Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Damned (Book Review)

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday, 2011)

Damned good.

But allow me to elaborate.  Palahniuk's twelfth novel--the posthumous narrative of precocious thirteen-year-old Madison Spencer, who suddenly finds herself a denizen of the underworld--naturally features a colorful setting.  Don't expect the classic Dantean inferno, though.  Madison makes this clear early on, discrediting the famous Italian poet as someone who "simply hoisted a generous helping of campy make-believe on the reading public" (likewise, the italicized addresses ["Are you there, Satan?  It's me, Madison..."] that begin each Roman-numeraled chapter parody the glosses headnoting Dante's cantos).  No, Palahniuk is much more original in mapping out Hell, his wicked imagination offering up such dismal landmarks as the Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, the Thicket of Amputated Limbs, the Steaming Dog Pile Mountains, and the Lake of Tepid Bile.

For all the references to Emily Bronte and Daphne du Maurier (not to mention the film The Breakfast Club), Madison's narrative aligns most closely with the work of Lucian, Rabelais, and Jonathan Swift (who is cited, in the midst of what might be the most raucous scene that Palahniuk has ever written).  Damned functions as a satire, a repository of carnivalesque debasement.  Hell here is a place where the constant screening of The English Patient constitutes a prime form of torment, and where Robert Mapplethorpe is lumped in with a listing of exotically-named demons.  Palahniuk ventures into the netherworld in order to take jabs at earthly existence (e.g. "...she lives in Baltimore, so even if she dies and goes straight to Hell and gets immediately dismembered and gobbled by Psezpolnica or Yum Cimil, it won't be a huge culture shock.  She might not even notice the difference.  Not at first.").

The book's plot does not have a lot of forward thrust, but that might be apropos of its setting--traditionally a place of stasis and repetition rather than progress (just ask Sisyphus).  There's a lot of backstory served up, as Madison recounts the trials of her former life as the daughter of a celebrity couple, and slowly recalls the true circumstances of her death.  Also, the metafictional concerns late in the novel fail to rival the climactic surprises that are a hallmark of Palahniuk's work, but Damned does end on a satisfying note of Halloween-night trickery and comeuppance.

Palahniuk himself draws on his familiar tricks--the verbal tics and recurrent riffs that are such a signature of his writing.  Readers already familiar with, and attuned to, the author's quirky style will revel in Madison's snarky narration.  The book's ultimate target audience, though, is those people possessed with a healthy appetite for black- and scatological humor.  For them, Damned will prove a sinful delight.

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