As Bolaño declared war on Márquez and copycat magical realists, Palahniuk takes up arms against middle-aged, middlebrow lyricism. His fiction — deliberately crude in content and execution — is the sworn enemy of what Cold War–era literary critics would call midcult: mass culture with pretentions of high-cultural importance. Like metal, South Park, and slasher movies, Damned is unrepentantly lowbrow and often willfully stupid — the antithesis of most contemporary fiction, which, when it is stupid (and it often is) is usually unintentionally so.
Our heroine, Madison, is supposed to be bookish. Whenever she uses an SAT word, she self-consciously calls attention to it via a refrain that quickly becomes annoying, some variation of, "I might be a dead teenager, but I know what 'pandering' means." In this way, Palahniuk flatters his audience for having a 10th-grade vocabulary. However annoying this device, Madison's worldview — irate, freshly bruised optimism — seems suited to Palahniuk's sensibility, even if his execution sometimes falters (teenage girls, as a rule, don't deliver sophisticated analyses of Gulliver's Travels and Wuthering Heights). More than once, Madison praises the superior intelligence of the prepubescent; one wonders if her creator shares this belief.
Madison's parents — an A-list actress and a billionaire film producer, both readers of the New York Times — adopt orphans from the third world and ship them off to boarding school while tricking out the family jet in sustainable wood. They've consigned Madison to hell by raising her as a secular humanist. Through them, Damned proffers a straightforward, very funny critique of what Walter Benn Michaels would call left neoliberals — people who think that opposing racism, sexism, and homophobia means they're above the evils of the free market.
However funny or astute the result, some of Palahniuk's tics grate. He's over-fond of expository dialogue; one of Madison's dead chums conveniently knows the name and history of every demon roaming the Underworld. And while Palahniuk doesn't shy away from descriptive passages, he expresses feelings via a landscape wholly alien to the films of Jane Campion: Hell features a "flaky, greasy Dandruff Desert, where scorching winds as hot as a billion hair dryers blow the scabs of dead skin into drifts as tall as the Matterhorn," a passage "between sloughing gray hillocks heaped with every thin crescent of nail ever trimmed," a lake of partial-birth abortions, and other such vivid gross-outs.
All told, I was surprised at how closely Damned resembles The Education of Bruno Littlemore, a solidly literary comic novel released earlier this year about a super-intelligent chimpanzee that learns to speak. Both feature a protagonist wholly unlike its intended audience, both rely on body horror to get laughs, and both contain a scene in which a very tiny, deformed person performs cunnilingus on a much larger person. However, Damned is 42 percent shorter than Bruno and contains three times as many laughs. Moreover, I actually finished it.
CHUCK PALAHNIUK | The Music Hall, 131 Congress St, Portsmouth, NH | November 3 @ 7:30 pm | 603.436.2400