The Cult of Chuck Palahniuk: Meeting the Man at a Damned Event
Chuck Palahniuk is fearless, funny, and crude. His latest must-read novel, Damned, plays with the notion of teenage coming-of-age stories, except Chuck sets his story in hell. Thirteen-year-old protagonist Madison is sent straight there after she overdoses on marijuana, and so her adventures begin as she strives to become Satan's right-hand gal. She shares her cell with other young sinners -- the cheerleader, jock, nerd, and punk rocker -- the perfect cast for the underworld version of a certain favorite detention movie. In this subversive, wickedly humorous tale, our sassy heroine sets the stage, asking, “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.”
Recently, I spent some time with Chuck during a book tour. We took a memorable excursion to the Eudora Welty House in Jackson, Mississippi, which Chuck seemed to really enjoy. He likes to view other writer’s homes and writing spaces because it helps him connect to their writing. Next we drove to Lemuria Bookstore, where Chuck signed books and did a meet-and-greet with a class of high-school students. One kid wore a buffalo hat. Yeah, he's definitely read a Chuck book or two in the past.
That night we drove to Hal and Mal’s, an old converted warehouse, and the venue for the evening event. In one room there was an art show inspired by Damned; devils and images of hell and violence covered the walls. And then there was the huge room where Chuck would be speaking. Every part of it was decorated like the hell from Damned. In Chuck's hell, stale popcorn balls and candy are the only foods, so there were popcorn balls hanging from the ceiling. In Chuck’s hell, "The English Patient" movie plays round-the-clock. Done. Light bulbs were switched for red lights. Staffers and fans dressed in costumes. Backstage, Chuck, who likes to play games with his crowds, was inflating a brain while others inflated skeletons. The mood was set.
And then he emerged to his fans. Chuck Palahniuk, the performer, is the consummate crowd manipulator. It's fascinating to watch him push them into a raucous frenzy and then instantly calm them with an insight into humanity. He told a graphic and disgustingly hilarious story about being a candy striper as a thirteen-year-old Catholic going through confirmation classes, and the lesson learned was both appropriate ... and dirty. Then he threw out hundreds of inflatable brains to the crowd and generated some hysteria ... only to settle the crowd once more as he read an original story written for the tour.
So what's Chuck like in real life? He's quiet and unassuming and highly intelligent. He has a wicked sense of humor and a great appreciation for absurdity, but he's also sensitive to feelings and kind. He's a generous donor for charities including animal no-kill shelters (he recently donated the coffee table from the movie “Fight Club” to auction at a fundraiser) and he's a champion of other authors and their books. I talked to him about the animal sex capitol of the world and a zombie convention while we were driving from Eudora Welty's house to Lemuria, but it was a totally normal conversation. He reminded me of some of my most hilarious friends, the kind of guy you want to be with after a huge event and a long day.
This post originally ran on Liz & Gianna’s Adventures in Bookland.
Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison. I’m just now arrived here, in Hell, but it’s not my fault except for maybe dying from an overdose of marijuana. Maybe I’m in Hell because I’m fat--a Real Porker. If you can go to Hell for having low self-esteem, that’s why I’m here. I wish I could lie and tell you I’m bone-thin with blond hair and big ta-tas. But, trust me, I’m fat for a really good reason.
To start with, please let me introduce myself.
How to best convey the exact sensation of being dead . . .
Yes, I know the word convey. I’m dead, not a mental defective.
Trust me, the being-dead part is much easier than the dying part. If you can watch much television, then being dead will be a cinch. Actually, watching television and surfing the Internet are really excellent practice for being dead.
The closest way I can describe death is to compare it to when my mom boots up her notebook computer and hacks into the surveillance system of our house in Mazatlan or Banff. “Look,” she’d say, turning the screen sideways for me to see, “it’s snowing.” Glowing softly on the computer would be the interior of our Milan house, the sitting room, with snow falling outside the big windows, and by long distance, holding down her Control, Alt and W keys, my mom would draw open the sitting room drapes all the way. Pressing the Control and D keys, she’d dim the lights by remote control and we’d both sit, on a train or in a rented town car or aboard a leased jet, watching the pretty winter view through the windows of that empty house displayed on her computer screen. With the Control and F keys, she’d light a fire in the gas fireplace, and we’d listen to the hush of the Italian snow falling, the crackle of the flames via the audio monitors of the security system. After that, my mom would keyboard into the system for our house in Cape Town. Then log on to view our house in Brentwood. She could simultaneously be all places but no place, mooning over sunsets and foliage everywhere except where she actually was. At best, a sentry. At worst, a voyeur.
My mom will kill half a day on her notebook computer just looking at empty rooms full of our furniture. Tweaking the thermostat by remote control. Turning down the lights and choosing the right level of soft music to play in each room. “Just to keep the cat burglars guessing,” she’d tell me. She’d toggle from camera to camera, watching the Somali maid clean our house in Paris. Hunched over her computer screen, she’d sigh and say, “My crocus are blooming in London. . . .”
