It is not easy being the bad boy of contemporary fiction, especially in a world that offers competition in the form of exploitation films such as The Human Centipede and transgressive cartoons such as South Park. But Chuck Palahniuk works hard to keep up with his rivals with such outrageous novels as Fight Club, Snuff and Choke, works that combine Swiftian satire with shocking scenarios to prove that the written word can still be just as compellingly wicked as anything on screen.
In his 12th novel, Damned, though, the strain of keeping his reader’s jaw permanently dropped is beginning to show on Palahniuk. As the title suggests, the book is set in hell, where 13-year-old Madison Spencer finds herself transported after dying of what she believes to have been a marijuana overdose.
Despite the apparent finality of her situation, she discovers that the transition is a surprisingly smooth one. “Actually, watching the television and surfing the Internet are really excellent practice for being dead.” All she needs in order to cope is to learn, as Dante recommends, to abandon her “insidious addiction to hope.” Granted, she is liable to be eviscerated by titanic demons every now and then, but afterward her body will be quickly reconstituted, allowing her to enjoy hanging out with her new friends or working at one of the underworld’s plentiful jobs in telemarketing or porn.
Those friends include a mean girl, a jock, a rebel and a brain. In fact, her posse bears a distinct resemblance to the cast of The Breakfast Club, Madison’s favourite movie. (She’s the Ally Sheedy character.) When she’s not at her job calling the world of the living to urge desperately ill people to come join her down below, she reminisces about her own unhappy life as the daughter of a movie-star mother and billionaire father, lifestyle liberals whose lousy parenting skills led the overweight Madison to a fatal hotel-suite dalliance with a thug named Goran on the night her mother was serving as a presenter at the Academy Awards.
Fans of Palahniuk’s previous work will find much to delight in here, notably his descriptions of the infernal landscape, which includes a Dandruff Desert, a Thicket of Amputated Limbs and a Swamp of Partial-birth Abortions. There are also the usual outrageous set-pieces, such as one in which Madison surreptitiously uses her friend’s decapitated head to perform oral sex on a gigantic, rampaging female demon. In another, our heroine must prove herself a bad-ass by tearing off Hitler’s mustache, then removing a more intractable bit of Caligula’s anatomy.
Damned proves less successful in its attempts at satire. In fact, it is not exactly clear what Palahniuk is lampooning here. Liberals seem to be a prime target, particularly Madison’s tree-hugging, Prius-driving parents. “Everybody in Kansas was right. Yes, the inbred snake handlers and holy rollers had more on the ball than my secular humanist, billionaire mom and dad. The dark forces of evil really did plant those dinosaur bones and fake fossil records to mislead mankind. Evolution was hokum, and we fell for it hook, line and sinker.”
The book’s very tone and structure, however, suggest that belief in hell (and heaven) is no more meaningful than belief in the mall or Nintendo. In the end, Palahniuk’s target seems to be everything, except of course the part of us that likes to be grossed out and titillated. Which is fine for a half-hour of the Cartoon Network or the third act of a low-budget Lionsgate film, but becomes something of a slog over 250 pages.
Stephen Amidon’s most recent novel is Security. He lives in Massachusetts.