Review contains spoilers.
Chuck Palahniuk has held readers in awe of his grotesque, raw, and oftentimes painfully true illustrations of human nature for years. His latest novel, Damned, transports readers from their comfy armchairs and swaying subways into the imaginative and surprisingly physical underworld.
Madison Spenser is a 13 year old who finds herself in the cages of Hell, inexplicably longing for the approval of Satan. She quickly joins up with a group of fellow damned souls, whose personalities are as diverse as those in The Breakfast Club, which is a staple of entertainment in the underworld. After breaking out of their cages, the group learns more about what it means to be alive, to be themselves, than they ever did when they had wandered the Earth as mortals.
As Madison and her cohorts explore the disgusting terrain of Hell (which is made up of toenail clippings, dandruff, semen, and aborted babies, among other things), she tells the story of her life, of her death, and of the curious fact that she feels more alive, dead, than she ever felt before.
Title and Cover: Both the title and the cover are perfect for the story. Simple yet powerful, they represent the book well.
Characterization: Palahniuk’s portrayal of Madison is fantastic. Her voice is clearly defined, she has a perspective that is easily identifiable, and he does an amazing job of making a 13 year old interesting without making her seem wise beyond her years. The fact that he chose a 13 year old as the protagonist allows him to explore the idea of Hell with the, albeit tainted, eyes of a child. The discoveries that Madison makes, from learning more about herself to learning more about her new surroundings, are ones that can be explored on an basic level. The ideas behind this book are complex, but by examining them from the ground up Palahniuk allows them to unfold organically. As Madison learns, so do the readers.
At the same time, Madison has a great amount of authority. Her voice is confident, despite her young age and the fact that she suffers through body image issues. Constantly reminded that she is fat, and on the cusp of pubescence, Madison is squeamish around her body in a way that makes the landscape of Hell, well, hell for her. Despite the fact that she is completely out of her element, she still holds a certain power over her readers. Because she knows something that the living doesn’t, she is able to become a figure of authority despite the fact that she is dead, fat, and young, three characteristics that would normally cause people to discount her ideas.
Plot: Palahniuk has commented that this is the beginning of a trilogy, which is based off of Dante’s Divine Comedy. To explore these ideas in such a setting is a wonderful concept, and I am excited to see how the other books unfold. Damned, then, has the responsibility of setting up a strong foundation for the other books. Though this task may seem tedious in the works of other authors, it has been accomplished in a way that allows the story to develop without feeling as though it is creating a background for other works. In fact, if it weren’t for the “to be continued” at the end, it would be something that could almost stand alone.
Writing Style: Palahniuk is known for his unique writing style, and Damned does not disappoint. However, this novel is much different in tone from his other work. While Fight Club was a bit more difficult to decipher, Damned is written in clear, concise prose. This is, I believe, a reflection upon the differences in the protagonists of these two stories. The fact that Palahniuk can create such different stories is a mark of his talent.
Larger Issues: Most striking is the landscape of Hell. Made up of physical elements, it serves as a constant reminder of the life that its prisoners have lost. But what have they really lost? The damned still have their bodies, though they can be destroyed and regenerated. They still have their personalities and their memories; their inhibitions and their secrets. The human nature of the damned is the same as that of the living, so what does that say about the world in which we live? Are we already in Hell? Is Hell a personal experience for each person?
Over the course of the story, Madison learns to manipulate the system and create her own presence in the underworld. Living is often characterized by progression, by growth, so what is there to separate the living and the dead if both are capable of learning, adapting to their surroundings, and evolving in their understanding of their environment?
Though this story may seem grotesque, and may not be a favorite among readers who are on the squeamish side, it is, at its core, a love story. Madison is a romantic, a girl on the verge of womanhood whose ability to, one day, experience everything that being a woman entails has been cut short.
Some people have lumped this book into the YA category, but I don’t agree. The subtleties of the philosophy behind the story, and the disturbing images that it portrays, deserve to catch the attention of adult readers–to shake them out of their comfort zones and force them to think about a world beyond their own. Palahniuk’s work is constantly making people think, and Damned will certainly have you questioning how the youth of today perceive their lives.
I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.