Damned is Chuck Palahniuk’s fifth novel in five years. That rapid string of releases has seen some raunchy peaks and odd valleys, but his newest work unfortunately belongs with some of his worst. Damned takes a first-person perspective through Palahniuk’s vision of hell, a topic that seems well-suited to his hyper-detailed, entertaining strengths, but comes up empty.
The narrator is 13-year-old Madison Spencer, daughter of a vapid but incredibly popular actress and a billionaire businessman. Madison finds herself in hell after a “marijuana overdose,” which is just one of the mysteries that never seems compelling. Palahniuk’s blend of disaffected rage always feels most potent in the voice of adult men, which is perhaps why Madison never feels like more than a shell of an author stand-in. She’s antagonistic toward the readers, complaining in nearly every chapter that they assume she doesn’t know the meaning of SAT words, and espousing theories on the second book of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels that would make a doctoral student take notice. Constantly complaining about her life of privilege and never touching sadness without cruelly dark humor, Madison is inconsistent at best, and infuriating at worst.
It doesn’t help that Palahniuk makes his narrator malleable to suit his needs. At first, she escapes a seemingly infinite chain of putrid prison cells and embarks on a road-movie journey with four new acquaintances who fulfill the respective cheerleader, jock, nerd, and freak party-member slots to make a Breakfast Club reference stick. They survey the landscape of hell, with its Dandruff Desert, Giant Ocean Of Wasted Sperm, and many other locations with Palahniuk’s trademark overly graphic style. Damned aims to be Dante’s Inferno with more scatological and pop-culture references, but none of the wonder and reverence of Dante. In Palahniuk’s version of hell, it’s been replaced by apathy: It’s as though he grew bored by the direction his story was taking, and instead of editing, simply stopped, turned around, and went down a different path with no explanation.
Madison rather enjoys hell, and in spite of all the violence, everyone seems to be having a pretty good time, making Palahniuk’s vision more like purgatory than actual damnation. While Madison and her friends journey across hell, the story stops in its tracks for flashbacks to Madison’s life, never returning to the goals of the previous plot. The “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison” preambles to every chapter initially seem to be a funny turn on the Judy Blume trope, but they never offer any insight, and eventually become entirely superfluous. Palahniuk even takes an M. Night Shyamalan-esque potshot at critics and movie reviewers, saying through Madison that they “really, really count on there being no actual Hell.” This comes alongside other standard observations about the chances of lawyers and others in stereotypically hated professions ending up in a hell that she doesn’t see as a bad place.
Hardly anything within Palahniuk’s fantastical creations here ever rings true. The breaking point: the moment when Madison climbs the leg hair of a demonic giantess while holding a companion’s severed head, then presses the head into the giant’s crotch for suffocating cunnilingus. Or the flashbacks to Madison’s nighttime exhibitionism in the halls of her Swiss boarding school. Or the disturbing introduction of a roll of Hello Kitty condoms used for asphyxiation. Inconsequential tangents pop up at every turn, with an excursion to the land of the living on Halloween even revealing character traits that entirely negate the Breakfast Club setup from the beginning of the novel. Meanwhile, a romantic plot between Madison and one of her adopted siblings never gets much ground to stand on.
Damned features scattered moments of astute observation, where Palahniuk breaks through the malaise to deliver monologues on the existence of a place like hell, or media obsession with Third World adoption. (He wisely avoids delving into politicized rants on religion.) But even with the book at a breezy 250 pages, those moments are too few and incredibly far between.