Monday, March 26, 2012

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

I picked up Damned at the library simply because I saw a review in the Times recently. I only glanced at the review. The author’s name rang no bell, but I see that he wrote Fight Club, which I have heard of, even if I haven’t read it or seen the movie. I think I have clearly demonstrated that I had no particular reason to read this book. And yet I did.

It’s not a bad book, which is to say, I’m equivocal. It’s fast-paced and somewhat funny, but over extends itself. Or do I mean under extends?

It concerns a 13 year old girl, Madison, who dies, as she says, of a marijuana overdose. Well, it later turns out, and she learns, that it was something else that killed her. Okay, her adopted brother killed her accidentally, and forget you, spoiler alert. Which puts her in Hell, verily a place wrought of Dante’s imagination. Now, I’m not much for dead narrators. Sunset Boulevard sticks in my craw because a guy lying face down in a pool narrates. But here, the setting is antic enough, and Hell seems less hellish for Madison than life did.

Her parents are super rich, and her mother’s an actress, all of which victimizes the girl. Madison is, as she tells us, fat with bad complexion. Palahniuk makes no attempt to portray her as a 13 year old, except for a certain sass. She’s way world weary and sardonic, despite being a virgin and largely friendless.

Palahniuk portrays Hell as an antic place for sure, gross but not terrifying. He takes an Over the Top license to flesh out Hell with yucky details. I find this sort of satire tiresome and unsustainable. After citing The Breakfast Club as the greatest movie ever, Madison meets up with kids who replicate the cast, with Madison in the Ally Sheedy role.Their hijinks are just testy set pieces between Madison’s many chatty soliloquy’s. Eventually, those characters peter out. The soliloquies, tho, allow Palahniuk to rap forth, and they show the warm blood in Madison’s veins. Madison evolves most warmly when speaking such lines as: “Yes I do want to go to Heaven—who doesn’t?—but not if I have to be a total asshole.” In the best sense, she reminds me of Huckleberry Finn, astute yet innocent, with a large moral geist.

Palahniuk must’ve given Wikipedia a thorough work out looking up ancient gods and devils and such. It just seems like an exercise. And he places all this smart stuff into the mouth of The Breakfast Club nerd, the Expositionator.

Thru out the book, we’re whipped back to events in Madison’s life. Flashbacks should be used roughly once a century, if you ask me, and if you’re reading this, you did. The Hell stuff makes the book exotic, but it’s basically Catcher in the Rye with a girl in the lead. Every chapter begins with a harangue by Madison, aimed at Satan, each beginning “Are you there, Satan?” It works as structure, except that it wears on me.

Near the end she beats up Hitler and steals his mustache. This gives her power, or perhaps I should use the verb empower  (everyone else does). She gains an army of  followers. From there she proceeds to do likewise to other likely Hell denizens, and she even sort of faces down Satan. This sort of approach to fiction seems to be aimed at 10 year olds, the flush, upbeat ending. It really leaves me dissatisfied. I mean, I like the Madison character, and Palahniuk’s sensitivity to her plight in life (but not in Hell), but it’s all done up in an underwhelming package of excess. And it all ends with the words To be continued…, italicized and with suspension points. Like he ran out of steam at 240 quick read pages, but could squeeze out more after he rested. No, say I, the structure will not hold.

But you see, I’m interested in fiction trying stuff. I think the worst novel I ever finished was The Dean’s December by Saul  Bellow. It was built exactly on the lines of soap operas (remember them?). Bellow would shift his characters to scenes, and then they would talk. I know, that’s what James does, and him I like. James went to the trouble of filling his sentences with interesting turns, however, and he was avid about context. Maybe Bellow was hunting for veritas but he dug up ennui.

So I’m okay with an author attempting energetically. I see the old college try in effect with Palahniuk. But when I note a resemblance to Catcher in the Rye, that’s an ouchie. If you want Hell, try Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. O’Brien’s one of the few.

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