Damned lacks substance

Author Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned focuses more on social commentary than on plot.  (credit: Courtesy of Random House) Author Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned focuses more on social commentary than on plot. (credit: Courtesy of Random House)

If you are sick of high school and college students thinking that they are part of some cool and exclusive club for knowing the first two rules of Fight Club (which are, paradoxically, not to talk about Fight Club), you can thank Chuck Palahniuk, the author of the novel. He has been releasing novels annually for the past 13 years, and he is well known for writing books that deal with macabre and gritty subject matter.

Over the years, Palahniuk has gradually introduced socially critical themes in his work. For a while, this worked wonderfully. Lullaby, Diary — and, to a lesser extent, Rant — were well-executed horror stories that managed to unsettle the reader with disturbing scenes, plots, and characters, forcing the reader to re-examine the validity of certain characteristics of American society. Recently, however, Palahniuk has focused too strongly on social criticism and not enough on delivering strong, fluid stories. His most recent book, Damned, is merely a continuation of Palahniuk’s downward spiral.

Satirical may be one of the first words that comes to mind when trying to describe Palahniuk’s work. As hard as it may be, ignore the impulse to call his work satire. It is not, because satire requires subtlety and skill. While Palahniuk is a skilled writer, he possesses the subtlety of a Tyrannosaurus rex with a Napoleon complex. The satirical elements in his earlier works succeeded because they were vehicles for the plot. This relationship is inverted in Damned, and the book suffers severely because of it. The focus on social issues instead of a plot results in a very slow-paced book that is neither interesting nor captivating and is not even convincing in its cynicism.

Palahniuk is not a bad writer: His ability to construct intriguing and definitive characters is amazing. Even in Damned this talent is noticeable. The narrator, 13-year-old Madison, is dead and has been sent to Hell after an “overdose of marijuana.” The Hell in Damned contains the pantheons of old religions torturing damned souls for enjoyment against the background of a waterfall of feces, mountains of nail clippings, and other not-so-pleasant landmarks. The juxtaposition of the narrator’s wry humor and the disturbing features of Hell is genuinely enjoyable and interesting. Unfortunately, it quickly gets old as it becomes clear that the narrator is solely a vehicle for communicating the travesty of parents living vicariously through their children and then treating them as status symbols.

There is a reason that Fight Club garnered so much attention among young adults. It was inventive, in-your-face, visceral, and uncompromising — everything a typical rebellious teenager hopes to be. There are glimpses of these traits in Damned, but the constant thematic repetition and the slowness of the plot render Damned a difficult read. Palahniuk is not a sellout or washed up — not yet, at least. At the moment, it appears that he has merely lost the visionary equilibrium that led him to such success with his earlier works. The talent is still there, but it is forced to play second fiddle to his satire.