I arbitrarily chose to listen to Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned during my commute for the past 2 weeks. Picking a book to listen to can be tricky – on the one hand, you just want to listen to something you’ll enjoy. On the other hand, I generally enjoy myself more when I feel like I’m listening to something that’s not just interesting but in some way relevant to the culture at large. To this end – I try to use at least some vague criteria of “canonicity” to pick books that will eventually be considered as critically belonging to the literary canon of the decade, or at least to something like the cult-canon. Cult-canon being something like the countercultural cult-following works that never really achieve critical acclaim (e.g. in films Evil Dead, Goonies, etc.). To that end – I think Fight Club will at least be a cult-canon work, and so Palahniuk is by my estimation someone worth reading. Damned was written while Palahniuk was caring for his mother who was dying of cancer after he’d already lost his father in 1999. He claimed he wanted to express his grief, but that “I knew that would not make a very entertaining or particularly funny book, so I inverted the situation and made it this very plucky dead child, who could mourn her parents while they were still on Earth – but still she could miss them.” I think it’s fair to say that if Palahniuk seems like he’s being pretty glib and flippant about what some people consider very serious subjects, it’s worth bearing in mind that he was dealing with the some of the most sobering and heart-rending experiences one can go through in real life.
Fair warning: I’m not even going to try to not spoil the book. Chuck does some of his signature sloganeering. In Fight Club there were oodles: listing the rules, first person anatomy monologues, little refrains about copies. In Damned he has bits where the narrator’s parents give advice which is translated, the letter to Satan segments, and “I may be dead and thirteen, but…” These can be cute and serve as theme reinforcements or clever little variations on themes, but in Damned they don’t have the same impact – or rather, they don’t have the same impact they did in Fight Club, which is kind of unfair, but you can hardly read a book like this in a vacuum.
Damned is a second person narrator describing their experience in Hell. Immediately it seems like the question isn’t “what’s Hell like?” but rather “what’s Hell like now?” Our cultural heritage at this point has a diabolical scenario handed down from Dante through Milton, and Palahniuk seems to be filtering that through Sartre and Kafka with the irony and irreverence of Tim Burton, John Hughes references, and even a theme that we might just as well find in Roland Barthes. Also, I think William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven & Hell was skipped, but that it’s possible C. S. Lewis’ response, The Great Divorce informs some of the ghostly afterlife business. Palahniuk himself says that Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret is one of the major models for the book. That sounds like a paradoxically heady and shallow mix, but the themes in the background come out like a few too many cooks with the foreground pre-death narratives being the more memorable and striking. After I wrote this bit it felt like I was name-dropping, but I’m honestly just trying to figure out where these important literary/cultural works fit in.
To summarize how I think previous Hell stories are either featured or transmuted in Damned:
Dante is mentioned as passing off “campy make-believe on the reading public.” This is, of course, kind of ironic given that this vision of Hell has landscape composed of refuse, nail-clippings, bile etc. and transitions from comically hellish landscape to laughable urban bureaucracy. This is where a little bit of Kafka seeps in: an undeniable feature of the present consciousness of Hell has to include forms and administrators and call centers ad nauseum (literally). The concept of Hell as profoundly lonely is dismissed in favor of something like Sartre’s No Exit - only instead of being an endless cycle of interpersonal frustrations it’s (explicitly) Breakfast Club. Contra Sartre, other people are actually a small comfort in Hell. Chuck says Hell is “not other people; it’s physicality. Hell is composed of all the discarded aspects of our physical being: toenail clippings and loose hairs and blood and feces and urine and semen.” All of this is set in scenes almost wholesale copied from Beetlejuice – the afterlife is a sort of silly miserable post-life eternal hospital/DMV waiting room where torture is arbitrarily dolled out, people have dull jobs, the floor is littered with unwanted candy and lost paperwork.
The waiting room from Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice
The major afterlife events in the book are all fairly ridiculous, ranging from working a consumer survey call center to literally conquering all the condemned tyrants and demoniacal residents of hell. While listening it seemed like the story was getting sloppier and sloppier and starting to be inconsistent and unravelling, and then there’s a Monty Python-esque reveal that this entire story is actually a screenplay made manifest by Satan himself. Everyone blabbers on and on about postmodernity and the “death of the author” – well, here it is, and where a sort of boring despair has been dripping into the story over how ludicrous both the celebrity ethics and religious superstition are we find out that even the narrative itself is unreal and stupid. That is, because it’s in second person, the narrator is the author, but now we know that the author is themselves a character (let’s not even consider the whole Chuck-is-the-real-author angle).
One of the problems I had reading (listening?) to the book was how disjointed the different events and physics in Hell seemed. The characters arrive in the clothes and with personal items they had at death, but can apparently be eaten by demons and have their clothes/body regenerate for more suffering. Yet, clothing gets filthy over time, characters bribe demons with candy they brought for things, they trade clothes and do makeovers. There’s a brief attempt at making sense of how the demons are actually gods who can no longer claim any adherents, sort of noodling around with theology without really investing in it. These are silly complaints, mostly just the result of trying to imagine how an afterlife works where we still seem to have bodies and can eat and get dirty or learn new skills and yet are undying and perpetually age-static. It’s the uneasy wedding between change and stasis that makes it feel sloppy and ontologically confusing, but then that same critique might apply to Dante himself.
