Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Publication Date: 2011
This week we’re looking at Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk. You might know him as the creator of Fight Club, among other things. I was introduced to Palahniuk with his novel/collection of short stories, Haunted, which I absolutely loved. The framework is a group of writers in a secluded “writer’s retreat” where they deliberately bring suffering upon themselves to improve their craft. All the while they exchange stories–while being knocked off, one by one. It’s an amazing book, and I highly recommend it.
Sadly, nothing of Palahniuk’s work has hit me with the same level of greatness since. And Damned is no exception. This book is problematic at best, and takes far too long to hit its stride.
Our protagonist is Maddie Spencer, a 13-year old child of Hollywood starlets who has recently died and awakened in Hell. Maddie is one of my biggest issues with the book. She’s more like a collection of catchphrases and character traits rather than an actual character. Early in the book she talks about her theory that girls lose their intelligence when they gain breasts–how they suddenly become superficial and all about boys when puberty hits. She then goes on to be completely enamored with a boy, and is revealed to be surprisingly sexual for a thirteen year old. She’s only virginal when Palahniuk wants her to be, and it’s usually mentioned in a context that is actually sexual. Some of this is pretty uncomfortable, and rather leads one to wonder if Palahniuk has some unsavory views towards prepubescent girls.
Most of this could have been solved with a simple fix–make Maddie a few years older. I would totally buy a sixteen year old having these feelings and desires. But thirteen just feels terribly young for some of the things that are revealed about Maddie, and it makes me wonder what kinds of teenage girls Palahniuk know. It honestly reeks of how creepy old guys think teenage girls are–Lolita-esque flowers of forbidden sexuality, wanting to tantalize and tempt these older gents–as opposed to how they actually are.
While I like Maddie’s snark and affinity for “The Breakfast Club”, she comes across as entirely too cynical and jaded for one so young. Still, the novel starts off on a good note, with Maddie’s core group of friends being assembled early, much in the vein of The Breakfast Club.
Sadly, Palahniuk fails to keep up this pace. Our teens travel through the landscape of Hell, made of areas of grotesque shock value. This is a staple of Palahniuk’s writing, and I advise you–don’t make the mistake I did in reading this book on your lunch break.
There is an out of place, intensely explicit sexual scene involving the pleasuring of a female giantess. I almost gave up on the book here, and it left a sour taste in my mouth throughout the story. For me, there’s a fine line in what sort of content is appropriate if you’re not going to market your story as explicit. Talk of sex and the less blatant actions are okay, but once you start throwing around terms like ‘clit’ and talking about juices, you’ve crossed that line.
After that horribly uncomfortable scene (whose only purpose was to provide the kids with transportation, and said giantess is never seen or heard of again) the kids embark on the paperwork division of Hell, to look up Maddie’s file. This is one of the more clever ideas of the story, and I wish we’d had more build-up to it. Babette, one of our side characters, unexpectedly goes from bimbo to useful as she reveals that she knows the ends and outs of bureaucratic Hell.
All of this is intercut with random facts or scenes from Maddie’s previous life. Afterwards, our side characters (the members of Maddie’s posse) all but disappear. With the exception of a rare appearance by Archer or Babette, we rarely see or hear anything else out of our Breakfast Club until the end of the book.
The story doesn’t start to pick up steam until after the halfway mark. As Maddie remembers the truth about her death, she takes Archer’s advise that, here in Hell, she can be whoever she wants to be.
The second half of the book has the best ideas in it, but it ends up feeling rushed compared to the beginning. Several good and interesting things happen, which I won’t spoil here. The second half of the book feels more like the book I wanted to read when I picked up this title. It’s just a shame it took Palahniuk so long to get there.
Damned is a relatively quick read, though the first half trudges quite a bit. Our side characters are all archetypes, and our protagonist–for all her “quirky” traits–comes off feeling a bit bland and off-putting.
Again, I think the major failing of the book is Maddie’s age. While it’s more interesting to think about a 13 year old girl taking over Hell, overall, it just doesn’t work. Maddie question’s her parents’ ideologies with far more conviction than I’d expect of someone that young. Yes, her parents are crazy, but Maddie clearly tells us that all of their friends are like this too. When you’ve been raised in crazy, surrounded by it, you don’t question it. It simply is. It’s usually not until one is much closer to adulthood that they begin to think differently on such things.
If Maddie had been sixteen instead of thirteen, I’d be able to accept a lot of aspects of this book better. But for me, in light of the sexual nature of the book, her age is something of a deal breaker.
Final thoughts: I’m not sure if I’m going to read the sequel or not. I might, since the second half of the book was better than the first. There are a lot of interesting ideas here, but I feel they get mired down in Palahniuk’s desire for shock value. I feel like this book would have benefited from a good edit and notes of the ideas that deserved more time and could have been a lot funnier.
Trigger Warnings: Explicit sexual acts; mentions of necrophilia; gross and violent imagery