Hardcover, 256 pages, $24.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
The acerbic wit of Chuck Palahniuk abounds in Damned. A satire set in Hell, the novel hilariously examines hypocrisy and other human foibles. Referencing The Breakfast Club and Gulliver’s Travels, the narrative employs plot elements similar to both – with a dash of Beetlejuice thrown in for good measure. The horrors of the pit are chimerical fancies and funny as, well, Hell.
At thirteen years of age, narrator Madison “Maddie” Spencer finds herself in the underworld. Because she is extraordinarily bright and articulate, observations of her situation and surroundings are smart and laced with bite. The cultural commentary she provides goes back and forth between life and death and, as she frequently points out, being dead isn’t a prerequisite for feeling damned. As a product of a preposterously privileged background, Maddie developed a keen sense of the absurd. Her folks are extreme Brad and Angelina types who adopt needy kids and espouse many social causes; they are sexually and politically liberal, mega-wealthy, gorgeous, indulgent, and self-deluding. The protagonist assesses her mother thus: “Sliding into middle age complete with cellulite and scaly elbows, my mother has become an economic engine, generating millions of dollars which will be wired to feed families and purchase cholera medicine in Ecuador. Should she ever decide to ‘let herself go,’ no doubt tens of thousands would perish.”
In the inferno, alliances are made. Maddie’s toasty Breakfast Club consists of the expected characters: prom queen, athlete, brainy nerd, rebel. She also makes friends among the living and recruits them for life down under. Part of her punishment in Hell is a gig as a telephone survey taker; she phones the living and torments them with endless questions. The only people who talk to her at length are those who are lonely or terminally ill. They are easy to convince that departing this mortal coil is superior to life, and that Hell is more fun than Heaven: “One can’t help but picture the lackluster VIP lounge in Heaven, a kind of nonalcoholic ice-cream social starring Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mahatma Gandhi.”
Madison also relates that communication between the dead and living is an abiding exchange: “Even before legions of dead people were telephoning the living during the dinner hour and conducting polls about consumer preferences regarding brands of nondairy creamer, before the dead were providing salacious Web site content for the Internet, the souls of the expired have always been in constant contact with the living world.” Another connection between the two worlds is the film The English Patient, an Academy Award winning movie that is played regularly in Hell to torture the denizens with boredom. Indeed, repetitiousness is a diabolical device to make the bedeviled squirm: “If anything, life in Hell is like a vintage Warner Bros. cartoon where characters are forever getting decapitated by guillotines and dismembered by dynamite explosions, then being completely restored in time for the next assault. It’s a system not without both its comfort and its monotony.”
The landscape of the underworld which includes the Sea of Insects, the Great Plains of Broken Glass, and the Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, supplies Madison with much fodder for conversation; dispensing admonitions, and advice about appropriate attire for the environment. Her question “Are you there, Satan?” is repeated at the beginning of each chapter. While Maddie’s confessions and ruminations are addressed to the Prince of Darkness, there are asides to the reader; often reminders to not feel smug or superior merely because one is alive: our time will come.
Damned is so rife with quotable passages that it was difficult to choose which to include for acclamation. Chuck Palahniuk has created a cheeky and subversive Hell that is like a Bosch painting seen through the eyes of the creators of South Park. And as further inducement to read this unabashedly irreverent and clever novel: A character is snuffed by a strip of Hello Kitty condoms. Nothing is sacred, and a helluva fun read is guaranteed.