For the Hell of it
Chuck Palahniuk is no stranger to dark subject matter, but for his latest novel, ‘Damned’, he wanted to place an innocent character – a 13-year-old girl – in the worst-case scenario. So he took her to hell
CHUCK PALAHNIUK has travelled, metaphorically and physically, to some troubled places in his books, so it’s no surprise that his latest novel, Damned, chooses the ultimate dark destination as its setting: hell.
“I wanted the worst-case scenario,” says the writer. “There’s a classic story arc where an innocent person ends up in circumstances that they don’t fully understand. A good example is The Shawshank Redemption, where you have this banker who was so drunk that he’s not sure why he’s in prison. I structured Damnedlike Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret,because in that story Margaret moves from New York to the suburbs, which is her hell. I wanted to take that form of story where an innocent person is moved to a new place and take that to the greatest extreme, and hell seemed like the worst scenario.”
So far, so Palahniuk. From the violence and proto-machismo of his most acclaimed novel, Fight Club, to the corporeal bloodiness of the infamous story Guts, extremes are a hallmark of his work. And yet Palahniuk, considered a member of the same literary masculinity club as Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway, has installed a 13-year-old girl as his latest protagonist. Madison is abandoned over Christmas by her famous parents, who make films and adopt orphans (celebrities, alive and dead, are excoriated in the course of the book). She dies of a marijuana overdose and finds herself in hell, on the brink of puberty and convinced of her innocence.
Precocious, smart and independent, she is distinct from Palahniuk’s typical narrators. The author has faced criticism of his female characters and has been accused of misogyny, but Madison is an antidote to Snuff’s Cassie Wright and the women of Invisible Monsters. Convinced she has been wrongly condemned, Madison begins a quest to hell’s appeals department.
The story, accompanied by a group of unlikely travellers, morphs into The Wizard of Ozmeets The Breakfast Club. This device of randomly gathering a motley crew has also featured heavily in Palahniuk’s work.
“My assumption is that if someone is reading, they’re alone; so they’ve left a community of friends to sit down and read that book. The reader is intrinsically alone, so I always try to give them a group experience in their solitude. Doug Coupland did it with Generation X. He was living alone in Palm Springs and was so lonely that he invented a group of friends and wrote about them.
“Groups also serve a function that religion used to, where you come together with members of your community, present the worst aspects of yourself, and be accepted and forgiven. These days when I go to church services, I feel like the person who shouldn’t be there, the tourist, so I’m expressing that group relationship to religion.”
Palahniuk was born to Carol and Fred, in 1962, and raised as a Catholic with his three siblings. His paternal grandfather murdered his grandmother while his own father – aged four – hid under the bed. Palahniuk’s parents separated when he was 14, and his father later found happiness with a woman he met through a newspaper ad. Her ex-boyfriend murdered her and Fred, and the tragedy formed the basis of Palahniuk’s novel, Lullaby.
In the past, the writer has spoken of the anger he felt before writing Fight Club, and how Lullaby, which made him challenge his views on the death penalty, was cathartic. “In one of the first writing workshops I ever did, I was taught about ‘dangerous writing’. The theory is that you should always write about something that is very upsetting for you, otherwise you’re just wasting your time. Even if the book never sells to a publisher, at least you get the chance to explore and exhaust some issue of your own. You feel relieved and transformed, and selling the book is actually beside the point.”
The sudden, violent death of his father left little time to prepare for their parting, let alone to say goodbye. While writing Damned, Palahniuk’s mother was dying of cancer, and he looked after her. In Damned, Madison wanders through a landscape that takes in Hot Saliva Lake, The Swamp of Rancid Perspiration and Dandruff Desert. It’s hard not to see parallels between the physical decay of his mother and the charcoal humour of the placenames.
“It definitely fed into my writing. In the sick-room environment, there is this idea of separating the physical being from the mental being. In Madison’s case she is surrounded and threatened by this physical aspect of puberty. When my mother was dying from cancer, I had to face up to the fact that I had lost both my parents. It made me evaluate my life, and ask myself at what point had I started living my life as a performance for my parents. It took me back to childhood, and it was a very natural examination to go back. Even the novels Madison reads in the book were the books my mother read in her final year. She reread her favourite novels.”
This backdrop of terminal illness contributed to Palahniuk’s ruminations on mortality. He considers himself a lapsed Catholic, and despite the questions the novel raises, admits that he doesn’t give the afterlife much thought. Does he believe in something beyond death?
“I really couldn’t say. When you’re a pre-puberty child and you hear about aspects of sexuality, they seem so completely grotesque. It’s only by reaching puberty, that those things become palatable to us, and death is similar. Even if we did know about what happens after death, we wouldn’t accept it, because we’re not at the point in our lives where we can even conceive of it.”
If Fight Clubthe book, and later the film, made his name, it has also created a stereotyping of his readers. Palahniuk was credited with bringing men back to reading with his tale of sanctioned underground violence. Male readers have told him this, and some have been inspired to write themselves.
He laughs: “I used to have an idea who my audience were, based on Fight Club, but now it seems to be almost equal gender-wise. When I wrote Invisible Monsters, nearly everyone who came up to me and said, ‘This is my favourite book,’ was a woman, so it’s harder to say.”
After being reticent about his personal life over the years (there were rumours he was married), Palahniuk is now openly gay, and has been with his partner for 17 years. Unlike writers like Alan Hollinghurst, his sexuality doesn’t infuse his work.
“I always think of my characters as raceless and genderless, and in a way Madison is the ultimate manifestation of my characters. I prefer characters who take action, and whose actions constitute who they are. I’ve written gay characters, in Stuffand in Invisible Monsters, but to make a central character gay would be too much.”
The grotesqueness of Damned’s landscape and souls who regenerate after being eaten by demons is infused with the kind of grand vulgarity found in his legendary story Guts. “I haven’t read it in public for two or three years, but the last time was at a festival in Brighton. Eight people fainted and the St John’s ambulance people had to tend to them. It was really glorious, really terrific.”
Damnedtook longer than any of his previous books to write. Having penned the first draft during his mother’s illness, he held on to it for a year after her death in February 2009 and then rewrote it. He plans to write two more Madison books, set consecutively in limbo and heaven. Given his productivity, will we see another book next year?
“No,” he says, laughing, “I’m really trying to space my books out a little bit better.”
Damnedis published by Jonathan Cape