Chuck Palahniuk has done it again. Though I had a few initial reservations, Damned has climbed into the ranks of my favorite novels. While not nearly as disturbing as some of his other novels, Palahniuk maintains the level of dark, subversive humor and social commentary that launched Fight Club (both book and film version) into acclaim as a cult classic. Of course, I shouldn’t say “not nearly as disturbing” as if it’s a bad thing — in my opinion, it’s not. I respect Palahniuk’s work greatly, but there have been a couple of his novels that gave me nightmares. Haunted, as a matter of fact. Speaking of Haunted, I recently learned that Palahniuk himself confirmed that the short story “Guts” is responsible for 73 people fainting during readings and other events. I myself didn’t faint, but I did feel nauseous for close to an hour.
Pardon my digression — now back to Damned. The story follows thirteen-year-old Madison Spencer, who wakes up in Hell after dying (she thinks) of a marijuana overdose. The story is told more or less linearly, though Madison intersperses her narrative in Hell with relevant flashbacks and memories from her time alive. Each chapter begins in an excellent mockery of Judy Blume: “Are you there Satan? It’s me, Madison.” Madison will then launch into an anecdote concerning the events in Hell, especially her adventures with her new-found friends. There is Babette, the prom queen; Patterson, the jock; Leonard, the nerd; and Archer, the rebel. Sounding familiar? As even Madison reminds us, it’s The Breakfast Club in Hell. Madison is not quite a psycho, but she’s certainly a loner. Of course, being young and not particularly fashionable has given her the distinct advantage of having sensible footwear to protect her feet from the appalling landscape of the underworld. Highlights include the Plains of Broken Glass, Mountains of Nail Clippings, and the Sea of Wasted Sperm, just to name a few.
The action begins fairly quickly, with Madison first watching a Patterson get eaten by a demon she mistakenly identifies as Satan. She’s mortified by her mistake, and begs Satan’s forgiveness, even as she acknowledges the irony of her situation. Archer springs Madison, Babette, Leonard, and Patterson from their cages, and the five of them set out to explore Hell. Along the way, they meet more demons, as well as many historical figures and celebrities. As it turns out, Hell is pretty A-List. Lots of things can send you straight down after death, Madison learns, and not just the expected major sins. Honking your horn too often, dropping the f-bomb too much, peeing in public pools, and farting in elevators are all missteps that can leave you irreversibly damned. Also, using racial and/or homophobic slurs are pretty much a lock on your soul’s destination.
Madison is not exactly sure what particular sin relegated her to eternal damnation, but she settles in to Hell rather quickly. Leonard begins teaching her about the various demons in Hell’s power structure, and his lecture includes one of the best points Palahniuk makes in the novel: “all the demons of Hell formerly reigned as gods in previous cultures. […] One man’s god is another man’s devil. As each subsequent civilization became a dominant power, among its first acts was to depose and demonize whoever the previous culture had worshiped. […] As each deity was deposed, it was relegated to Hell. For gods so long accustomed to receiving tribute and loving attention, of course this status shift put them in a foul mood.” Palahniuk — as he so successfully skewered consumerism and gender identity in Fight Club — has once again stripped bare another societal issue: religion. Whether we like to admit it or not, Palahniuk is right. Through Leonard, he gives a litany of historical examples of religions that previously flourished but have been denounced over the years as new churches gained power. Of course, he points out, “if civilization lasts long enough into the future, one day even Jesus will be skulking around Hades, banished and ticked off.”
Apart from the theology, Madison learns that Hell has two major industries: internet porn, and telemarketing. Madison doesn’t relish the idea of helping add to the ever-rising Sea of Wasted Sperm, so she opts for telemarketing. As it turns out, Hell makes every effort to ensure that their telemarketers call you at the worst possible time. And no, they do not respect the “Do Not Call” list in the slightest. In fact, they make more certain to call if you’re on the list. Madison proves to be quite the recruiter for Hell, urging people not to fear death and to just accept that their time left is probably too short to reverse their fate. The points she makes leave you wanting to argue for your salvation, but inwardly cringing because you know she’s probably right.
Madison’s new friends help her adjust to the afterlife, even going so far as to bribe the demonic bureaucracy into giving her a “salvation test”, a sort of polygraph in which your answers can determine not only what you were consigned to Hell for, but also if you’ll have to stay there forever, or potentially have the hope of attaining Heaven or reincarnation. Madison panics during her test, because she can’t tell what the right answers are. They’re questions about homosexuality, women’s rights, race, the church, and of course, other religions. Madison wonders, “Is God a racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic ass? Or is God testing to see if I am?” Again, Palahniuk forces the reader to consider their own beliefs, and wonder if they really conform to what God (if you believe in God) would want us to be doing and saying.
I don’t want to give away too many spoilers as to what happens (though the novel ends with a “To be continued…” so I can’t give away the ending completely), but let me just say that I fully support the idea of Hell being a place where there is still a chance to reinvent yourself. Madison spent her life being a nice, plain, unassuming girl, allowing herself to be bullied and mocked just so she wouldn’t be alone. In Hell, at Archer’s urging, she lets her teen angst run wild and goes on a mean spree, which delightfully includes Madison punching Hitler in the face and then ripping off his iconic mustache. She also castrates Caligula and bites a demon. It’s hilarious, and kind of satisfying, because many of the people she goes off on are the historical tyrants and murderers who really deserve it. Sidenote — the true story of how Archer ended up in Hell broke my heart, especially because Palahniuk tosses it in so casually between Madison’s rampaging episodes. The reveal of who Patterson, Leonard, and Babette really are, as well as when, where, and how they died, is also really interesting. Madison eventually also realizes the truth about the events surrounding her death, and man — they make you want to run to your family and demand that they all tell you they love you RIGHT NOW.
As I mentioned, Palahniuk left the novel open-ended. I’m really hoping this means a follow-up novel in the near future. Madison’s one annoying habit (insisting to the reader that she knew big words and wasn’t stupid) petered out over the course of the novel, and her snarky, self-deprecating humor was easy to identify with, even if I’m no longer an awkward thirteen-year-old. Palahniuk said he wrote this novel to cope with his mother’s death, which puts the work into an interesting light. The notion that his own fears and hopes were addressed in Damned makes it even clearer that we all have to come to terms with our own mortality and some point. Regardless of individual beliefs, Damned is a solid novel; a novel that uses humor and relatable characters and events to take us to places that no one really wants to go. Don’t worry though — believe me when I say you won’t mind either the ride or the destination, given the deftness with which Palahniuk crafts it.