Chuck Palahniuk caught me off-guard with Damned. Pleasantly.
People with whom I discuss books are often surprised I don’t consider myself a Palahniuk fan. He’s a hipster icon in the literature field—probably the icon. And I like literature.
I read Fight Club before it was a movie. I’ve read six of his now-12 novels. I could see the craft in his works. I could see how he’d built upon novelists who’d come before, particularly some of the Brat Pack writers of the ’80s. Bret Easton Ellis comes to mind. I could see how his plotting, punctuation, and fundamentally amoral characters were mindfully developed—not just some uncrafted, unedited, first-draft-to-publication hack writing. I often appreciated his wit and humor, but not in a laugh-out-loud Christopher Moore kind of way.
Sometimes, though, a wine can have good flavor, appearance and aroma, but the taster just doesn’t like the balance. Palahniuk put a bad taste in my mouth, and occasionally, I didn’t finish his books—Tell-All, for example. It was just possible that I’m not hip enough and didn’t get enough of the cultural references to appreciate the work. But people I respect swear by the guy, so I kept trying. Think Bjork.
Damned is different. I get it. And, in getting it, I think I begin to understand what I didn’t like about the other books: It’s possible I was jealous. He was actually living and writing on that plain that I had hoped to live in the days before I had hair on my legs. Avant garde. Breaking rules and getting rich. Palahniuk is only five weeks older than me.
This novel’s storyline: A 13-year-old girl dies from a marijuana overdose (sort of) and goes to Hell. Readers will question whether she belongs there, although Palahniuk makes it obvious that Hell is for everyone. She makes some friends. She meets a number of famous historical figures. She meets many evil beings from various cultures and religions. She matures emotionally, despite her condition.
That’s the storyline. The real deal is this book is about how much it sucks to be a teenager—how much it sucks to be a human being, to extend the metaphor. OK, she died on her 13th birthday—the dawn of teen years. That’s why I think he’s particularly directing this toward that age group.
Palahniuk draws a lot from two sources: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. and The Breakfast Club. I think it’s possible that’s why I was able to get it; those particular sources were very much a part of my younger life. Yeah, I was out of high school by the time The Breakfast Club came out, but I was pretty immature, and I identified with the situation. I guess he could have used stereotypes from St. Elmo’s Fire, but the idea of Hell as detention worked great for the story of Madison Spencer, the novel’s heroine.
I’ll tell you another cultural underpinning of this novel: Dan Savage’s It Gets Better. I caught no direct reference, but the idea that teenagerhood, and again by extension, life, can improve is the framework of this novel. Teenagers, and again almost anyone, can become whatever they choose; sometimes by their own actions, sometimes by the actions of others. In a completely optimistic, un-Palahniuk twist, the only thing that will ultimately condemn a person is to give up hope. On the other hand, there’s a scene where the virginal girl gives head to the goddess Psezpolnica—it’s a touching scene of friendship and sacrifice.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but as I get older, I appreciate hopeful stories. Yes, the novel is more appointed in the way I like writing, but it’s the fact that it’s a bit more traditional and nice and balanced that allowed me to savor it. I hate to say this, but it’s possible that I liked it better because it gave me the feeling that I might like the author, instead of just being envious of him.