I will always remember how I spent my last day of high school reading 'Haunted' instead of signing yearbooks and saying cheesy goodbyes to people I didn't really know or like anyway. It was my first foray into a Chuck Palahniuk novel and I soon realized this was a foolish choice for someone unaccustomed to his shocking, transgressive style of writing. When I reached the infamously disgusting chapter 'Guts' (rumored to have caused dozens of audience members to faint over the course of his book promotion tour), I screamed and threw the book across my Homeroom. As if this didn't get enough stares, seconds later I eagerly ran to pick it up and immediately continued reading, morbidly fascinated and still queasy. Thus is the addictive lure of Palahniuk gross-out scenes.
After consuming his entire body of work, I now know the rest of his novels are not as graphic, though dark veins of violence and sex acts still pop up throughout them all. For any 'Palahniuk virgins' out there, I can safely say that his latest novel, 'Damned' is an ideal place to start. When I giddily ripped open my package containing an advance copy of 'Damned' (set to go on sale October 18th), a 'letter' from heroine Madison Spencer fell out. On her pink and purple pre-teen stationary, Madison declares Palahniuk a "...Mr. Whorey McWhoreski so-called writer.... Judy Blume, he is not." Could it be that the main character is for once not a terrible person with major psychotic issues that you love to hate and instead a sassy chick-lit referencing chubby thirteen-year-old girl you can actually relate to? I'm sure some Palahniuk readers might initially be turned off by this casting, but I was excited to see how this rare functional character would handle the struggles of a Palahniuk imagined Hell.
Yes, Hell. I forgot to mention our fabulous Madison is dead and condemned because of a supposed marijuana overdose at thirteen. Like a smarter version of Georgia Nicholson, Madison (full name Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer, thanks to her ridiculous celebrity parents) decides to make the best of her eternal time in the nether world and meet new friends, preferably becoming BFFs with Satan himself. "Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison.... Honestly, I give up on giving up. I'm just not cut out to be some hopeless, disillusioned wretch with no aspirations for the rest of eternity, sprawled catatonic in my own feces on a stone cold floor."
Between viewings of 'The English Patient,' Hell's torturous film of choice, Madison thinks of her own favourite movie, 'The Breakfast Club' and notices the people surrounding her in perdition resemble the '80s detention room crew. Shallow Babette with obviously fake designer clothes, know-it-all geek Leonard and Patterson the high school football player are among the first citizens of Hell she encounters. Madison deems herself the Ally Sheedy character and the comparison is rounded out by Archer, a blue mohawked punk who springs the gang from their cages with the safety pin that pierces his cheek .
Hell has done it's job breaking billions of it's inhabitants, but our heroes see potential in the land of fire and decide to search for something rather than wasting away in a cell. While crossing terrain made of glass, scabs, and cockroaches, Madison can't help but reflect back on her short bittersweet life on Earth. Raised by famous parents who act like Edina from 'Ab Fab' and go through scores of adopted children faster than Madonna, it's no wonder Madison feels Hell is an improvement. Palahniuk clearly had a lot of fun researching obscure mythology, because most of Leonard's input is namedropping multitudes of ancient demons, demigods, and other deities banished to the Underworld that enjoy chowing down on the humans out of boredom. Several celebrities, artists, and historical figures make cameo appearances as well, since nearly everyone important is put on the down escalator after they die. Madison especially enjoys this perk and keeps an eye out for River Phoenix. "One can't help but picture the lackluster VIP Lounge in Heaven, a kind of nonalcoholic ice-cream social starring Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mahatma Gandhi. Hardly anyone's idea of a 'with-it' social register."
After much difficulty, the Hellfast Club make it to a town where they're allowed to contribute to infernal society. Unfortunately, the only career choices are porn ("You see, Hell is responsible for about 85 percent of the Internet's total smut content.") or conducting pointless phone surveys designed to interrupt the living from enjoying their dinners. Madison becomes a star telemarketer, convincing several of her dying clients to sin it up in their remaining time on Earth so they can join her downstairs once the big day comes. Alternating between memories of her flesh life and spirit life, we slowly learn more about Madison, growing ever fond of her. I can't say I blame the dying folks she recruited, I'd want a friend like Madison to show me the ropes.
The way Palahniuk structures the strict rules of damnation, nearly everyone ends up there even if they were the kindest humanity had to offer. Pee in a pool as a child or curse more than 700 times in your life and Heaven's gates close. "According to Babette, 98.3 percent of lawyers end up in Hell. That's in contrast to the 23 percent of farmers who are eternally damned... Perhaps a trace number of politicians ascend into Heaven, but statistically speaking, 100 percent of them are cast into the fiery pit. As are essentially 100 percent of journalists and redheads." Well, I'm an auburn blogger, so if that counts, guess I'll see you in Hell, Palahniuk. The twists at the end are a tad more predictable and less sociopathic than those in his other books, but overall, 'Damned' is a wonderful novel. It's the only heartwarming story about Hell you'll ever read, an odd sentiment that in itself makes it well worth a try.