The fact that I read “Pygmy” all the way through is all you need to know that this book review is written by a fan. The glasses will be somewhat rose-colored. I just felt like I should come clean about that right up front. Now, then…
“Damned” is the 2011 novel written by Chuck Palahniuk, which finds our man back in old form following the innovative experimenting with formats seen in the all-interview, anthropological style of 2007’s “Rant” (superb) and the grating, epistolary broken English of 2009’s “Pygmy” (not so much). Back are the hallmarks I’ve come to look for in a prototypical Palahniuk protagonist: A disaffected outsider with an odd occupation and/or personality disorder whose inability to relate to other people ignites an existentialist rebellion.
With that in mind, “Damned” gives us the snarky, overweight, hyper-articulate thirteen year old girl Madison Spencer, whose only moral compass in life has been the scattered, Faustian values of her Hollywood power couple parents and the simmering nihilism of her adopted brother / unrequited love Goran. After succumbing to an alleged marijuana overdose, Madison’s grand act of rebellion is to shove it in the faces of her spiritually fickle parents by going to the Hell she was assured wasn’t real and discovers what it truly means to suffer; first in a holding cell littered with popcorn balls and Skittles, then in the truly horrible bowels of Hades, where legions of the doomed are forced to slave for all eternity as telemarketers in an infernal callcenter.
It’s good to have you back, Chuck. We missed you.
The narrative of “Damned” is a posthumous account of Madison Spencer reacting to her own death, seeing it largely as another thing a teenage girl can get self-conscious about. Clearly seeing her mom (A-list actress) and dad (powerful film producer) as the spiritually flaky, vapid, phonies that they are is established early on as Madison bemoans the English Patient world of her parents and longs to live more of a John Hughes kind of life. Having lived under celebrity-obsessed media scrutiny since her baby pictures were published in People magazine, it’s not until Madison leaves her clueless family by going to Hell that she truly starts getting to know herself. Upon finding herself in the Auchwitz-esque holding area of Hell, Madison soon befriends other damned souls, among them a pretty popular girl (a prom queen), a bookish theological scholar (a brain), a still-in-uniform quarterback (a jock), and a shoplifting, leather-jacketed, blue-mohawked punk (a criminal). Recognizing herself as the Alley Sheedy, this “Breakfast Club of the Damned” gives her the environment she always wanted in life, as well as giving her a new direction when they break out of their cells, and a new father figure in Satan himself.
Crossing hellish locales like The Ocean of Wasted Sperm and The Swamp of Partial-Birth Abortions, Madison and her new friends make it to Hell’s headquarters, where she plans to file an appeal for her damnation to be reviewed in hopes that she might have been condemned to an eternity in Hell by mistake. In the meantime, they are put to work gathering consumer trend information by calling the world of the living -as a strict rule- when they’re most likely to be eating dinner.
Finding, structure, camaraderie and new purpose, Madison uses this link to the living world to tell the terminally-ill people on earth who talk to telemarketers out of loneliness that Hell isn’t all that bad, which leads to a spike in damnations, which leads Madison to reinvent herself as the crusading beacon of hope (her only addiction) that she always wanted to be.
I loved this book because it encapsulates everything about Palanhiuk’s ideal literary world, where people are as strong as they believe themselves to be and a sardonic sense of humor is everyone’s last line of defense against insurmountable misfortune. It’s always been one of the great aspects of the human spirit to use humor as a weapon against all the horrors lying in wait for the naive. Caustic detachment is often overlooked as the act of true defiance that it is. Any one can rage against the unfairness of an uncaring world, but only the strongest among us can joke about it.
“Damned” is not without it’s quirks, however. The chapter headings consistently beginning with the phrase “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison…” is a wink-wink to the Judy Blume generation, but wears a little thin around the 7th time it’s used, and Palahniuk’s commitment to writing in character is a little too strong when the prose becomes as annoying as an actual thirteen year old girl, but it’s all part of how he writes, and he writes like one of the most imaginative storytellers of his time. Also, where else can you get a scene involving a still-talking severed head performing cunnilingus on a hundred foot tall demon? Ya feelin’ me now?
There’s a sequel called “Doomed”, which was published last year, and you better believe I’m going to read the shit out of that.