Damned

damnedIts October so I have decided to read “horror” novels. Well, it is not as simple as that, but that is close enough. I do not read a lot of horror, so I halfway dedicated October to reading horror genre items – or things that are close-enough to horror, I suppose. It is, again, an effort to clear books from shelves and to make myself read things other than I normally read. I wanted to start off the month kind of “light” (i.e. no absolutely terrorizing horrific fiction) and so I pulled Damned by Chuck Palahniuk (b. 1962) off of the shelf.  Damned was published in 2011 and is Palahniuk’s eleventh novel (I think, maybe twelfth). I think most people on the planet recognize him as the author of Fight Club (1996).

Damned is a strange read. According to Wikipedia, its structure is based upon Judy Blume’s novels for young women. I have no referent for Judy Blume other than you see books compared to her books once in awhile. So I will have to take Wikipedia’s word for these facts. I suspect it is because the main character/narrator of Damned is a 13 year old girl.

The best thing about the narrator is her deadpan (seriously, no pun intended) delivery of her story. I mean, even in the most heinous scenes, the most excitement the book can offer, she remains fairly deadpan, practical, and level-headed. I mean, as she relates the story of her (short) life on earth, she maintains a healthy honesty and skepticism that makes her seem a reliable narrator. The fact that she “wakes up” in a cell in hell and is able to quickly assess her situation and be mindful of keeping her attire clean is a remarkable achievement for a thirteen year old, I think.

I am unsure to whom she is narrating. The novel has little headings at the start of the chapter in which the girl addresses Satan – but yet, she has not met this creature so it seems like a placeholder. Many times during her narrative she directly addresses the reader – as the living, of course, and counsels or goads them regarding their continuing to live while she is, of course, deceased. Madison, which is her name, is not even sure how she came to be dead. Her memory of the event is rather unclear and when this is explained later, it is reasonable to see how she can be so confused. However, she very naturally assumes that there is a logic of some sort to all of this and that she ought to be glad she died wearing solid, relatively durable footwear.

For the most part it is a coming of age novel – a super strange fact considering, well, the main character is dead and the setting is hell. Through Madison’s retrospective narration, the reader joins the character as she considers her life, short as it was. So, we learn about her parents (extremely rich, popular individuals), and her schooling (a boarding school in Switzerland), and her opinions regarding clothing, friends, boyfriends, and religion. I think it is a key fact for prospective readers to know:  Madison is quite intelligent and she knows it, but she is really not at all an arrogant character. Somehow Palahniuk was able to pull off designing a character that is full of  wit and erudition, but who remains matter-of-fact and not annoyingly arrogant.   I am not sure many readers can necessarily “bond” with Madison or find similarities, but I think it should be fairly easy to sympathize for the girl.

Palahniuk is a sharp writer in that while he makes his character intelligent and witty, he also knows when to have her make small “errors” or slip-ups, as it were. As bizarre as it sounds, he makes a thirteen year old girl who exists in hell seem quite genuine and realistic.

For the first four chapters, I think Madison’s wit is very much on display and there are definitely some amusing phrases and statements. Also, here is where the setup is for the entire novel. It is in chapter six that the rest of the storyline changes – she is released from her cell. During the first four chapters I admit that I was a little worried that the novel was going to continue in that same fashion – moving from witty and interesting into the range of tedious and repetitive. There is a lot of repetition in this novel that, for the most part works itself out, but not all readers are patient.

Palahniuk’s hell in this novel is very gross. The geography of the place is very repugnant. There are lakes of not-great-things, rivers of not-pleasant-things, and mountains of wow-that-is-disgusting. But it is hell. Still, even knowing this is a fantastical-humorous coming-of-age novel, there are some horrific sights in hell that I think maybe would prevent me from wanting to read a true horror novel by Palahniuk. Because this is definitely horrific – by a number of definitions, surely… but maybe not exactly a horror novel. Depends on perspective. Madison will share her opinion on these matters – you know, getting a manicure with her mother or some of her birthday “parties” might compete with most folks’ concept of hell. I read this for October, but some might say it certainly is not a horror novel. Well, chapter ten has some obscene, graphic, truly outrageous moments in it. Scenes that I am really sure the majority of readers would cringe or pause or something at. (If you’ve read it, this is the Jonathan Swift allusion with the Psezpolnica creature. Yikes.)

Even if the Bible is correct, and it’s easier to push caramels through the eye of a needle than get to Heaven, well, Hell doesn’t totally suck. Sure, you’re menaced by demons and the landscape is rather appalling, but she’ll meet new people. I can tell from her 410 area code that she lives in Baltimore, so even if she dies and goes straight to Hell and gets immediately dismembered and gobbled by Psezpolniza or Yum Cimil, it won’t be a huge culture shock.  She might not even notice the difference. Not at first. – pg. 110, chapter 14

Throughout the book, Madison references things like Jane Austen, the movie The Breakfast Club, and a few other items that remind us that Madison is not actually an adult and her worldview remains that of a child. Its strange to say, but I have never been even vaguely interested in such a worldview, so I suspect Palahniuk is a good writer to present such a view so entertainingly.

Still somewhere beyond halfway in the novel, Madison’s narrative becomes more focused on her introspective – efforts to make sense of her life and her death. Her insights and remembrances are sometimes serious, sometimes confused.  While Palahniuk can be called transgressive and nihilistic, I did not get that feeling whatsoever from Damned. This is a book full of honesty and hope, especially the latter. Again, I recognize the weirdness of calling a novel narrated by a dead thirteen year old in hell hope-centric, but there it is.

Pity the poor demon with but its single strategy to win.  In the same handicapped way Jane Eyre must remain meek and stoic, this demonic Baal knows only one way to exist:  by being fearsome.  While I exist plastic to change and adapt, tailoring my battle plan to each new moment, Baal can never dissolve an enemy into helpless laughter, nor charm a foe by using extraordinary beauty.  Therefore, when we neglect to fear such a brittle monstrosity, we render it powerless. – pg. 203, chapter 30

This is probably my favorite line from the book. This is because it is also one of the few takeaways from the novel. My main issue with the book, though it has some repetition and some unnecessary obscenity, is that there is not really a takeaway – not for the reader and not for Madison. Nothing. The ending is abrupt and nearly stupid. There is nothing after all of these pages of ruminating and assessing and considering. No takeaway at all. Now, I am not looking for some grand moral of the story or some incredible epiphany, but any novel should have something more than the nothing the reader gets here. Even if it is a resounding nihilism being asserted. The book ends with a “to be continued…” and that is all. Imagine a sort of coming-of-age novel without any coming-of-age. Well, what can be expected in the permanent status of hell? Thirteen forever, I suppose.

The best part of the novel is the character’s voice. There is some wit, some creativity. However, after finishing this one I felt like it was a reasonably entertaining diversion, but pointless read. Nothing much to takeaway, a novelty. I am glad I read it – because it has sections of really skilled writing. The last third seemed to be rushed and random. I do not think Palahniuk knew what to do with this? Overall, its fine, but nothing to hand awards to.

2 stars

2 comments

  1. Interesting. It’s been years since I’ve read one of his books, and I remember thinking I might like this one. Despite the “non ending” I am curious now!

    1. It is a curious thing; a unique novel that I am glad I read. Its not without some issues, but its not a very long book and honestly, its worth reading for the diversion. You read so lightning quick, it would fly by for you!

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