Chuck also takes the time to make light of an interesting thing in popular Christianity: he makes fun of both lists of beliefs that determine one’s salvation and the sort of ethical statistics that determine whether you’re “saved” or not.
“Do people go to Heaven because they acted good? Or do they go to Heaven because it’s predestined… because they are good? That’s ancient history, according to Leonard; now the entire system relies on forensic science. Polygraph tests. Psychophysiological detections of deception. Voice stress analysis. You even have to submit hair and urine samples due to the new zero- tolerance policy for drug and alcohol abuse in Heaven.”
Consider the list of questions from a demon running a polygraph test:
“Do you reject Satan and all his works?”
“Do you accept the Lord God as the one true God?”
“Do you recognize Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
“Are you now or have you ever been a practicing member of the Buddhist religion?”
“Do you believe the Bible to be the one and only true word of God?”
“In your honest opinion, does life begin at conception?”
“Do you sanction mandatory prayer in public schools?”
“Do you view sexual acts between individuals of the same gender to be an abomination?”
“Does mankind hold ultimate dominion over all earthly plants and animals?”
“Do you approve,” the demon says, “of marriage between individuals of differing racial backgrounds?”
“Should the Zionist state of Israel be allowed to exist?”
[Narrator aside:] The paradox: Is God a racist, homophobic, anti- Semitic ass? Or is God testing to see if I am?
“Should women be allowed to hold public office? To own real property? To operate motor vehicles?”
“Are you, yourself, a virgin?”
“Do you support the profoundly evil research which utilizes embryonic stem cells?”
“Does physician-assisted suicide fly in the face of God’s beautiful will?”
“Do you espouse the obvious truth of intelligent design?”
This is pretty clever satire, pointing out how ridiculous it sounds when Christians understand faith as believing in a certain series of things is what constitutes salvation. Palahniuk doesn’t stop there though, he also mocks the alternate view that maybe it’s good works and a clean ethical record that gets us saved – I’ll just copy a few scattered references to the “divine law”:
According to divine law, I explain, each human being is allowed to honk no more than five hundred times over the course of a lifetime. One honk beyond that number, regardless of circumstances, results in an automatic condemnation to Hell—suffice to say all taxicab drivers are Hellhound. A similar unbreakable law applies to discarded cigarette butts. The first hundred are permitted, but any dropped butts beyond that number result in eternal damnation with no hope for recourse.
I explain the seemingly arbitrary rules of which people run afoul, how each living person is allowed to use the F-word a maximum of seven hundred times. Most living persons haven’t the slightest idea how easy it is to be damned, but should anyone say fuck for the 701st time, he or she is automatically doomed. Similar rules apply to personal hygiene; for example, the 855th time you fail to wash your hands after voiding your bowels or bladder, you’re doomed. The three hundredth time you use the word nigger or the word fag, regardless of your personal race or sexual preference, you buy yourself that dreaded one-way ticket to the underworld.
Divine law allows each person to pass gas in only three elevators, and to urinate in the shared water of only two swimming pools. This is regardless of your age, so most people are already relegated to Hell by the age of five.
So both of those concepts are made to look stupid – but the narrator also makes a running commentary on her parents’ belief system, the system of A-list celebrities primarily concerned with ecology, PR, and cherry-picked New Age ideas and pop-psychology. Their vapid ideas and hypocrisy is pretty mercilessly mocked. Of course, at this point Palahniuk has mocked Christianity as intellectual assent and Christianity as (fairly arbitrary) moral ledger, and he’s also made fun of the pseudo-secular alternative. What’s left? Is everything a joke? The only thing that seems to go uncriticized is plain human empathy. The narrator makes allies in Hell by being nice to people while telemarketing. The most haunting scenes in the mostly tongue-in-cheek novel are ones that evoke sympathy for the tragedy of the dead: early death, accidental suffocation or infection, the empty protest against capricious fortune. In a sense, this is the way any reader probably ought to feel for Chuck during this time in his life. The Guardian asked Palahniuk whether he actually believed in Hell, and he answered, “I believe in something. But I don’t believe that anything can hold a grudge for long enough to condemn its creation to eternal punishment. Nobody can hold a grudge that long, even God.” That may be, but that doesn’t keep him from apparently leaving Hitler drowning in the swamp of partial-birth abortions for eternity.
Edit: I feel obliged to offer that the “list” and “ledger” approaches to Christianity are both, in my opinion, deeply mislead. The meaningful practice of religion relies on faith in the sense of trust (not bare intellectual assent) and virtue (not arbitrary good/bad work counting) in such a way that we practice virtue because it is grounded in the faith that we will be vindicated despite our failure to be ethically irreproachable.