I think most people who have read Palahniuk fall into 2 camps. 1) Those who will read anything he writes and 2) The ones who have quit. I sadly admit that I’ve been in the second camp for a few years. I think Haunted was the one that broke me, with a first chapter that left me feeling scarred. (And still does some time later.)
The thing about Palahniuk is you have to be ready to be scarred. You have to be prepared to be disturbed. That’s a large part of the appeal.
But the downside is often that his books start to feel repetitive in their attempts to shock and appall. The plots aren’t always as strong as the individual moments or chapters. And you never know if you’re going to come across something that means you never pick up another Pahlaniuk book.
So, this review is mostly for that second group. I know there are a lot of you out there, who think you won’t read anymore Pahlaniuk novels.
But here’s the thing: you should read this one.
It’s often the premise of a Pahlaniuk book that is outrageous and crazy. (Like Choke, about the guy who chokes in restaurants just so people can save him and feel good about themselves,,. and give him money. Or, you know, Fight Club. About a club for fighting.) This time the premise is not outlandish at all, if anything it’s a bit old hat.
Madison Spencer is 13. She is pudgy and not very attractive. She has never been very happy about anything. And… she’s dead. Newly dead, and just starting out in the strange world of Hell.
What I love about this book and what Pahlaniuk does differently here is that he has a huge landscape to work with. He gets to create any version of Hell he wants to. His solution is pretty much to create EVERY version of hell all together. There are cages filled with screaming, tortured souls. There are giant demons who devour people. There are even telephone call centers because…. well, where did you really think they were? The possibilities are endless and Pahlaniuk makes something fun and fresh out of this giant canvas.
The story is pretty simple, too. Madison teams up with an unlikely band. A jock. A nerd. A beauty. A rebel. And the weirdo Madison herself. Sound a little familiar? Not only does Pahlaniuk play with hell, he reenacts The Breakfast Club while he’s there. Or at least he plays with the stereotypes and the story. All of them help Madison on her quest to figure out just how she died (she hilariously suspects a marijuana overdose) and what landed her in Hell anyway.
You never know what’s coming because the book is constantly changing. There are flashbacks to Madison’s sad and charmed life as the ugly daughter of a gorgeous movie star. There are journeys through Hell’s landmarks, like the Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm. (That is definitely not the most shocking, but certainly ribald enough to get a rise out of you.) There are also encounters with any number of famous dead people (Hitler, obviously). And ultimately there’s Madison’s attempt to have a one-on-one chat with Satan himself.
I found Damned to be damn fun. It walked the line between shocking and funny–there is a lot more comedy here than I’m used to with Pahlaniuk. There’s a lot less of the tics of Pahlaniuk’s writing that irk me, not nearly so much of the repetition he normally employs. (Still there, but used in moderation. And appropriately.) And there’s just a sense of fun, where you never know what’s going to be on the next page. Plus, it’s a snazzy cover, right?
I’d definitely tell Pahlaniuk fans and doubters to give this one a read. Don’t expect the utter weirdness you’ve had before, come in for a rollercoaster ride instead. Then put your hands in the air and enjoy it.
If you’re not familiar with Pahlaniuk, this probably isn’t such a bad place to start. Fight Club is certainly his best known book, but that’s more a novella than a full-blown novel. I really enjoy Survivor and Invisible Monsters, which certainly have a lot of his crazy signatures. (Survivor involves both religious cults and dildos as major plot elements.) Damned doesn’t have the beyond-belief-outlandish plots of many of his books, so I think it’s much more accessible to mainstream readers who want something off the beaten path. (It certainly doesn’t seem nearly as crazy as Nicholson Baker’s new book. His last one was all sweet and soulful and I loved it. And this one is about a sex carnival. Go figure.)
I have to give Damned 2 cloven hooves up.
Damned will be for sale on October 18th.
I was not compensated for this review, however I did win an advanced copy of Damned from Doubleday Publishers. Follow them on Twitter at @Doubledaypub. You may also want to follow Mr. Palahniuk’s official Twitter @chuckpalahniuk.