The Designer’s Drugs: Chuck Palahniuk – Damned

 

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Chuch Palahniuk ‒ Damned

 

 

In Chuck Palahniuk’s new world, Hell is Hollywood.  Hell is also Hell, full of the typical wailing, gnashing teeth, and rising lakes of wasted jizz that serve as Hell’s equivalent of global warming.  But if we’re stacking up the hierarchy of the awful, consider this ‒ even Palahniuk’s Satan has a script he’s trying to sell.

Damned promotes itself as The Breakfast Club in Hell, and if Madison, its pudgy, oft-neglected hero, resembles any member of that Saturday morning detention crowd, it’s the Ally Sheedy neurotic girl.  (In discussing that 80s film classic, our girl notes that she howls with terror when the popular cheerleader gives said outcast a condescending makeover.)  Madison’s quite a bit more than that dark, mousy type, however.  In true Palahniuk fashion, this preteen is quick to assert that she knows middle of the road words like gender, excrement, tenacious, and feign ‒ yet in casual moments she nonchalantly drops bigger words and phrases like colonoscopies, biological imperatives, vivandiers, and coals-to-Newcastle.  I have no idea what that last phrase even means.

This newly lost soul spent life as an unloved prop to her vapid Hollywood parents, the sort of people who adopt kids from around the world shortly before shipping them off to boarding school, the sort of people who fly their kids via private jet to ecology retreats.  I get the impression that there’s a healthy portion of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in these absurdly cosmopolitan celebrity caricatures.

After dying from a marijuana overdose, Madison meets up with the requisite Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, and Judd Nelson characters, and this infernal Breakfast Club goes traipsing around the hoary netherworld in search of misadventure.  As time goes by, Madison gets kind of awesome.  She preaches the joys of damnation in her telemarketing job, beats up Hitler in grand, hilarious style, and goes on a spew-soaked revenge haunting.

The last book of Chuck’s that I picked up before this one was Snuff, whose porno gangbang setting was the most obvious and inevitable thing an author inclined toward burying his readers in freakshows and trivia could have produced.  That book was so over the top as to become really, really boring.  In contrast, Damned is kind of delightful.  Perhaps the choice of setting absorbs some of that stereotypical shock.  Sure, Palahniuk’s paintbrush colors up a pretty disturbing landscape of the inferno, but it’s Hell, so that’s kind of expected.  With the need to shock sort of canceled out, the story ends up relying on wit and characterization, and Palahniuk, perhaps having no choice, ended up writing a book combining the scope and cleverness of Robert Olen Butler’s Hell with the innocent charm of Judy Blume, right down to beginning each chapter with “Are you there, Satan?  It’s me, Madison.”  Damned seems to be a reworking ‒ if not total subversion ‒ of Chuck Palahniuk’s established formula, and as such, it made me a fan again.

 

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