Damned by Chuck Palahniuk (New York: Doubleday, 2011. 247pp)

Chuck Palahniuk is an American essayist and novelist most known for his novel Fight Club. As a postmodern, minimalist author, he is most widely known for his satirical works, as well as transgressional fiction and horror. He lives in Pasco, Washington.

Letters to Satan 

“Are you there, Satan? It’s me Madison. Don’t take the following as a scolding. Please regard what I’m about to say as strictly constructive feedback. On the plus side, you’ve been running one of the largest, most successful enterprises in the history of…well, history. You’ve managed to grow your market share despite overwhelming competition from a direct, omnipotent competitor. You’re synonymous with torment and suffering. Nevertheless, if I may be bluntly honest, your level of customer service skills really sucks” (79).

In a bizarre Breakfast Club meets Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned documents the life-after-death of a thirteen-year-old girl, Madison, who has been sentenced to life in the eternal fires of hell. I read the Inferno in high school and subsequently Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso. I thought Palahniuk might bring a funny odd twist to the hell-fire franchise with this work, and I was somewhat right. Hell, in Palahniuk’s world, is unconventional to say the least.

Thirteen and Dead

Photo by Dave Hogg

Each chapter in Damned begins with a letter to Satan, like the one above. After this introduction, Madison usually describes part of her past life as a daughter of a narcissistic film-star mother and a billionaire father. Abandoned at her Swiss boarding school while her parents attend the academy awards (her mother is presenting), she and her boyfriend take residence in a hotel room and smoke a lot of marijuana. A lot. She smokes so much marijuana that she dies of an overdose, ending up in hell, an ironic place where The English Patient plays on repeat nonstop. She shares eternal damnation with a jock, a punk rocker, a nerd, and a cheerleader. Much like the classic understanding of damnation, none of these characters really appreciate hell.

“But, to be honest, when you’re dead probably not even homeless people are retarded people will want to trade you places. I mean, worms get to eat you. It’s like a complete violation of all your civil rights. Death ought to be illegal but you don’t see Amnesty International starting any letter-writing campaigns. You don’t see any rock stars banding together to release hit singles with all the proceeds going to solve MY getting my face chewed off by worms” (5).

Madison believes that she has the right to appeal her eternal sentence. As one would expect, Madison simply isn’t pleased with her ending up in hell. So, she journeys across the satanically-inspired terrain to hell headquarters, where she hopes to file said appeal.

“My reasoning is…if convicted murderers can linger on death row for decades, demanding access to law libraries and gratis public defenders, while scribbling briefs and arguments with blunt crayons and pencil stubs, it seems only fair that I ought to appeal my own eternal sentence” (94).

A Journey through Hell

Photo by Carol Browne

The journey, then, becomes a gigantic satire on both hell and current human society. Madison, a spoiled, incredibly intelligent thirteen-year-old thinks she is better than everyone else. Her intricate vocabulary is a way of showing off her pride, but she admits that her only sin is smoking too much marijuana. On her journey across the candy-lined (the kinds you don’t like such as popcorn balls and sen-sen) floors of hell they cross the swamp of partial birth abortions, the sea of discarded sperm, the dandruff desert, and so on. In a perverted homage to Gulliver’s Travels, Madison even climbs a demon as tall as a tornado only to end up with a job in the center of hell as a telemarketer.

“My job is: The dark forces are constantly calculating when it’s dinnertime anywhere on earth, and a computer autodials those phone numbers so I can interrupt everyone’s meal. My goal isn’t actually to sell you anything; I just ask if you have a few seconds to take part in a market research study identifying consumer trends in chewing gum. In mouthwash. In dryer fabric-softener sheets” (105).

Though the story was unconventional and frankly disturbing at times, I enjoyed this book. Chuck Palahniuk in his stereotypical style offers a story with a twist, one I will not divulge here. If you can handle some vulgarity, some humor, and some borderline sacrilegious themes, I think Damned is at least worth a cursory read. I hear it may even have a sequel.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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