REVIEW: Chuck Palahniuk, Damned

If there’s one thing Chuck Palahniuk knows, it’s the grotesque.  From Big Bob’s sweaty bitch tits to…well, pretty much all of Haunted, Palahniuk knows how to make readers squirm.  As expected, there is an element of this in Damned’s descriptions of Hell and its inhabitants – “the denizens of Hades, they flail and cower, shake fists at the flaming sky, pound their heads into the iron bars until their blood blinds them”  And yet, Palahniuk seems to insist that it is human instinct, rather than anything supernatural, that leaves people truly damned - ‘In Hell, it’s our attachments to a fixed identity that torture us.’

If you come expecting the visceral, aberrant prose of Guts, you may find yourself disappointed.  However, you may find yourself enjoying what I enjoyed most about Damned; it’s actually pretty funny.   Demons complaining about internet speed and Hell’s large screen playing The English Patient on repeat are just two examples of moments that made me smirk.  But there are also some wonderful moments that make so much sense, you wonder why no-one has ever thought of them before.  Here I’m thinking particularly of Madison’s description of “those websites which everyone assumes are in Russia or Burma, where naked men and women stare unflinchingly into the webcams, a dazed look in their glassy eyes…”  How could we have ever thought that these people lived anywhere but Hell?

The narrator, Madison, is a complex creation.  For the first few chapters, I wasn’t a fan, but as the novel progressed I began to warm to her.  I have no doubt that using a thirteen year old girl as the central figure will inspire some (pointless) debate about whether Palahniuk is trying to poison today’s youth.  Snore.  Of course, Damned argues that today’s youth, as well as its old, are already poisoned – “Actually, watching television and surfing the Internet are really excellent practice for being dead.”  As with most novels about that whole elusive ‘human experience’ thing, we’re left with just as many questions as answers – is life (and the afterlife) really what we make it?  Or are we all damned, as the novel suggests, by the age of five?  Well, maybe we’ll find out in the sequel.

Oh, and my favourite line? “I ask Emily what it’s like to have AIDS. Even over the phone, her eye roll is audible. ‘It’s like being Canadian,’ she says. ‘You get used to it.’”

I don’t really do star ratings, but I will say that this is probably going to divide audiences.  I can’t see anyone losing their Palahniuk virginity with anything other than Fight Club, but this would be an interesting way to do it.  I sense that a lot of Palahniuk vets will argue that this is subversive fiction watered down to cater to the very people it spends much of its time ridiculing.  For everyone else this is an easy, but sometimes thought provoking, read that’s difficult not to enjoy.  Oh, side note, the hardback is going to come with dust jackets designed to look and feel like human skin…

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