Book review: ‘Damned’ by Chuck Palahniuk

(no spoilers)

I feel like my book reviews are starting to have a bit of a theme these last few weeks. This isn’t my intention, I assure you – though, truthfully, I do enjoy darker, raw stories more than the average family-friendly Waterstones bestseller. 

A good example of the kind of writing I like to ingest at an alarming rate is anything by Chuck Palahniuk. And not because of Fight Club, his seminal (a word that inspires both ‘best work’ and also ‘relating to semen’ – appropriate) work, but because of ‘Zombie’ (SFW), a short story he published in Playboy, and the first piece of his I read. That was shortly followed by the short story ‘Guts’ (NSFW) which almost made me throw up (along with everyone else) and required I put a two year hiatus on reading his writing. 

His most recent reputation is one of an author reliant too much on the shock factor of gore, sex and violence in his writing, rather than a well balanced novel. He often lays down a great hook, but leaves the rest of the story to crumble – for example in his 1999 novel ‘Invisible Monsters’ and the 2008 work ‘Snuff’, which I personally disliked. 

Damned was written in 2011. I’m a little late to the game, alright, but I was buying “Consider This”, his new book on writing, and the bookseller pitched me this novel and I got caught up in a flurry of needing to please, and knowing I’d just been paid that day. OK? No judgy judgy please.

In short, Damned is a visceral, pungent rollercoaster of a story that plunges Madison, the 13 year old daughter of a self-obsessed film star and billionaire couple, into the depths of Hell after her untimely demise.

Initially I found the book pretty unremarkable and had to pick it back up at least three times to really get into it. Madison’s character development is a little slow, her appearance in the cells of Hell quite boring, and there is no foreshadowing of any future excitement. It appears, for a while, that this cell is as far as her story will extend. Madison appears initially to be a one-dimensional, self-prescribed chubby, dead, smart 13 year old (and what chance did she have of being much else, considering her family?). It works, but it makes for a very boring start and one I wish had been better structured. 

Another element that I didn’t like in ‘Damned’ was that Palahniuk really pummels home the points he wants you to see: the ‘Breakfast club set in Hell’ point, the references to Judy Blume (the whole book being a riff on her book “Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret” which was beloved by millions of young girls in the 70’s and 80’s – though instead it’s: “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison”) and the blazing stereotype of her hippy parents are all but shovelled down your throat. Nothing in this book is done with subtlety.

The middle of this novel is where things start to come together and become more interesting. Madison is broken free of her cage and sets about on an adventure to see the rest of the place, including the hotspots (pun intended) like the ‘Great Plains of Broken Glass’; ‘Dandruff Desert’; ‘Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm’ and others, like the less exciting ‘Sea of Insects’. Madison and her motley crew of ‘friends’ traipse around the desolation, exploring and coming across demons. Curiously, but seemingly inevitably, Madison ends up finding a purpose in line with her earthly personality – working in telemarketing.

One of the traipsing-around scenes, which was my favorite just because of how random it is, seemingly has no actual purpose. It is simply the fast-paced description of a decapitated mohawk-ed head being shoved into the labia of a giantess demon in order to distract her long enough so that she didn’t bite off any more heads. Standard. 

Where Palanhuick really shines is in his ability to create a visceral scene. Especially in the most shocking of circumstances, his power of description leaves most other authors in the dust. The unique similes that this man can concoct are hilarious, and I can excuse a few clearly bolstered and unnecessary scenes for some great writing.

There are some deep moments in his novel too; a couple of sentences that left me feeling some kind of way. For example, as Madison starts to understand her life, what happened and how she died, she starts to look more closely at the figures in the cells surrounding her. These are the ones that are seemingly unable to shed their earth lives, and are unable to move onto a new course for themselves. She starts to understand how truly fixated we are by our achievements, our definitions, our identities: “Countless billions of men and women yammer, despairing, shouting their names and status as kings or taxpayers . . . . in Hell, it’s our attachments to a fixed identity that tortures us.”

She goes on an extreme version of psychological course correction that gives her the confidence to shake off her previous identity and become a super-Hellion. I’ll leave you to read it yourself and won’t spoil exactly what that means. 

One of my favorite paragraphs, which I can’t help but quote in its glorious entirety: “Death is a long process. Your body is just the first part of you that croaks. Meaning: Beyond that, your dreams have to die. Then your expectations. And your anger in investing a lifetime in learning shit and loving people and earning money, only to have all that crap come to basically nothing. Really, your physical body dying is the easy part. Beyond that, your memories must die. And your ego. Your pride and shame and ambition and hope, all that Personal Identity Crap can take centuries to expire.”

It’s these little nodules of gold that I stick around for, with Palahniuk’s writing. His thoughts on material obsession, on human’s need to feel good, better, best of the lot, is powerful. His version of the afterlife, while on the surface insane, offers a simplicity that rings true – there is evil in this life, why would Hell not just be a collection of all of those things? A world gone bad because it’s filled with the kinds of people who don’t care to lift a finger to help anyone else. In conclusion, it’s not his best work, but it’ll keep you entertained for a few hours while you build up the courage to read ‘Guts’. You’re welcome. And for everyone who pukes while reading it, remember that every drop will end up in the Vomit Pond of Hell.

You read it? Tell me what you thought! Am I being too harsh, was it one of your Palahniuk favorites?

This week (and last week) have been mighty stacked with things. I’m running out of vintage photo prompts AND I’m still struggling with the idea of re-writing my old novel. Turns out, I have a LOT of things I need to change, and it’s actually been quite – hard – seeing how I used to understand and expect the world to be, as a teenager.

Next week I hope to have a proper bit of writing sorted and ready to go on here. But alternatively it might be – SHOCK HORROR, DUN DUN DUN, an article with my thoughts and things innit’.

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