Title: Damned                                                                                      Author:  Chuck Palahniuk                                                         Publication Date:  October 2, 2012   (Reprint)                     Publisher: Knopf Doubleday                                                          Format:  Trade Paperback 256 pages                                              Genre:  Adult/Contemporary/Literary?  

  Rating:  I wanted to like this book more than I did.  Maybe my expectations were too high, because I am a huge Palahniuk fan…maybe the sequel will make it better.  As Maddy Spencer, the book’s main character might say, I’m having trouble giving up my habit of hope. For now, I have to give it a 3.5 out of 5. I’m glad it was on the reading list, but I won’t be going back to it, or holding my breath for the sequel.

Synopsis (from Random House (the other publisher)): “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison,” declares the whip-tongued thirteen-year-old narrator of Damned, Chuck Palahniuk’s subversive new work of fiction. The daughter of a narcissistic film star and a billionaire, Madison is abandoned at her Swiss boarding school over Christmas, while her parents are off touting their new projects and adopting more orphans. She dies over the holiday of a mari­juana overdose—and the next thing she knows, she’s in Hell. Madison shares her cell with a motley crew of young sinners that is almost too good to be true: a cheerleader, a jock, a nerd, and a punk rocker, united by fate to form the six-feet-under version of everyone’s favorite detention movie. Madison and her pals trek across the Dandruff Desert and climb the treacherous Mountain of Toenail Clippings to confront Satan in his citadel. All the popcorn balls and wax lips that serve as the currency of Hell won’t buy them off.  This is the afterlife as only Chuck Palahniuk could imagine it: a twisted inferno where The English Patient plays on end­less repeat, roaming demons devour sinners limb by limb, and the damned interrupt your dinner from their sweltering call center to hard-sell you Hell. He makes eternal torment, well, simply divine.

The Nashville Connection: There isn’t one, but c’mon we’re the buckle of the bible belt, and who here could resist that title???  If you have been reading in Nashville for any time at all, the voices in the back of your head should be full of the conversations of heaven and hell that surround our culture.

Review:   Madison Spencer is damned.  Maybe through no fault of her own, maybe because she caused her adopted brother also to be damned, maybe because her parents gave her no belief in heaven or hell.  Maybe it only exists around her as it does in the book, because she expects it to be that way.  As it is with any Chuck Palahniuk book, the questions of the main character’s psyche and perceptions seem never ending. Unlike other Palahniuk novels that I have read and loved the story also seems to be endless.  In fact, it is “To be Continued..”

I found that ending to be a bit over the top.   In the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Madison is in Hell, and doesn’t know why.  She also goes to great lengths to establish herself as the highest authority on Hell, “…Other people, like famous Italian poet Dante Aligheri, I’m sorry to say simply hoisted a generous helping of campy make-believe on the reading public.”  In that statement, and as Madison embarks on a quest through Hell, it is clear that the concept of Purgatory as an eternal repetition is being purposely eschewed.  But the book circles back and one is left wondering if Madison is in fact moving to a deeper ring, or being forced to start her journey over.  To have spent so much  of a couple hundred pages making so much of how Madison Spencer’s hell is different than any other, and how it isn’t an average repetition, leaving it at a continuation seems rather eternal.

A thirteen-year-old girl as the protagonist was a stroke of genius on Palahniuk’s part.  What other creature could be self -absorbed, sex-obsessed and spunky enough to take on the eternal structure of evil?  Despite a reader’s best efforts.  It’s impossible not to be drawn in to Madison’s ever present sense of hope, and the hilarious observations of her surroundings.  Surely, only a young sophisticate could frame Hell as the  bright line between creationists and moral relativists:  and have this perhaps be her wisest observation.  Her memories of earth do seem dark and sad.

Through Madison Palahniuk makes it clear that his version of Hell, beyond telemarketing and resevoirs of sloughed corporeal features like dandruff,  is a separation from the people you are close to, wherever they are, and his version of hope is the idea of returning to them.  It is the connections between characters, both living and dead that make this book so very worth reading.  Perhaps it’s most redeeming feature is that the reader is left with a sound hope that essential connections and relationships endure beyond all.

Notable/Quotable:  Beautiful Italian Cover, so much better than the U.S. version!  

This book has been published in 8 editions by 3 publishers in the U.S., since September 28.

“In Hell, hope is a really, really bad habit.”

“Those people enjoyed what’s clearly labeled a “near-death experience.”  I, on the other hand, am dead, with my blood long ago pumped out, and worms muching on me.”