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Book Review: Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

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Chuck Palahniuk’s 2011 black comic novel Damned is out this month in paperback from Anchor Books, and it’s a good opportunity for those of you who haven’t read it yet. There’s a sequel on the way, and you will want to make sure you’re ready for it. Forget the title, this is one funny book. Palahniuk is a biting satirist, and there is nothing it seems so sacred that it escapes his teeth.

Set in the framework of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Damned tells the story of a mouthy 13 year old who thinks she has died as a result of a marijuana overdose and wakes to find herself in a cell in hell. Madison “Maddy” Spenser, the privileged overweight daughter of wealthy liberal parents more concerned with themselves than they are with her, is the narrator and for much of the book she takes the reader on a guided tour through the underworld. Joined by four refugees from The Breakfast Club, (a nerd, a jock, a prom queen and a rebel) she visits sites like the “Ocean of Wasted Sperm,” fights with demons intent on snacking on the damned, and works as a call center operator conducting meaningless surveys during dinner hour.

As visions of hell go—think Dante, Sartre—Palahniuk’s is equal to the best of them. It is a cesspool of filth and misery, but in the somewhat jaundiced eyes of the precocious teen, the horrors of hell are no more terrible than the horrors of the life she had been living. “Hell isn’t so dreadful, not compared to Ecology Camp, and especially not compared to junior high school.” Shunted off to a private school in Switzerland while her parents, her mother a movie star, her father a mogul, jet around the world playing aging hippies, she is already in a psychological hell more hurtful than anything Satan can throw at her. Doomed, it seems, to be thirteen forever, she isn’t beyond growing intellectually. Hell will be her school of hard knocks.

Combining literary references and mythology with pop culture allusions Palahniuk manages to skewer fundamentalists and liberals, fitness nuts and do-gooders, bullying prima donna nymphets and internet porn. This is satire of Swiftian proportions. It moves from the sublime to the ridiculous. Maddy comes across someone like Darwin in hell and thinks about how her secular humanist parents would shudder to think that Kansas was right. On the other hand she thinks, the torments of hell are nothing compared to the torment of watching The English Patient.

Limited in its plot, dealing more often than not with stereotypical characters, it is Maddy’s wise cracking narrative voice that is the joy of this novel. She belongs with the likes of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield in the pantheon of adolescent narrators. Read Damned; you won’t be able to wait for the sequel.

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About Jack Goodstein