Review: Fiction: Damned by Chuck Palahniuk
Over the last 10 to 15 years Chuck Palahniuk has established himself as one of America's most visionary, brilliant, controversial and thoroughly infuriating writers.
His trademark mix of pitch black humour, brilliantly rendered dialogue, magical scene setting and unexpectedly grotesque twists have established him a loyal and devoted following who worship him with an ardour normally reserved for rock stars and religious cult leaders.
But over the last few years there have been worrying signs that he started to believe his own hype.
Pygmy, for instance, the novel he wrote about a group of juvenile terrorists from various totalitarian states transplanted into America has plenty of potential, but was written in a completely unreadable form of pidgin English.
That seemed to be an indicator of a writer who has basically given up stretching himself or his art -- like a bloated rock star past his prime it was if he knew his legions of fans would buy the book, even though had it been submitted to a publisher by a first-time author it would have been rejected immediately with the suggestion that the author seek help.
Now he's back with a book that, at least, is written in English.
Damned is the rather brilliant premise of 13-year-old Madison, a chubby, precocious daughter of a pathologically self obsessed movie star mother, who wakes up in a cell in Hell.
All around are rivers of steaming saliva, mountains of discarded fingernails and seas of insects.
It is, as you would imagine, a rather gruesome place, where people are routinely torn apart by demons, only to be immediately reanimated to allow the whole process to start over again. For eternity.
Yet it is also a strangely normal place -- it is run by a strict bureaucracy, the jobs on offer include being a Telemarketer ringing people on Earth ... during their dinner. Or you could become an internet porn performer.
These random asides are classic Palahniuk, sly and snarky comments about popular culture that have always dominated his work. And the ease with which Madison adapts to her new fiery inferno allows the story to move along quickly -- alongside her motley crew of equally damned friends, she sets off into the centre of Hell to find Satan, to ascertain why she ended up there.
Was it really because she thinks she died of a marijuana overdose or was it something else or was it, as Madison believes, a paperwork error from one of Satan's civil servants?
So far, so engrossing. It screams of a return to form as we get classic little vignettes like Pizuzu, the demon from The Exorcist boasting to Madison that while he hasn't worked in a while, he is still represented by the William Morris talent agency.
And then it seems that the author just loses interest.
The group meet an ancient giant demon who is about to eat them when one of the gang sexually services the demon.
If it was meant to be funny, it wasn't. If it was meant to be a declaration from the author that he can still gross us out with the best of them then it doesn't work. In fact, the whole scene reads like something a teenager trying to write in Palahniuk's style -- and failing miserably -- would come up with.
From there the narrative just becomes increasingly unhinged and inconsistent and is only marginally saved by a slight increase in standard in the final act.
There's no doubt that Damned is better than the irritating Pygmy, but despite this the author yet again proves that whatever about the style he decides to use, he can still be a bloody frustrating writer.