Welcome Back Chuck: Cassie-la Squees About “Damned” by Chuck Palahniuk

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk
Genre: Fiction, demons, Satan, satire, humor, all the cool people are in Hell
Rating: 4.89 out of 5 stars

Summary: When 13 year old Madison dies from a marijuana overdose and arrives in Hell, she quickly takes stock of her prior life, going on a journey to find Satan, complete an appeal, and figure out a way to get herself into Heaven. Part fictional memoir, part guidebook to Hell, part Breakfast Club, Damned is Chuck Palahniuk at his wild and crazy best. Welcome back Mr. Palahniuk, the old you was sorely missed.

I have not liked a Chuck Palahniuk book since 2001, when he published Choke. That is to say, I have not enjoyed the last five of his novels, although to be fair I haven’t gotten around to reading Pygmy and Tell-All yet (granted, I have only heard bad things). So edit my prior sentence to, I personally have not enjoyed the past three Palahniuk novels I read. Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised when I dug into his newest offering, Damned and found myself LOVING IT.

This novel is the first of three planned books, all of which are inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, this novel centered in Hell obviously focusing on The Inferno. In order to further align this novel to Dante, the first letter of each chapter is decorated as if it were in an illuminated manuscript, and the chapters are represented in Roman Numerals, much like Dante’s Cantos. There is also demon masturbation. Yeah, I went there.

Narrated by 13 year old Madison, the daughter of a famous movie star and her producer husband, has a narrative style that is a little hard to get used to. As a young girl, Madison (a trendy presidential baby name if ever I heard one) can be a little volatile, and is constantly struggling with trying to find herself, which in turn makes her come across as insecure in this novel. In typical Palahniuk style, the repetitive element in this novel is Madison constantly explaining that she knows what various difficult vocabulary words mean. It’s the “I am Jack’s ::insert organ here::” of Damned. In addition to this, each chapter begins with, “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.” Judy Blume and Dante references! Who could ask for anything more!?! Besides a musical number of course.

With the help of The Breakfast Club from Hell (literally), Madison begins to find herself. There is blue haired, mo-hawked, and safety pinned Archer (the criminal), pretty girl Babette (the princess), demonology expert and all around smart guy Leonard (the brain), football player/jock Patterson (the athlete), and Madison herself (the basket case). As with the real Breakfast Club they all learn that they’re not so different after all and become fast friends who bond over their sins of wearing white after labor day, being offsides, committing robberies, drug use, and jaywalking. All the normal things you’d expect people to go to Hell for.

After instructions from Babette, Madison learns that one possible way to escape from Hell is to submit an appeal, which occurs in the form of a polygraph test that includes ridiculous questions from thoughts on gay marriage to abortion and cursing. The other way is by doing your time, which can be sped up by getting a job in Hell. These jobs fall into two categories: telemarketing and running an internet web cam. Even though Hell only has dial-up and dot matrix printers (much like my experience at Barnes and Noble), Madison and her new friends choose to be telemarketers. Wouldn’t you over re-enacting “Two Girls One Cup”?

Hell itself has an interesting and disturbing topography. Once in Hell you can see such wonderful sites as Shit Lake, the Dandruff Desert, the Great Plains of Broken Glass, the Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, the Swamp of Partial-Birth Abortions, and the Sea of Insects (which sounds the most horrible if you want my opinion). We also learn there are waterfalls of poop, giant vampire bats swooping overhead, lots of screaming, and the demons make you watch The English Patient or The Piano on a loop. The only thing to eat is bazooka bubblegum, saltwater taffy, and stale popcorn balls. We’re told that it’s like being on an airplane. Which sounds like a truly horrifying way to spend eternity. If near death, one learns to shove their pockets full of yummy candy, because delicious candy is currency in the underworld.

Thankfully Hell has its pluses. Shocking. First is all the celebrities one can encounter, including Charles Darwin (there for touting evolution), the Kennedy family, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Vlad the Impaler, Elizabeth Bathory, the list goes on and on. It’s pretty much like a high-brow episode of “South Park”. Another bonus is that on Halloween the denizens of Hell can visit Earth, with the promise that they must return by midnight, or be forced to wander the Earth unseen for an entire year. Ever heard of ghosts? Now you know where they come from. This is on the stipulation however that they return to Earth dressed as who they were in life. Just think, an Elvis you meet on Halloween may in fact be the real Elvis visiting on his yearly reprieve. Although if it’s a Slutty Elvis I’d second guess that.

-Hell is a horrifying place, and not in the usual we torture you for fun kind of way
-Madison teaches us to live life and stop focusing on detoxes and wasting time at the gym (everyone dies anyway)
-Love that this is Chuck’s first series (and it’s a trilogy no less!)
-Read this book, I promise you will be laughing the whole way through
-Research research research before you wind up in Hell, it’s where all the cool people go anyway

-Narrator can be a tad whiney and self-demonstrating, but who isn’t at 13?

If you enjoy books based in Hell, I also highly recommend Gina Ranalli’s Suicide Girls in the Afterlife, in which Heaven and Hell are a hotel, with the highest levels devoted to heaven, the lowest to Hell, and the others to Purgatory. Although, fair warning, if you found this novel to be disturbing, I wouldn’t suggest reading about the tortures goth boy Satan puts his captors through in this bizarro tale.

For a much tamer and touching story about death, I highly suggest Wristcutters: A Love Story. Tom Waits is in it, among other amazing people. But no one can say no to Tom Waits.


5 thoughts on “Welcome Back Chuck: Cassie-la Squees About “Damned” by Chuck Palahniuk

  1. Dare I believe my eyes? A new Palahniuk that doesn’t suck??

    It actually sounds really funny and disturbing and original – exactly what I liked about his earliest novels.

    You’ve convinced me to give him another go!
    *adds to now-teetering pile of to-be-read books*

    • I was shocked too! I had my fingers crossed when I started it because the premise was so good. Thankfully it lived up to it.

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