Jonathan Cape, 2011, 247 pages
“Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison,” declares the whip-tongued 13-year-old narrator of Damned, Chuck Palahniuk’s subversive new work of fiction.
The daughter of a narcissistic film star and a billionaire, Madison is abandoned at her Swiss boarding school over Christmas, while her parents are off touting their new projects and adopting more orphans. She dies over the holiday of a marijuana overdose—and the next thing she knows, she’s in Hell. Madison shares her cell with a motley crew of young sinners that is almost too good to be true: a cheerleader, a jock, a nerd, and a punk rocker, united by fate to form the six-feet-under version of everyone’s favorite detention movie.
Madison and her pals trek across the Dandruff Desert and climb the treacherous Mountain of Toenail Clippings to confront Satan in his citadel. All the popcorn balls and wax lips that serve as the currency of Hell won’t buy them off.
This is the afterlife as only Chuck Palahniuk could imagine it: a twisted inferno where The English Patient plays on endless repeat, roaming demons devour sinners limb by limb, and the damned interrupt your dinner from their sweltering call center to hardsell you Hell. He makes eternal torment, well, simply divine.
"If The Shawshank Redemption had a baby by The Lovely Bones and it was raised by Judy Blume" is how Chuck Palahniuk describes Damned. There are also lots of none-too-subtle allusions to other films and books, like The Breakfast Club and Paradise Lost.
Although the reviews suggest that Damned is far from a favorite among Chuck Palahniuk fans, I actually liked it more than I've liked any previous Palahniuk novels I've read. Chuck Palahniuk is weird and a little disturbed and he twists some occasionally very sharp prose out of his twisted narratives, but he is just not really to my taste. However, I wanted to see what he'd do with the idea of a 13-year-old damned to hell. As it turns out, Damned is pretty funny, and clever in the right places, but I am going to go against most reviewers and say I liked Madison. Oh, she's really, really irritating. She's a 13-year-old girl. An obnoxious 13-year-old girl with parents who are Hollywood elites who use her like a prop. She is raised on moral relativism and Xanax. She's fat, confused, a little boy-crazy, a little spiteful, very smart and extremely sarcastic, but naive in all the wrong ways. And then she dies and goes to hell.
“It's one thing for my parents to behave all secular humanist and gamble with their own eternal souls; however it's altogether not all right that they also gambled with mine: They placed their bets with such self-rightous bravado, but I'm the one who lost.”
Kind of a 'Where the Wild Things Are' vibe.
It turns out it's really easy to go to hell. The Afterlife is a massive bureaucracy and if you've ever, well, done anything, really, you're damned. Farted in an elevator? Damned. Used the f-word or the n-word? Damned. Driven an SUV? Damned (as you damn well should be!). Madison says she was damned for dying of a marijuana overdose, but since we soon learn that just about everyone in Hell lies about why they're there, it's no surprise that Madison has left a few things out about her final moments.
“Anyone who's ever flown London to Sydney, seated next to or anywhere in the proximity of a fussy baby, you'll no doubt fall right into the swing of things in Hell. What with the strangers and crowding and seemingly endless hours of waiting for nothing to happen, for you Hell will feel like one long, nostalgic hit a deja vu. Especially if your in-flight movie was The English Patient. In Hell, whenever the demons announce they're going to treat everyone to a big-name Hollywood movie, don't get too excited because it's always The English Patient, or, unfortunately, The Piano. It's never The Breakfast Club.”
The first half of the book is an entertaining narrative full of hellish satire and occasional gross-outs as Madison hooks up with Babette, Archer, Leonard, and Patterson, as The Breakfast Club meets The Divine Comedy. Madison's voice (she is the first-person narrator, beginning every chapter with "Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.") is full of snark, irony, a bit of preciousness, and every now and then, poignancy. Part of her narrative is the tour through hell, and part is her recollection of her upbringing by parents whose version of The Sex Talk went from "when a man and a woman love each other very, very much" to "when a cellblock full of prisoners love a new inmate very, very much..." Palahniuk takes a lot of jabs at the ostentatious liberal New Agey culture of Hollywood elites, and while it's pretty funny, it's also not exactly original. I mean, making fun of Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie and Barbara Streisand is amateur hour. It's like stealing candy from a baby. (Damned!)
It's when Madison actually becomes reflective, and makes observations about herself and her parents that go beyond merely commenting on how hypocritical and vapid they are, that Palahniuk's talent emerges, and to my surprise, he does a credible job of portraying a 13-year-old girl with the first stirrings of insight.
“I know that when a supersexy older girl with hips and breasts and nice hair wants to take off your glasses and to paint you a smoky eye she's merely trying to enroll you in a beauty contest she's already won. It's a kind of slummy, condescending gesture, like when rich people ask poor people where they summer. To me, this smacks of a blatant, insensitive "let them eat cake" type of chauvinism.”
The second half of the book becomes both more interesting and a little more over-the-top. Madison becomes a tyrant, leading armies on a march across hell, until she is challenging Satan himself. It doesn't really do much for Madison's character arc, and while Madison punching Hitler and making Catherine de Medici eat dirt was kind of funny, as was her final confrontation with Satan the would-be scriptwriter, it felt like the train had derailed at some point.
“The previous Madison Spencer would bother to hold their frightened hand, to calm and comfort them. Who I am now, however, I tell them to cry me a stinking shit river and fall down dead, already.”
Still, the blend of bizarre humor and pathos made me like Madison again. Damned ends with "To be continued." I don't know if that's just Chuck Palahniuk giving us a wink, or if he really means to write a sequel, but if he does write a sequel, I do believe I will read it.
“How miserably hypocritical, you might say, but no sooner am I offered a chance to flee Hell than I yearn to stay. Few families hold their relations as closely as do prisons. Few marriages sustain the high level of passion that exists between criminals and those who seek to bring them to justice. It’s no wonder the Zodiac Killer flirted so relentlessly with the police. Or that Jack the Ripper courted and baited detectives with his - or her - coy letters. We all wish to be pursued. We all long to be desired.”
Verdict: Palahniuk is an acquired taste, I guess. I do like his prose, I just have yet to really love his books and Madison — fat, self-absorbed, acid-tongued daughter of horrible Hollywood celebrities, an infernally bratty 13-year-old girl damned to hell and determined to stay there — is the first of his characters I've actually liked. If you read Damned as a fantasy novel about a girl who goes to hell, it's kind of stupid. If you read it as a bizarre modern allegory, you'll probably appreciate it to the degree that you appreciate Chuck Palahniuk's sense of humor and the hobby horses he's riding.
Also by Chuck Palahniuk: My review of Diary.
My complete list of book reviews.