Chuck Palahniuk is not America’s best writer, but he is America’s most dependable writer. Every year, like a clockwork orgasm, he ejaculates a new book, for better or worse. In the past half-decade, unfortunately, his books have leaned towards the worst. But with Damned, his latest, a new Palahniuk era has opened up. He’s back in the ring again, writing at the same level as his masterpieces Choke and Fight Club. Chuck is back, not better than ever, but at least as good as he ever was.
Damned is a simple book. It’s less than 250 pages, and edible in single-digit hours. It’s The Breakfast Club meets Little Nicky, a formula that doesn’t seem difficult or particularly challenging to pull off, but works efficiently and entertains accordingly.
Reading this book, I was always aware of just how much fun it must have been to write. The narrative is told in first person through the voice of 11 year-old Madison Spencer, who has been condemned to Hell for eternity. Predictably, she encounters a cast of misfit characters who are all rather stereotypical, but nonetheless amusing and not altogether boring. There’s the jock, the nerd, the JAP (I think I’m allowed to use that term because I’m Jewish), the anarchist psycho, etc. It’s the usual cast of characters saying the usual things, making the usual moves. But Hell is a unique setting for them, and that’s the only thing that keeps the characters from completely going stale. The real selling point for Damned is its setting, not its characters.
Palahniuk’s Hell resembles a bad carnival. There’s cheap candy everywhere, monstrous exhibits of disgust and fear (an ocean of insects, a swamp of aborted fetuses, and a mountain of clipped toenails are just some of the geographic features on the map of Hell), and jaded wanderers who are occasionally snapped up and eaten by demons. It’s a place you don’t really want to spend more that 250 pages visiting.
It’s important to remember that Hell is an incredibly easy subject matter for writers to utilize. Everyone, at some point, has fantasized about the place and its inhabitants – from Hitler to Stalin to Attila the Hun to Ronald Reagan. Everyone is automatically interested in these people, because they represent infernal evil, an automatically interesting subject. Palahniuk takes few risks. And that’s what makes this one of his best books. Effortles writing translates to effortless reading. And effortless reading is what people want from Chuck Palahniuk.
The major message of Damned, and basically the idea that Palahniuk is trying to prove, is this: “What makes earth feel like Hell is our expectation that it should feel like Heaven. Earth is earth.” That line, or something like it, is repeated four or five times throughout the book. Deal with disappointment. Accept life for what it is and what it isn’t. Move on. I’m glad Palahniuk has learned these lessons himself, and has returned to creating quality and readable fiction. Damned is only the beginning of Palahniuk’s comeback.