Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

DamnedDamned by Chuck Palahniuk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Keep exercising, taking your vitamins, and recycling. If you're lucky, you'll never die. Otherwise, don't swear, honk your horn excessively, or pee in swimming pools; accept Christ as your savior and you may just keep yourself out of Hell. This is the hard lesson pre-adolescent little Madison Spencer learns after improbably overdosing on marijuana in a hotel room while watching her celebrity mother present an Oscar on television. Now trapped in a greasy cell, watching demons devour the flesh of the screaming damned, Madison finds herself with an eternity of torment before her with which to reflect upon her short life.

The novel, told through Madison's voice, reads with all the authentic vinegar of an intelligent young girl who, lacking in prom queen good looks, has decided to define herself with intelligence and wit. She marches through Palahniuk's vision of hell, past waterfalls of human bodily excretions, past endless loops of "The English Patient", with all the stubborn innocence of a world weary child.

Anyone familiar with Dante or Chaucer, or even the purgatory of the wonderful film "Wrist Cutters: A Love Story", will feel right at home with this Hell which basically just serves as the backdrop for a story that is the bastard child of Judy Blume and John Hughes after an acid trip bender at the Westboro Church. The story is very meta, with constant references to its own similarities to "The Breakfast Club" and Judy Blume novels, and the novelty of that wears off pretty quickly. The reader is unfortunately left with a plot and collection of characters--the prom queen, the jock, the dweeb, the rebel--that veers into predictability. You know at the get-go that seemingly shallow character will rise to the occasion, and seemingly callous ones will show heart when the story asks for it. You know that this is a standard coming of age plot that will take the heroine on a quest of self discovery and purpose.

R-rated violence and a graphic oral sex scene would make me quite an irresponsible person to recommend this to older teens--but I'm going to do it anyway. In many ways, the prose and structure of this book is a classic young adult novel with valuable lessons about family and self esteem put across more honestly than a lot of current YA best sellers.

This novel could really resonate amongst disaffected teens in this convoluted modern world of short attention spans, apathy, cruelty, and terrorism. A girl could do worse for role models than the doggedly optimistic Madison Spencer who becomes consumed with a plan to meet and charm Satan. If one is stuck in hell, then one must make the most of it right? It couldn't be so bad to be a minion of the Dark Lord rather than an ant under his foot... erm... cloven hoof?

I really enjoyed the complex relationship Palahniuk creates between Madison and her Brangelina-inspired parents. The parents could have easily been relegated to one dimensional caricatures, the scapegoat for an adolescent "no one loves me" whine-fest. Her parents both neglect and over-nurture Madison in shockingly extreme ways, but they are not evil...they're just liberal, and Madison is not bitter and hateful to them over it, she's just rather resigned to their flaws. There is even a bittersweet affection in the way she reflects upon her mother's uneven, self absorbed lifestyle, and her father's dim witted affections.

The novel is epic in scope, traversing the scorching open wastelands of hell where big name demons roam ravenous, to the clerical offices where the files and appeal of the damned are kept and conveniently lost. Of course Halloween is honored here, with the damned allowed one night amongst the living. It's the best time to collect chocolate bars--the most valuable currency in Hell. Even demons have a sweet tooth.

Hell fast loses it's shock and terror through the eyes of Madison Spencer, and as the novel picks up speed so does the fun. It's a dangerously seductive premise, because if spending time in Hell meant becoming the best friend of this plucky heroine, then it doesn't seem like such a bad prospect after all.

My thanks to Doubleday Publishing for the advance reader copy. :)

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