From behind his open business section of the Times, my dad would say, “The plural is crocuses.”
Probably my mom would cackle then, hitting her Control and L keys to lock a maid inside a bathroom from three continents away because the tile didn’t look adequately polished. To her this passed for way-wicked, good fun. It’s affecting the environment without being physically present. Consumption in absentia. Like having a hit song you recorded decades ago still occupy the mind of a Chinese sweatshop worker you’ll never meet. It’s power, but a kind of pointless, impotent power.
On the computer screen a maid would place a vase filled with fresh-cut peonies on the windowsill of our house in Dubai, and my mom would spy by satellite, turning down the air-conditioning, colder and colder, with a tapping keystroke via her wireless connection, chilling that house, that one room, meat-locker cold, ski-slope cold, spending a king’s ransom on Freon and electric power, trying to make some doomed ten bucks’ worth of pretty pink flowers last one more day.
That’s what it’s like to be dead. Yes, I know the word absentia. I’m thirteen years old, not stupid--and being dead, ye gods, do I comprehend the idea of absentia.
Being dead is the very essence of traveling light.
Being dead-dead means nonstop, twenty-four/seven, three hundred sixty-five days a year . . . forever.
How it feels when they pump out all of your blood, you don’t want me to describe. Probably I shouldn’t even tell you I’m dead, because no doubt now you feel awfully superior. Even other fat people feel superior to Dead People. Nevertheless, here it is: my Hideous Admission. I’ll fess up and come clean. I’m out of the closet. I’m dead. Now don’t hold it against me.
Yes, we all look a little mysterious and absurd to each other, but no one looks as foreign as a dead person does. We can forgive some stranger her choice to practice Catholicism or engage in homosexual acts, but not her submission to death. We hate a backslider. Worse than alcoholism or heroin addiction, dying seems like the greatest weakness, and in a world where people say you’re lazy for not shaving your legs, then being dead seems like the ultimate character flaw.
It’s as if you’ve shirked life--simply not made enough serious effort to live up to your full potential. You quitter! Being fat and dead--let me tell you--that’s the double whammy.
No, it’s not fair, but even if you feel sorry for me, you’re probably also feeling pretty darn smug that you’re alive and no doubt chewing on a mouthful of some poor animal that had the misfortune to live below you on the food chain. I’m not telling you all of this to gain your sympathy. I’m thirteen years old, and a girl, and I’m dead. My name is Madison, and the last thing I need is your stupid condescending pity. No, it’s not fair, but it’s how people do. The first time we meet another person an insidious little voice in our head says, “I might wear eyeglasses or be chunky around the hips or a girl, but at least I’m not Gay or Black or a Jew.” Meaning: I may be me--but at least I have the good sense not to be YOU. So I hesitate to even mention that I’m dead because everyone already feels so darned superior to dead people, even Mexicans and AIDS people. It’s like when learning about Alexander the Great in our seventh-grade Influences of Western History class, what keeps running through your head is: “If Alexander was so brave and smart and . . . Great . . . why’d he die?”
Yes, I know the word insidious.
Death is the One Big Mistake that none of us EVER plans to make. That’s why the bran muffins and the colonoscopies. It’s how come you take vitamins and get Pap smears. No, not you--you’re never going to die--so now you feel all superior to me. Well, go ahead and think that. Keep smearing your skin with sunblock and feeling yourself for lumps. Don’t let me spoil the Big Surprise.
But, to be honest, when you’re dead probably not even homeless people and retarded people will want to trade you places. I mean, worms get to eat you. It’s like a complete violation of all your civil rights. Death ought to be illegal but you don’t see Amnesty International starting any letter-writing campaigns. You don’t see any rock stars banding together to release hit singles with all the proceeds going to solve MY getting my face chewed off by worms.
My mom would tell you I’m too flip and glib about everything. My mom would say, “Madison, please don’t be such a smart aleck.” She’d say, “You’re dead; now just calm down.”
Probably me being dead is a gigantic relief to my dad; this way, at least, he won’t have to worry about me embarrassing him by getting pregnant. My dad used to say, “Madison, whatever man ends up with you, he’s going to have his hands full. . . .” If my dad only knew.
When my goldfish, Mister Wiggles, died we flushed him down the toilet. When my kitten, Tiger Stripe, died I tried the same deal, and we had to call a plumber to snake the pipes. What a big mess. Poor Tiger Stripe. When I died, I won’t go into the details, but let’s say some Mr. Pervy McPervert mortician got to see me naked and pump out all my blood and commit God only knows what deranged carnal high jinks with my virginal thirteen-year-old body. You can call me glib, but death is about the biggest joke around. After all the permanent waves and ballet lessons my mom paid for, here I am getting a hot-spit tongue bath from some paunchy, depraved mortuary guy.
