Book review: ‘Damned,’ by Chuck Palahniuk

October 28, 2011

And now, from the Well, What Did You Expect file: Chuck Palahniuk imagines a great hell.

His matter-of-fact underworld is the charming setting of “Damned,” a slight but very funny coming-of-age (after-you’re-dead) novel, which the publisher describes with rare book-jacket precision as “the Inferno by way of The Breakfast Club.”

Our Virgil, 13-year-old Madison, is the crackling, chubby daughter of a Hollywood power couple. Maddie, who may have died from a drug overdose, begins each chapter in warped Judy Blume fashion, “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.”

Her voice is so crisp and entertaining that she can’t help seeming like one of those idealized, too-smart teens who sometimes frequent young-adult fiction. When Maddie suggests that “thirteen years seems to be when human beings reach their fullest flower of intelligence, personality, and pluck,” you wonder if she (or Palahniuk) has ever visited an actual middle school.

But an overly sharp narrator is hardly a fatal flaw in such a lively book. Palahniuk’s descriptions of hell are inspired, crafted with great comic flair and the brilliant satirical stipulation that the Christian fundamentalists are right: Hell is literal, dinosaur bones were faked by Satan and among the unspeakable demons slurping about is Robert Mapplethorpe.

Madison wakes in a moldy cell surrounded by fetid candy (do not eat the gummy bears), stalked by giant demons looking to chew off skulls (they grow back, painfully) and introduced to a crew of teen-movie archetype hell-mates ready to help Maddie negotiate seas of insects, fields of nail clippings and broken glass, and a dandruff desert.

But that’s merely the terrain. The details are truly hellish: The only movies to ever play in Hades are “The English Patient” and “The Piano.” Internet is dial-up. Printers are all dot-matrix. There are only two jobs: Internet porn and those telephone solicitors who call during dinnertime. The smell, while awful, is “nowhere near as bad as Naples in the summertime during a garbage strike.”

This is Palahniuk’s 12th novel, beginning with the mid-’90s generational anthem “ Fight Club ” (his titles suggest sketchy nightclubs in some meatpacking district: “Haunted,” “Rant,” “Snuff,” “Pygmy”). Often with Palahniuk, there’s a signature — some would say formula — gross-out plot twist or wince-inducing description, and “Damned” certainly has its jump-the-shark moment: a Swiftian sex act between a severed head and a giant demon.

But readers complaining about the disturbing part of a Palahniuk novel are like sinners whining about going to hell (which Madison also finds obnoxious, “like the people who travel to Las Vegas only to harp about how it’s so tacky”).

Yes, the story’s a little thin, a bit gross and Madison’s straw-man parents back on Earth make easy targets, but this is a winning and funny book, and near the end, when Maddie seems to be ascending toward a sequel (Purgatory, anyone?), you’ll likely want to read that one, too.

Walter is the author, most recently, of “The Financial Lives of the Poets.”

DAMNED

Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday

247 pp.

$24.95

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