Book Review: Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

I’ll warn you up front: if you can’t handle humor that is bawdy, raunch, or sacrilegious, then you probably shouldn’t pick up this book.

If the promise of such things titillates you, however, and you enjoy a fun, quick read Damned might be the tonic for your soul.

Like many of Palahniuk’s novel, an unreliable narrator spins the yarn.  Madison, a thirteen year old first-world child of A-list celebrity stock has recently found herself in hell.  She is a precocious teenager, proud of her knowledge of high-end vocab.  Yet, as most teenagers, she is blind to her own shortcomings.  The astute reader will realize early on that her authoritative tone masks insecurities and ignorances that allow her character to develop as she learns what we suspect.

imgres    Soon, in her cage, she meets with other denizens of the underworld, who unabashedly fill out the traditional teenage archtypes of The Breakfast Club, with Madison struggling in her role as Ally Sheedy,’s basket case.  As soon as Archer (the “criminal”) frees her, the journey proper begins. The crew begins their epic adventure across the plains of hell, crossing disgusting obstacles of which the “Sea of Broken Glass” and mounds of discarded toe nail clippings are the least revolting.

In this vivid imagery, Palahniuk holds nothing back.  Readers of his novels will find this no surprise, but from the descriptions of the landscape to the torture of the damned..and even a borderline pornographic tryst with a Serbian demon, his imagining of a hell filled with painful punishments and ghoulish characters sometimes makes Dante seem a writer of children’s stories.

In all of this, however, a complex story occurs.  Interwoven with the driving motif of Madison and her new friends’ journey to the center of Hell, the author ties in her past squabbles with her parents, her background as an A-list child, her awkward attempt at teenage love, and finally the true story of how she came to be here in the first place.

As with all stories concerning Hell and Satan is the judgment of what constitutes sin and what the Devil is responsible for.  For Washington Irving, it was usury.  For Palahniuk, annoying telemarketers are but one of the many blossoms of hell’s attempt to further damn the living, a key point in Madison’s development in the second part of the novel.  Moreover, we are warned of all manner of things that will land us in hell.  (Warning: be careful of how many times you fart in an elevator).  In this, the satire is both light and incisive.

In reading Damned, I found myself audibly laughing aloud, which is the best recommendation I can give.  The story is not complex, but it is hilarious in its over-the-top imagery, and its adolescent sense of humor (defined by its adolescent narrator who comes into her own) endear itself to be an enjoyable read if you have the stomach for such fare.  Don’t worry: reading dirty books won’t merit your soul to eternal damnation.

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