Book Review: Damned

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For the rest of you, please don’t be afraid. If you go to Heaven, bully for you. But if you don’t-well, look me up. The only thing that makes earth feel like Hell, or Hell feel like Hell, is our expectation that it ought to feel like Heaven. Earth is earth. Dead is dead.

Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk

It’s funny that the quote I decided to pull from Damned is about expectations, because this book refused to meet mine. This was my first time reading Palahniuk’s work, but I knew what to expect based on his reputation and positive reviews of this book: witty, irreverent, and subversive. Suffice it to say that I was sorely disappointed. To put into perspective how much I disliked this book, let me tell you that my favorite thing about it was the artwork on the cover.

Damned chronicles the adventures of thirteen-year-old Maddy Spencer, who’s arrived in Hell after dying of what she assumes to be a marijuana overdose. Every synopsis of the book I’ve read describes the narrative as The Breakfast Club set in Hell. It’s true that Maddy travels with characters reminiscent of the group featured in the 1985 John Hughes classic. But the story isn’t focused on these characters. Unlike Bender and Claire, Palahniuk’s characters don’t fully develop outside of their stereotypes. The attempts at characterization are feeble at best. The other characters, including Maddy’s parents and the other denizens of Hell, are simply caricatures of whatever Palahniuk wants to ridicule.

That leaves us with Maddy. Pubescent, overweight, and hopelessly insecure and attention-seeking, Maddy spews big words and witticisms stuffed with pop culture references. The “witty” narration gets old, fast. I don’t know how many times Maddy has to point out that she knows the meaning of a word you’d likely find in an SAT prep book and nowhere else, or even words that to the average adult don’t imply a particularly impressive vocabulary. What’s the point of this? Yes, I get that the narrator is young, self-conscious, and intelligent. There’s no need to beat me over the head with it.

Yet that’s what Palahniuk does with this novel, over and over again. Predictably, Palahniuk’s Hell, while populated with demons and the dead, also snidely contains landmarks such as a lake of shit and eternal loops of The English Patient. This is mildly funny at best, but mentioned repeatedly until I found myself skimming and eventually skipping entire paragraphs. And believe me, I am not a skimmer or a skipper.

That being said, the novel also lacks a clear plot. The synopsis led me to believe it would be a tale of bonding and understanding like The Breakfast Club or a tale of adventure. There is some adventure, I admit, but it lacks any real sense of thrill or excitement. Instead, the book is simply an awful collection of shallow caricatures, jokes that quickly descend into tastelessness, and pop culture reference after pop culture reference. It was like watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory except set in Hell with teenagers and disgustingly large amounts of bodily fluids. And we all know The Big Bang Theory has been going downhill for a long time.

YES OR NO?: NO. I hated this book, which saddened me because I wanted to like it. The premise sounds interesting, but the book fails to deliver on that premise. I’ve seen reviews that describe this novel as a sign that Palahniuk is losing his touch, however, so I hope to not give up Palahniuk entirely by trying out one of his earlier works.

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