Our narrator is Madison, a chubby, caustic thirteen-year-old rich kid with a billionaire father and a movie star mother. One Christmas, she is abandoned at her Swiss boarding school by her jet-setting parents who have flown to yet another war-ravaged nation to adopt yet another orphan. She overdoses on marijuana, dies and wakes up in Hell.
But not just any Hell. This is a Hell where the demons roam freely and chew the limbs of the damned - said limbs immediately growing back for the next snack attack, of course. There are deserts of dandruff, mountains made of toenail clippings and valleys of used disposable diapers. The ground is littered with the sort of crap you were disappointed to find in your trick or treat bag; wax lips and popcorn balls and junk. There are seas of insects and oceans of wasted…well, you get the picture.
This is a Hell where the torture of damned souls is sometimes a bit more subtle - the excitement of the occasional movie night is immediately tempered by the realization that it’s always “The English Patient.” This is a Hell where even after death, you’re still a working stiff, although you’re probably stuck either telemarketing or doing internet porn.
This is a Hell where you wind up if you’ve ever done anything that anyone anywhere might consider “bad.”
But Madison is not alone. This quirky loner’s cellmates include a cheerleader, a jock, a nerd and a punk rock kid - teenagers all of them. Does that particular grouping remind you of a certain Saturday spent in detention? The five of them set off to Satan’s citadel, hoping to confront the head honcho of Hell and maybe, just maybe get answers to some of their questions.
Madison is the foundation on which the entirety of “Damned” has been built. Her strength of character and likeability are key; if we don’t like her or feel empathy, the book simply doesn’t work. Happily, despite the darkness of his work, Palahniuk has proven more than capable of creating likeable characters regardless of the circumstances. In fact, one of my favorite parts of this book are the brief openings to each chapter in which Madison has her “Are you there, Satan?” moments. They’re funny and genuine and occasionally a bit heart-wrenching. It’s a wonderful device that reveals so much about the character in just a few brief sentences, not to mention setting the tone for everything else.
“Damned” is not for the faint of heart. Yes, it has some light moments and many bits are quite funny, but there are some particularly gruesome moments, too. Quite a lot of them really - it’s Hell, it isn’t supposed to be nice. There’s also plenty in here that might offend those of a religious bent. Again, not surprising - dealing with the concept of Hell necessitates addressing religious matters, and there’s just no possible way to make everyone happy once that can of worms is opened.
Palahniuk is a master world-builder. He has a remarkable sense for detail, with vivid descriptions bringing the landscape to life. His Hell strikes an unsettling balance between horror and absurdity, bounding easily back and forth between the two and creating something far more hellish than could have been born of just one or the other. Palahniuk has always had an eye for both the ridiculous and the sublime, and never has it been more evident than in “Damned.” Hell is the perfect palate, an ideal medium for Palahniuk’s artistry.
I’ll admit to being a fanboy from way back; I would consider Chuck Palahniuk one of my literary heroes. This book is just one more example of his ability to hold our society up to the funhouse mirror; it’s always distorted, warped and a little creepy, but still recognizable as our own.
In short, “Damned” is damned good. Read it. You’ll have a Hell of a good time.