As I read this novel, I couldn’t help but compare it to my experience reading Lullaby
a few summers ago. Lullaby was my first Palahniuk novel and I remember sitting poolside with my paperback and feeling that thrilling buzz of reading something new and different. Lullaby was grotesque and absurd, but at its core there was something deeply and beautifully human, and that hit all the right buttons for me as a reader.
Subsequent Palahniuk reads have been hit-or-miss for me, and it all comes down to whether the novel has that thread at its center that illuminates something about the human condition. The protagonist of Choke
was pretty reprehensible in many ways, but there was poignancy in these characters’ stories that grabbed me and left me feeling a sense of real catharsis by the end of the book.
I take it as a given that a Palahniuk novel is going to be gimmicky. Gimmicky is his thing. I get that. In Tell-All
, for example, I thought the gimmick was used to good thematic effect and shored up the story Palahniuk was telling. On the flip side, Snuff
were all gimmick and no real substance, I thought.
Which brings me to Damned
, the tale of 13-year-old Madison Spencer and how she came to be consigned to Hell. For at least the first half of the novel, I thought I was in Snuff
territory. It seemed that Palahniuk was doing exactly what so many detractors have complained of – writing something ridiculous and grotesque and shocking merely for the sake of being ridiculous and grotesque and shocking. His version of Hell with its topography of disgusting bodily fluids bored me, as did what seemed yet another critique of Hollywood culture in the form of young Madison’s movie star and billionaire parents. But because I bought the book – in hard cover, no less – I kept reading and finally my persistence started to pay off when the novel really began to explore Madison’s personal story, which was much more compelling in its self-deceit and tragedy than what had come before. Here were the flashes of the Palahniuk I had come to love in other books, but ultimately I wanted more of that and fewer mounds of discarded fingernail clippings and lakes of aborted fetuses. The plot was oddly picaresque with no smooth transition from episode to episode. In one moment, Madison is taming a giant naked demoness and the next she’s telemarketing from a call center in Hell HQ. She goes on a rampage taking down such historical villains as Hitler, Elizabeth Bathory and Genghis Khan, and leads an army to the gates of Satan’s center of power … and then she’s telemarketing again.
Palahniuk throws in a metanarrative twist that questions Madison’s very existence and makes the novel thematically about identity and self-determination, but I felt like the first half and the second half were almost two different books, and I liked the second one better. Then he leaves it on a cliffhanger, which just made me want to throw the book at the wall.
As a novel, Damned
has a lot of flaws. There are some bits here of the things Palahniuk does so well, but perhaps not enough to counterbalance what seem for Palahniuk very safe choices as a writer at this point – the gimmicks, the descriptions and events included solely for shock value. He cloaks himself in the grotesque, but his work is so much stronger when he lets real emotion flow onto the page.