It’s Hell in here

Damned
by Chuck Palahniuk

This, Palahniuk’s latest offering, is every bit as crazy, vitriolic, scathingly sarcastic and darkly comic as you might expect if you’ve read any of his previous work. It might actually be lighter than usual and more funny, but it’s been a few years so maybe I’m mis-remembering.

I throw out words like “light” and “comic” and then have to tell you that this book is set in Hell. A really nasty, gruesome Hell to boot. But it’s narrated by a chirpy 13-year-old American girl whose view of both the world above and the one below is hilarious.

Each chapter begins, “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison,” in a riff on just one of the many literary influences in this story. In life, Madison, slightly chubby and hopelessly naïve daughter of rich, famous parents, liked to read romantic novels and watch feel-good films. In death she raves about how she managed to die in an outfit particularly practical for Hell and tries to make friends with fellow damned souls. We gradually hear her life story, told in-between descriptions of Hell and her attempts to get on with spending eternity there.

Initially I found Madison irritating, though the concept was funny. She repeats the same phrases, harks back to the same references and makes the same jokes over and over. Which is realistic, I don’t doubt, but not the makings of a sympathetic character. However, death forces her to examine and analyse herself, remember details she’d rather forget and question the identity she clings to, so that she gradually becomes more likeable. Perhaps it says something about me that I vastly prefer her once she has lost her innocent guilelessness!

The depiction of Hell plays on preconceptions, twisting and turning them around. There are demons, sure; in fact every demon ever invented by any culture or religion. There are fires and pits of torment and endless methods of torture, but there are also the very gruesome indeed Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, Swamp of Rancid Perspiration, Dandruff Desert and many more of that ilk. Thankfully they are not all described in detail but, well, some are. And there are strict rules. Many, many rules. In fact, it becomes a running joke. At first it seems to Madison that perhaps the Christian right had all the answers, but she slowly discovers that the rules of Hell are petty, almost arbitrary, and can trap anyone. But the fact that there are rules means that you can learn them, and play them.

From the cell in which she first finds herself installed in Hell, Madison makes the acquaintance of a cheerleader (Babette), a jock (Patterson), a nerd (Leonard) and a punk (Archer). Adding her goody-two-shoes self, that makes her very own Breakfast Club and she determines to befriend them all. When Archer uses the safety pin from his cheek to spring them all from their cells, the motley crew journey across Hell together. Patterson just tries to get off with Babette while Leonard drones on about all the different demons encountered (he’s more of a history nerd than your typical science nerd) but Archer and Babette prove themselves surprisingly useful friends to have around.

I found this book genuinely funny, but also disturbing (it is Palahniuk, after all) and even sad. I grew to like Madison’s style of chatter, though the obviousness of her references never failed to grate. With her uber-bohemian parents and Swiss boarding school, surely she could have some less mainstream books or films to refer to occasionally? And while I accept that in the parents Palahniuk is mocking a certain kind of hypocritical celebrity, I did find some of his attacks a little too broad-ranging.

I think I will continue to look out all Palahniuk’s new releases, but so far his Diary: a novel has not been ousted from the favourite spot.

Copy kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Published October 2011 by Doubleday.

A different normality

Non-fiction
by Chuck Palahniuk

A few years back I considered myself a big fan of Palahniuk’s novels. Then either they got worse or my reading tastes changed. Either way, this collection of his essays, many of them previously published in newspapers and magazines, lay around unread until I had an urge to read more non-fiction and this seemed to fit the description well!

While I may have gone off his fiction, I still love Palahniuk’s writing style. His short punchy sentences, repetition and colloquial phrasing break all sorts of rules about writing and grammar but they work. He can be very critical of the world but he can also be very sweet in his genuine interest in people, often people no-one else is interested in. He’s led an odd life, some of which he talks about in these essays, and that has no doubt coloured his view of the world. I don’t admire him for doing strange, sometimes dangerous things, but I do admire him for working with dying people, for telling stories that deserve to be told, for openly analysing his reasons for writing what he does.

If you’ve read any of Palahniuk’s fiction these essays will make sense to you. He collects facts and stories about real people and files them away for later use in a novel. Literally, it turns out. He has a wall of filing cabinets full of this stuff. The essays range from moments in his own life, to people he’s met casually, to people he has deliberately researched. There’s the crew of a US navy submarine, three men who built their own castles, a woman who trained her dog in search and rescue, professional wrestlers. There’s Palahniuk’s experiences of having his novel turned into a Hollywood film, of having an annoying faux psychic woman genuinely unearth a troubling childhood memory, of dealing with his father’s murder.

My favourite pieces were the more positive ones, which were mostly about writing. Palahniuk’s career took off when he attended a creative writing class and he writes movingly about the greatness of his mentors and some of his favourite writers. His cynicism is still there but it’s aimed at himself and not the subject.

I didn’t enjoy every essay. Palahniuk does his research thoroughly and in some cases that meant trawling through paragraph after paragraph on a subject I don’t care about, like wrestling or demolition derbies, but the essay as a whole is always worth reading because somewhere in there will be a gem of a portrait or observation, a really real person saying or doing something that makes you stop and think.

These essays don’t get as dark as his novels do, possibly because they’re mostly written for the wider audiences of magazines with editors who don’t want to publish Palahniuk’s darkest thoughts. But they’re clearly written from the perspective of a person who has dark thoughts, who questions the acceptance of any “normality”, who has frankly been through some shit. It’s interesting stuff.

Published 2004 by Jonathan Cape.