by Chuck Palahniuk
256 pages, Jonathan Cape
Review by Paul Fenton
‘Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.’
So begins each chapter of Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel, Damned, a surprisingly short story about a young girl’s adventures in Hell. Madison Spencer is the daughter of a couple of Hollywood icons. She’s thirteen, but her mother wants her to be eight. She tells us she died of a marijuana overdose – which is the point where the large UNRELIABLE NARRATOR signs starts flashing in multicoloured neon.
The Hell described by Palahniuk is a kind of dark comic-book Hell, home to a desert of fingernail clippings, a waterfall of excrement, and an ocean of aborted foetuses. There are apparently three things you can do to occupy your eternity in Hell:
1. Stay in your cell or wander around outside, and probably be mutilated and eaten by one of the countless demons roaming about the place (don’t worry, your body will pull itself together when it’s all over)
2. Be a live web-porn performer, debasing yourself for voyeurs in the living world
If Madison were to take option 1, the action would get boring pretty quickly; option 2 isn’t an option at all, not really, because you simply can’t describe a young teenager doing these things. Naturally, then, Madison takes up telemarketing.
There are some very funny scenes in this book. What Madison does to befriend a giant female demon, it really does require re-reading, and then re-reading again. Also, did you know you can be instantly damned for neglecting, one too many times, to wash your hands after going to the loo? Honking your car horn too many times will also send you hell-bound. With all the damnation fine-print, it’s hard to imagine anyone not going to Hell.
I can’t say I ever felt like I was on Madison’s side, though. She was already dead and in Hell, so it’s hard to see how anything could get worse for her. I also found myself distracted by some of the plot devices. Chuck does like his plot devices. The most noticeable in Damned is the regular referencing of Madison’s vocabulary. “Yes, I’m only thirteen, but I know the word distraction, I’m not stupid.” That kind of thing. I found it, at times, slightly distracting, and I’d have to track back up the paragraph to find the word or phrase she was referring to. It seemed slightly forced, so I spent most of the novel trying to second-guess the twist the device was setting us up for.
It’s a different kind of novel to Tell-All, and Pygmy, and Snuff … and I think that’s a good thing. I would like it if the story was more in focus, instead of simply providing the background to the theme. There’s only so many times you can read about the emptiness of consumerism and the frailty of modern life before you say, screw it, I’m going to go out and read a Stephanie Meyer book.
Extreme example: I’m not there yet.
The book ends with a to be continued, suggesting we’re going to get the Dante treatment, the full trilogy. Will I read about Madison’s trip through purgatory? Almost certainly. For anyone who’s read Damned, know this: I’m not going to buy Hello Kitty anything for my daughter, not anymore.