Revel in It or Get Mad – Review of the novel, Damned

The author described his latest novel, Damned, as; “if The Shawshank Redemption had a baby by The Lovely Bones and it was raised by Judy Blume.” And “it’s kind of like The Breakfast Club set in Hell.”

For me, Damned (by Chuck Palahniuk, Doubleday, 2011) was a wicked twist on Alice in Wonderland.  On fire.

Off with her head!

The story begins at an ending – Thirteen year old Madison Spencer dies. And thus begins Madison’s odyssey as she finds herself in hell, damned for all eternity and trying to make the best of it. Written in Palahniuk’s smarmy style and telling the entire story from young Madison’s perspective, Damned is outrageous, funny, and unapologetically vulgar.

Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.

Damned-coverOnce in Hell, we explore. There were points in the story where the characters go for a walk, just to see the sights, it would seem. Hell as it is depicted is a place filled with oceans of stomach bile, plains of dandruff and mountains of fingernail clippings. It’s a place where candy is the currency. It’s the place where telemarketers really call from. And it’s Hell, where you go when you die if you were bad. If all this seems unimaginative, there was a rationale to it and when you finish the book, you will have gotten exactly why Hell is the ridiculous place it is in Damned.

As I read, there were spans of chapters where I couldn’t discern a clear direction. Chuck has the gift of fooling the reader into thinking he is winging it, only to show at the end he knew all along. It’s a little unsettling, like a driver just turning loose of the wheel while driving down the highway to get something from the backseat. I’ve read every novel Palahniuk has written and I’ve gotten used to it. That’s the thing about reading Palahniuk’s books… you wander and either you revel in it or you get mad. I chose to revel.

I think I should understand that better, if I had it written down: but I can’t quite follow it as you say it.

For an entire novel that is told from the perspective of a 13 year-old girl, it’s way too smart. This was a complete fail for me. The story kept telling me how old the character was but everything she did or said indicated otherwise. Yes, she would lapse into some juvenile name-calling (Little Miss Slutty McSlutterson and so on), but that only got (very) tedious without creating the sense that this is a child trapped in a horrible, surreal place.

In truth, this character is exactly like the main characters in his previous novels and the story trademarks all make another appearance – social disaffection, caustic violence and gross-out humor, but isn’t that why we pick up his books? You will either revel in it or you get mad.

Tut, tut, child! Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.

In my opinion, this is some of Chuck’s finest writing. Make no bones about it, Damned is a weird book that goes well beyond the realm of absurd and straight into freak show. It is satire at its most tasteless and extreme. You’ve got to be okay with that or you won’t make it very far in Damned. I liked the way the character grew and changed and how things were explained in the end. It wasn’t a huge reveal that blew me away but I found it satisfying. I also got some great laughs, particularly the part around the telemarketers in Hell who schedule their calls to customers at dinner-time. “Just a quick survey on what qualities you most appreciate about lip balm.”

Damned is not a new classic nor is it perfect. On more than one occasion, it completely grossed me out. If you go at it with an open mind and trust the author to tell you his story in his way, at his pace, you’ll be fine. If you try to figure everything out and make sense of what’s going on, you’ll just get mad.

I recommend it with the caveats mentioned above but be warned, the very last line in the book is, “To be continued.”

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One thought on “Revel in It or Get Mad – Review of the novel, Damned

  1. Hmmmm, not sure I can do the gross out stuff, Mitch. I read his short story ‘Guts’ with my fingers more or less covering my eyes (à la horror movie style, but a bit more distracting) so I couldn’t see all the words at once – I was just censoring it for my brain as I think it would have been just too much to take in all at once. Maybe it wouldn’t have been, but I wasn’t willing to take that risk. :]

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