You have to give Chuck Palahniuk his due – the man is versatile. Sure, he sticks to gross & creepy…. but he never repeats the same gross & creepy. Palahniuk’s latest book has raised the gross-out factor to a new level that the producers of FEAR FACTOR could only dream of.
DAMNED pays twisted homage to Judy Blume’s 1970 YA classic by beginning each chapter with the deceased 13-year old anti-heroine (sent to Hell for smoking marijuana, which seems a bit excessive) asking “Are you there Satan? It’s me, Megan”. She and her Breakfast Club crew of teenage misfits journey through hell searching for… well, to be honest, I’m not completely sure. Because I barely made it through the first 100 pages. Palahniuk’s vision of hell isn’t fire and brimstone – it’s seas semen and waterfalls of excrement; dunes of nail clippings and deserts of dandruff. I could go on – I doubt you want me to. Suffice to say that the landscape of Hell is made up of the effluvium of the human body.
Palahniuk captures teenagers in all their tackiness, horni-ness, irreverence, profanity and arrogant stupidity – i.e. he revels in the dark side that most YA glosses over. I feel like I know (and have known) kids that act and sound a lot like the ones in this novel. I bet you did, too, when you were that age and had a “KEEP OUT” sign on the bedroom door. DAMNED is strictly for adults but the depictions of the teenage behavior reek of authenticity.
“What are you in for?”
“Me?” the kid, Archer, says. “I went and got my old man’s AK-47 semi…” Dropping down on one knee, he shoulders an invisible rifle, saying, “And I blew away my old man and old lady. I slaughtered my kid brother and sister. After them, my granny. Then our old collie dog, Lassie…” Punctuating each sentence, Archer pulls an invisible trigger, sighting down the barrel of his phantom rifle. With each trigger pull, his shoulder jerks back as if pushed by recoil, his tall blue hair fluttering. Still sighting through an invisible scope, Archer says, “I flushed my Ritalin down the toilet and drove my folks’ car to school and took out the varsity football team and three teachers… all of them, dead, dead, dead.” As he stands, he brings the bore of the imaginary rifle barrel to his mouth, purses his lips, and blows away invisible gun smoke…
“That’s total bullshit,” Paterson (the football player) says, shaking his head. “I saw your paperwork when you first got here. It said you’re nothing but a lousy shoplifter.”
Leonard, the geek, laughs.
Archer snatches a rock-hard popcorn ball off the ground and wings it, line-drive fast, against the geek’s ear.
What blows me away about DAMNED specifically (and Chuck Palahniuk’s books in general) is the sheer virtuosity of the man. He does nothing by halves. Pygmy terrorist cells, schizophrenic anarchists, African culling songs and witchcraft…any one of those topics would be enough for a single book. Palahniuk, though, stacks insanity upon insanity. He doesn’t just cross the line, he pole vaults it. This new novel is no different. Along with the obvious Judy Blume and John Hughes correlations, DAMNED owes something to Sartre’s No Exit. And there’s more! In the 100 pages I got through he made references to D&D, a mini-lecture on pagan gods (yaaaawn!) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I can only imagine what he jammed into the remaining 156 pages.
Any way you look at it DAMNED is a powerful and visceral book. The premise is a great one – and Palahniuk is at his perverted, hilarious best. Still, as much as I’d like to see how it ends (and trust me, I do) I’m not sure my stomach can handle it. Actually, I’m positive my stomach can’t handle it. So while it’s embarrassing to admit how I wimped out on this one, it speaks to Chuck Palahniuk’s skill and creativity when I say that DAMNED made me gag. If that appeals to you then definitely, by all means, give it a go.
Publisher: New York, Knopf Doubleday (2011)