Book Review: Damned

For 15 years and 13 incomparable novels, Chuck Palahniuk has managed to simultaneously delight and disgust his readers. Being set in Hell, Damned is certainly no exception.

Since his notorious debut, Fight Club, Palahniuk has consistently demonstrated that he is not the type of author to write demure, moral novels intended for the faint-hearted.

His vision of Hell is composed of rivers of hot saliva, mountains of dandruff, heaps of toenail clippings, ponds of vomit, and the type of candy that “even fat people and heroin junkies won’t eat”. Subsequently, there are moments when even the most hardcore Palahniuk fan may have to skim over a few lines to retain their breakfast.

As a longtime despiser of our modern-day solipsistic celebrity culture Palahniuk clearly revels in giving his readers an adventure in Hell through the deceased eyes of Madison, the 11-year-old bratty offspring of a movie star mother and a producer father.

“Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison” every chapter pensively begins, a satirical nod towards Palahniuk’s fondness of Judy Blume, the author of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Madison ends up in Hell after dying whilst her parents are off perusing the typical celebrity custom of adopting copious amounts of orphans.

To her Hell is paradoxically homely, being not all that different from Hollywood boulevard.

Throughout her adventures in the underworld Madison is accompanied by “the brain, the jock, the rebel and the prom queen”; much like a hellish take on The Breakfast Club.

Similarly to fellow cult-fiction author Brett Easton Ellis in American Psycho, Damned recognizes that, for some, celebrity and pop culture have become alternative methods of religion that, coupled with an unwavering faith in the materialistic, leads straight to damnation.

“Watching television and surfing the internet are really excellent practice for being dead”, Madison mordantly observes.

In many ways she is a stereotypical teenager, worrying about being too fat, too unpopular – too dead, Madison is caustically tongued, narcissistic, egocentric and craves attention, even from Satan himself.

Ultimately she realises that it is “little nicety-nice girls like me who allow assholes to run the world” and subsequently begins to assert herself against history’s biggest bullies, including Hitler and Genghis Khan, which rapidly enables her to become the most popular girl in Hell.

Throughout his oeuvre Palahniuk has focused on mankind’s denial of death, a theme which steadily penetrates Damned: “Not that you’re ever actually going to die,” Madison frequently sneers at the reader, “Not with your hours and hours invested in aerobic exercise.”

Palahniuk intended Damned to be part one of a trilogy, much like Dante’s Divine Comedy, with Madison next featuring in purgatory and finally in a form of salvation.

At his best Palahniuk is exceptional to read but even the greatest apologist could not deny that Damned is lacking his usual uncompromising bite.

Palahniuk’s research is always meticulous and this is still obvious within Damned: as well as references to Swift, Dante and Jane Eyre, he demonstrates an ample knowledge of demonology, and also that Hell offers many job opportunities, from telemarketing to Internet porn performances.

However, unlike the inexorable, ingenious Survivor, the terrifying Lullaby or, of course, the cult-classic Fight Club, Damned’s finale unfortunately becomes something of a repetitive blur, where fresh jokes have become stale and clichéd and, despite being in Hell, you can’t help but find yourself becoming a little bored.

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