have. The novel is also packed with repetition. Each chapter begins with the phrase – “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison”, which is a clever subversion of Judy Blume’s title at first, but quickly becomes grating. Madison is also constantly reminding the reader of how smart she is: “Yes, I know the word insidious” (p. 4); “And, yes, I know the word gender” (p. 13); “Yeah, I know the word construct” (p. 17); “Yes, I know the word excrement” (p. 19) etc.
On the whole, the writing in Damned lacks poetry (and there’s no reason death and destruction and excrement-waterfalls can’t be poetic), and the ideas lack cohesion. There are some very funny moments, and some moments of great insight. But they are not enough to hold the story together. I’m hoping the sequel is closer in style and substance to the Palahniuk books I remember.
Chuck Palahniuk is the author of eleven previous novels including Fight Club, the film version of which was directed by David Fincher. More information about Palahniuk and his work can be found at his website.