Random House India
Rs. 550 pp 247
If youve read Chuck Palahniuks (pronounced Pau-la-nik) Choke, Invisible Monsters and Guts, youd know that the grandeur of grotesque overarches most of his writings. And perhaps youd agree that as readers the least we expect from him is a book about genteel, god-fearing folk speaking Queens English. Mercifully, his 12th and latest book, Damned, has nothing of that sort.
It begins with the 13-year-old Madison Spencer whos fat and dead a double whammy and wants us to dismiss her description of hell at our own peril. The reason this natty American teenager is in the nether world is bleary, but she relies on her last memory of a marijuana overdose. When one could be turned down by Heaven for wearing white shoes after the Labour Day, watching cable TV and surfing the internet, an o.d. is good enough to make Spencer a one-eyed among the blind.
Damned is unlike most Palahniuks books which are structured in medias res. Though Spencer sways back and forth in the pre-death and the post-life worlds, giving an irreverent description of both, the narrative sticks largely around her life after life. Spencers earthly experiences are reflected through the memories of her interactions with her parents, a Hollywood power couple who taught her how to hope. But for this freshly-deceased smart teenager, thats the worst thing, as in hell, hope is a really bad habit. The description of parents, familiarising their innocent daughter with the various ways in which life really works, will make you smile in a way you would do watching a man walking ahead of you bang into a glass door.
Introducing Spencer to hallucinogenic and contraceptives, and adopting children to be her siblings from far and wide sounds familiar? is part of their parenting programme.
And if this is his Earth, then Palahniuks underworld should ideally have had a not for the faint-hearted neon board shining at its gates. The Swamp of Partial-birth Abortions, Ocean of Wasted Sperm and nude giantresses masticating the dead may be as queasy as Dantes inferno. But Palahniuks exploration of the chthonic region is clearly not as subtle or poetic. Spencer teams up with a jock, a prom queen, a nerd and a hipster for her journey into a world which doesnt have a WiFi, where candy serves as a currency and where you cant turn around without elbowing somebody important. You know the likes of Marilyn Monroe, John F Kennedy, John Lennon and Ava Gardner.
Apart from being revolting and kitschy, Damned is enthrallingly witty. Palahniuk takes a jab at telemarketers, who, according to him, are hell-dwellers. And he certainly goes below the belt by lampooning The English Patient, a movie for the beautiful people, which plays on loop to torture the damned.
A certain sense of predictability borne out of repetitions may render Damned tedious for some. But didn't Stephen King, another champ of writing gruesome and dark tales, rightly observe that Hell is repetitions? Its a tad too literal here.