Arts & Culture News

Hell, Our Bodies Ourselves: Chuck Palahniuk's Damned

Because Chuck Palahniuk's the guy who once wrote the lines, "I want to have your abortion," and "the condom is the glass slipper of our generation," [Fight Club, 1996], we weren't at all certain what to expect when we sat down to talk with the prolific writer about his twelfth novel, Damned, which hits stores today, October 18. However, the soft-spoken Oregon Book Award winner laughs easily and graciously slips into discussions of Sartre, transgressive fiction and Secular Humanism as deftly as he traverses the complex moral philosophy behind his 2001 New York Times best-seller, Choke.

Damned takes a satirical stab at the Young Adult genre, following 13-year-old Madison after she wakes up dead, in hell. With nods to Judy Blume and John Hughes, it is the first in a series of three upcoming novels, modern adaptations of Dante's Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradisio. As part of the Arts and Letters Live series, the Dallas Museum of Art will host Palahniuk on October 25 for a reading and will offer for sale pre-signed copies of Damned. While the event is already sold out, we hear that overflow seating is being made available, and die-hard fans can find more information at 214-922-1818.

In anticipation of his upcoming visit, we got the skinny on the new book and asked what to expect from the man who has been known to foment fainting spells at readings. See our interview with the supremely personable Palahniuk after the jump.

How did you go about preparing to write a satirical Young Adult novel? What research did you do into the genre? You know, I really didn't, other than reading a bunch of Judy Blume books to pick up the style from Are You There God, It's Me Margaret because I wanted to be familiar with the books that Madison, the protagonist, would treasure the most.

It's my understanding that, being in hell, she begins each chapter with "Are you there, Satan, it's me Madison." How did you work through your imaginative cosmology and the tenets of Damned's version of hell? Hell, for Madison, is this world of intense physicality. Lakes of blood, rivers of feces, ponds of urine. Everything is based on kind of an excess of discarded human anatomy. And, part of that reflects that Madison is being confronted by her own physicality. She's right on the cusp of puberty and she is just terrified of losing even more control over this physical body that she's already very self-conscious about. So Madison is very freaked out about bodily fluids.

And, on another level, when I travel for tour, hotels tend to put me in what they call an "authors' suite," and there's always one big wall of this suite that is covered with books of all the authors who have stayed there. And, when I'm there, those books show me exactly who has slept in the bed that I'm now sleeping in. It's a spooky, creepy sensation! To just look at this physical proof of Steven King and John Grisham, Jane Fonda, all these people who have slept in this bed that I'm now in. That was another inspiration for making Hell this place of loose hairs and fingernail clippings.

It's a bit Sartrean in that "hell is other people." Well, Sartre's idea in No Exit is that hell is this room that you're locked in with people you don't like. And, I always thought that The Breakfast Club was a really smart re-telling of that, and so that's Madison's metaphor for Hell. Well, if those tropes were on fire.

In addition to the Sartrean themes, what other literary ideas inspired your thinking? I would guess Dante? Dante is a big influence because this will be a series of three books in which Madison visits hell, purgatory and eventually heaven, so it is very much an homage to Dante. On another level, the books are based on Gulliver's Travels, wherein Gulliver goes to three different countries. They are also based on Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle where he, more or less, goes to three different land masses. It's a bit of a travelogue in that vein.

Religion has historically played a big thematic role in a lot of your work, and, because it inherently points to it, do you use Damned as a platform to rail against a particular brand of religion similar to the consumer capitalism that you take on in Fight Club? You know, in a way I think I'm kind of railing against Secular Humanism. I was writing the book while I was taking care of my mother while she was dying, and I realized we have given up all of these religious stories that might have given us comfort in a difficult part of our lives. So, in a way, I wanted to write a Secular Humanist version of those Left Behind books that were so enormously appealing to people. I wanted to write a book for Secular Humanists who were left behind and had realized, "Oh my gosh. What if we're wrong? What is our conception of heaven?"

I think all of my books are, in a way, some reinvention of mythology. Classic stories, in this case, reinvented in a kind of updated way. So I think this book is an extension of what I've always done.

But, it does seem as though you have moved a bit away from your earlier, transgressive literature to a focus on satirical horror. Would you say it is, in a way, a marriage of the two? We really can't do transgressive fiction since 9/11. It's more difficult to get away with any kind of character doing really amoral things. But, yeah. It is transgressive, but in a way that seeks redemption. My characters are always doing something despicable for these noble reasons. It's like Victor Mancini in Choke, sort of vicariously taking on these horrible things that he didn't actually do so that those who are transgressed against can find peace. Or, on the other hand, his faking choking on food so that someone else in the room gets to step into that role of savior.

Would you say, then, that Madison from Damned is a character with whom we can really sympathize? Or, is she more of an anti-hero like some of your other protagonists? All along, Madison was this sort of tomboy, Pippi Longstocking character that was really dynamic. And, during the last rewrite, I came up with the idea of making her fat and making being heavy something that her mother always chided her for. And, that makes her, I think, very endearing. She's this smart, smart alecky, know-it-all kid, but the fact that she's overweight - or that she thinks she is - makes her very relatable.

In a way, being overweight is seen as a character flaw that people can judge you by. It used to be smoking [cigarettes]. I think today, being fat or being dead - like Madison - is seen as being the ultimate character flaw. But, since Madison is a dead person addressing living people, it gives her this authority that a little kid would love to have. This child with ultimate knowledge to lord over all the living people. So, I think that gives Damned a nice [satirical] preachy, after-school feeling. Madison might be thirteen, but she knows something that you don't know, and I like that about her.

What challenges were presented in tackling a female protagonist again, particularly such a young one? Well, that's why Madison is prepubescent, to have her be pre-gender. It's a point in life when you think that you're really smart, you think you've figured everything out and you're filled with confidence, filled with all these facts. But, you're about to lose all of your confidence and all control over yourself. Madison was originally eleven, but my editors asked that she be changed to thirteen, because of the content.

Will your reading at the Dallas Museum of Art on October 25 focus on Damned exclusively? I always like to write a story that I will only read on tour, so that it will be new to people. And, I've written this story called "Romance" that you'll hear at the DMA. It's really an upsetting little story; it's the sweetest love story I've ever written.

With that preface, I have to ask: can we expect any fainting? Not for this one. I'll do another fainting story one of these days, but not this one. It's the other side of that coin.

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Brentney Hamilton