Chuck Palahniuk inspires the kind of trembling adulation reserved for Morrissey and Robert Pattinson. His official Web site is called "The Cult." Most booksellers dread Palahniuk events, during which the author flings bloody fake limbs into a crowd of hundreds of angry young white men whose vague antiestablishment leanings manifest through strange facial hair and wallet chains.
I know, I've seen them. One of my most unnerving experiences as a bookseller occurred at the Chicago leg of Palahniuk's Choke book tour in 2001. Hundreds of diffident youngsters descended upon our neighborhood independent bookstore. Many wore funny hats; three wore matching gray morning suits; one wore spurs; one had drawn a moustache on his face in Sharpie pen. When Chuck appeared at the podium, this ungodly noise came out of them and their eyes glazed over in ecstasy.
This was not an isolated incident. At a Palahniuk reading at Brookline Booksmith a few years ago, a pair of starry-eyed teenage boys, one wearing a bridal gown, presented their hero with a terrifying oil portrait in the style of the Mona Lisa. He left it in the stockroom.
In 2003, salon.com's Laura Miller wrote a review of Palahniuk's novel, Diary, in which she likened his ethos to "the half-baked nihilism of a stoned high school student who has just discovered Nietzsche and Nine Inch Nails." The Cult fought back with letters to the editor of the "I hope someone rapes you, you stupid bitch" variety. This compelled me to send my own letter to Salon in which I made fun of Palahniuk's fans for being poseur douchebags. In turn, they denounced me on message boards as a lesbian.
(Exactly one month later, EntertainmentWeekly inadvertently outed Palahniuk in a profile. But like the vatos who weep at the opening chords of "Everyday Is Like Sunday," Palahniuk's fans stuck by him, even sending the EW reporter death threats for violating his privacy.)
Unlike novels written by pussies, such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Palahniuk's books have short, punchy titles like Snuff, Rant, Survivor, Choke. A decade into his career, Palahniuk shares the dais with Burroughs, Bukowski, and Hunter S. Thompson, that dread canon of writers fetishized by angry, nerdy teenage boys — and avoided, like the plague, by me.
Given all this, I did not want to like Damned, Palahniuk's new novel. I try not to like anything a college freshman might feel proprietary about, up to and including the Saw franchise and dubstep. But Palahniuk, by gum, won me over. In the second chapter, he outlines his artistic ambitions via the first-person narration of protagonist Madison Stewart, a dead 13-year-old girl who's quite literally in Hell (though Palahniuk is obsessed over by men, he often writes female protagonists).
Right away, Palahniuk gives his lowbrow war cry. In Hell, whenever the demons announce they're going to treat everyone to a big-name movie, it's always The English Patient or, unfortunately, The Piano. It's never The Breakfast Club. Allow me to venture that the sole reason we enjoy certain pastimes such as watching the film version of Valley of the Dolls arises from the comfort and familiarity of its poor quality. In contrast, The English Patient tries desperately to be profound and only succeeds in being painfully boring.