Two years ago, Chuck Palahniuk released Damned. In its pages, the recently deceased 13-year-old Madison Spencer navigated her way through Hell, battling its most famous citizens and collecting candy bars. When discussing the book, Chuck has referred to teen classics like The Breakfast Club (like Satre said, what is being stuck in a room with strangers if not hell?) and the books of Judy Blume. Along that theme, each chapter opened with a Margaret-esque missive, “Are you there, Satan? It’s me Madison.” In that book’s final pages, young Maddy found her ghostly self on Earth minutes after midnight on Halloween night, and so stuck here for a full year until the gates of Hell open again.
Doomed, Palahniuk’s 13th novel and first sequel, continues Maddy’s adventures as she wanders the Earth as a ghost.
No longer buddy-buddy with Satan, our little Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer has started a blog addressed to us, the “Gentle Tweeter.” Madison’s year stranded on Earth as a post-living sounded interesting. What would she do for a year? Visit her A-list celebrity parents? Torment those who teased her at boarding school? Confront those present at her demise?
Not really. The exact timeline is hard to follow, but each of Madison’s posts went live over a six-hour span on December 21. It’s important to judge art on what it is and not what you want it to be, but the bait of an earthbound year was switched for a six-hour adventure with extensive flashbacks. And they are extensive. A flashback to Madison’s last summer as part of pre-dead society is almost half the length of some other Palahniuk books. In later flashbacks, Maddy adopts a cat and attempts to get a rise out of her parents, starting a romantic relationship with Jesus and keeping a diary of her journeys into bestiality. The relationship and the bestiality are both, mercifully, fictional. It’s worthwhile information, and interesting, at least until Madison’s attempts to annoy her parents annoy the reader as well. All this leaves the book with a lack of momentum, and attention is drawn away from the story at hand – that of Madison wandering the Earth.
That story too is lacking. Damned was Palahniuk’s most enjoyable read since Snuff, possibly even Choke. Tell-All was boring and unrelatable. Pygmy‘s broken English narrative made it a chore to read, even for fans of Palahniuk. Damned was something new. A 13-year-old dead girl isn’t a common narrator for “transgressive” fiction. And Maddy’s persona brings a lot of questions that wouldn’t apply to characters like Victor Mancini and Agent 67. How does a child react to her murderer? How do her parents react upon seeing their specter of a child? How did a 13-year-old end up in Hell, really? Only some of these questions are answered. And some only in the last pages. Recurring characters from Damned, like punk rocker Archer, are never seen, or disappear at random. It feels too disjointed from the first book.
So the book is about a ghost stranded on Earth. But what’s it really about? Chuck has always used his past novels to explore something in his life. For example, when his father was murdered and the killer was sentenced to death, Chuck’s contemplation of the death penalty took form as Lullaby. The biggest takeaway from Doomed is the idea of fate. How much of our lives has been planned out for us? If the Heaven/Hell question is already answered, do our actions matter? Of course, those actions may have been predetermined too, so even that question isn’t fair. We can live moral lives and still be sent to hell by a clerical error. Life sucks and then you die.
Excepting some theories put forth in Rant, Damned also marked Chuck’s first foray in the metaphysical. Metaphysics turn to full-on religion here, which, sadly is another misstep. While working as a telemarketer in Hell (where did you think they were calling from?), Madison told her parents that all those bad things in life – swearing, littering – were actually the best way to get into Heaven. Her plan was that they would be sent to Hell, where they could at least be together. But Maddy’s parents shared this with their fans and thus the religion of Boorism was born. In her wake, Madison has left an Earth full of people sneezing without covering their mouths and cheerily telling each other to fuck off. It’s not meant to be shocking. Chuck can write genuinely shocking events, as that final summer flashback shows us. After only a few pages, the Boorists actions don’t induce disgust, only eye rolling.
The book’s storylines come together in an abattoir of a third act, which seems to just lead to another sequel. With Palahniuk having tentative plans for his next two novels Beautiful You and Make Something Up, not to mention the comic book sequel to Fight Club, who knows when that will come. After all, there was talk of Rant sequels too. Maybe some time away from Madison Spencer will do Chuck some good. He can put her back on the bookshelf until he has the perfect way to incorporate new and old characters and story threads to settle the war between Heaven and Hell. Until then, we’re left with the disappointing Doomed.
Doomed is available now at your local bookstore. If you do not have a local bookstore, you should move house.
Editor’s Note: Sequels are interesting things to review. You’re speaking to those who have read the first book and to those who haven’t. Does this book have enough in common with the previous one to satisfy those returning to the characters? What about those who read the book and didn’t like it? Can you convince them to come back for part two? For those new to the series, how good does a book need to be to justify buying and reading another before you even get to this one? You have to speak to a lot of audiences.