Since he stormed onto the literary scene in 1996 with the cult classic Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk has cultivated a devoted following for his version of transgressive fiction, enabling him to leap past boundaries on style and taste while maintaining a wide and wildly committed audience. His capacity for fearless provocation is on ample display in 2011's Damned, a satirical mash-up in which he parodies Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, The Breakfast Club, and Dante's Inferno. The novel sends Madison Spencer, the barb-tongued teenage daughter of Hollywood royalty, into the fiery pit. "Imagine little Maddy cast into an underworld sculpted from all manner of human detritus. Picture her walking in the 'Dandruff Desert,' surveying the 'Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm,' and navigating the 'Swamp of Partial-Birth Abortions,' " wrote Darren Carlaw in the New York Journal of Books. "The easily offended stopped reading two sentences ago."
In the follow-up, Palahniuk returns Madison to the mortal plain. A post-apocalyptic riff on the epistolary novel, Doomed takes the form of blog posts that can be read both by Madison's fellow mortals and her friends back down in the Bad Place, where she elected to reside at the end of Damned, preferring the company of those in eternal torment to the alternative. "Regarding Hell, you mustn't feel sorry for me," Maddy writes. "We all keep secrets from God, and it's exhausting. If anyone deserves to burn in the unquenchable lake of eternal flames, it's me. I am pure evil. No punishment is too severe."
Madison initially returns to earth in ghostly form as part of the annual furlough for the damned known as Halloween. After being summoned in a cruel séance by her ex-classmates at the Swiss Boarding School where her wealthy parents had deposited her before her untimely demise, Madison wreaks predictable havoc before discovering she has been tricked by Satan himself into becoming a pawn in his latest plan to thwart God and humanity.
Doomed, like most of Palahniuk's novels, is less an attempt to tell a story than a vehicle for its author's mordant wit and notoriously grim view of contemporary civilization, where the few souls who don't seem to be drowning in crass commercialism and consumerist gluttony find themselves driven to the margins, alienated either by having come up on the losing end of fate's coin toss or, more rarely, by choice. Naturally, much of the novel takes place in Los Angeles.
"LAX looks more tragic than I'd ever noticed," Maddy muses. "Among these milling hordes I see human beings so racked with hunger that they're reduced to eating triple-bacon cheeseburgers. ... I see whole families forced by global inequalities of wealth to wear prêt-à-porter Tommy Hilfiger. A glance in any direction reveals such scenes of hardship and deprivation. It's one thing to hear that such grinding poverty exists in the modern world, but it's heartrending to actually see people compelled to carry their own luggage."
If Doomed doesn't sound like your cup of tea, well, Chuck Palahniuk doesn't care. His legions of fans read all his novels eagerly, ready to follow his dark, apocalyptic, frequently prescient vision wherever it leads them. Palahniuk newbies would probably be better off beginning with the seminal Fight Club.Those who aren't frightened by the lurid littering of gutter humor and oozing bodily fluids will find in Doomed a master satirist and culture critic at the height of his bold, anarchic powers. If Damned explicitly embraces the model of Dante's Inferno, then perhaps Doomed could be read as a profane, heretical riff on the work of that other notoriously caustic American satirist Mark Twain, who, at the end, had no higher opinion of the human species than Palahniuk gives Madison Spencer.
"How peaceful is a world where everyone gives offense but no one takes it," Maddy muses. How peaceful, indeed.
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