I can tell you, when you’re dead, you pretty much have to give up your demands about boundaries and personal space. Just understand, I didn’t die because I was too lazy to live. I didn’t die because I wanted to punish my family. And no matter how much I slag my parents, don’t get the idea that I hate them. Yes, for a while I hung around, watching my mom hunched over her notebook computer, tapping the keys Control, Alt, and L to lock the door of my bedroom in Rome, my room in Athens, all my rooms around the world. She keyboarded to close all my drapes after that, and turn down the air-conditioning and activate the electrostatic air filtration so not even dust would settle on my dolls and clothes and stuffed animals. It simply makes sense that I should miss my parents more than they miss me, especially when you consider that they only loved me for thirteen years while I loved them for my entire life. Forgive me for not sticking around longer, but I don’t want to be dead and just watching everybody while I chill rooms, flicker the lights, and pull the drapes open and shut. I don’t want to be simply a voyeur.
No, it’s not fair, but what makes earth feel like Hell is our expectation that it should feel like Heaven. Earth is earth. Dead is dead. You’ll find out for yourself soon enough. It won’t help the situation for you to get all upset.
Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison. Please don’t get the impression that I dislike Hell. No, really, it’s way swell. Tons better than I expected. Honestly, it’s obvious you’ve worked very hard for a very long time on the roiling, surging oceans of scalding-hot barf, and the stinking sulfur smell, and the clouds of buzzing black flies.
If my version of Hell fails to impress you, please consider that to be my own shortcoming. I mean, what do I know? Probably any grown-up would pee herself silly, seeing the flying vampire bats and majestic, cascading waterfalls of smelly poop. No doubt the fault is entirely my own, because if I’d ever imagined Hell it was as a fiery version of that classic Hollywood masterpiece The Breakfast Club, populated, let’s remember, by a hypersocial, pretty cheerleader, a rebel stoner type, a dumb football jock, a brainy geek, and a misanthropic psycho, all locked together in their high school library doing detention on an otherwise ordinary Saturday except with every book and chair being blazing on fire.
Yes, you might be alive and Gay or Old or a Mexican, lording that over me, but consider that I’ve had the actual experience of waking up on my first day in Hell, and you’ll just have to take my word for what all this is like. No, it’s not fair, but you can forget about the fabled tunnel of bright, spectral-white light and being greeted by the open arms of your long-deceased grandma and grandpa; maybe other people have reported that blissful process, but consider that those people are currently alive, or they remained living for sufficient time to report on their encounter. My point is: Those people enjoyed what’s clearly labeled a “near-death experience.” I, on the other hand, am dead, with my blood long ago pumped out and worms munching on me. In my book that makes me the higher authority. Other people, like famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri, I’m sorry to say, simply hoisted a generous helping of campy make-believe on the reading public.
Thus, disregard my account of Hell at your own peril.
First off, you wake up lying on the stone floor inside a fairly dismal cell composed of iron bars; and take my stern advice--don’t touch anything. The prison cell bars are filthy dirty. If by accident you DO touch the bars, which look a tad slimy with mold and someone else’s blood, do NOT touch your face--or your clothes--not if you have any aspiration to stay looking nice until Judgment Day.
And do NOT eat the candy you’ll see scattered everywhere on the ground.
The exact means by which I arrived in the underworld remain a little unclear. I recall a chauffeur standing curbside somewhere, next to a parked black Lincoln Town Car, holding a white placard with my name written on it, MADISON SPENCER, in all-caps terrible handwriting. The chauffeur--those people never speak English--had on mirrored sunglasses and a visored chauffeur cap, so most of his face was hidden. I remember him opening the rear door so I could step inside; after that was a way-long drive with the windows tinted so dark I couldn’t quite see out, but what I’ve just described could’ve been any one of ten bazillion rides I’ve taken between airports and cities. Whether that Town Car delivered me to Hell, I can’t swear, but the next thing is I woke up in this filthy cell.
Probably I woke up because someone was screaming; in Hell, someone is always screaming. Anyone who’s ever flown London to Sydney, seated next to or anywhere in the proximity of a fussy baby, you’ll no doubt fall right into the swing of things in Hell. What with the strangers and crowding and seemingly endless hours of waiting for nothing to happen, for you Hell will feel like one long, nostalgic hit of déjà vu. Especially if your in-flight movie was The English Patient. In Hell, whenever the demons announce they’re going to treat everyone to a big-name Hollywood movie, don’t get too excited because it’s always The English Patient or, unfortunately, The Piano. It’s never The Breakfast Club.
In regard to the smell, Hell comes nowhere near as bad as Naples in the summertime during a garbage strike.
If you ask me, people in Hell just scream to hear their own voice and to pass the time. Still, complaining about Hell occurs to me as a tad bit obvious and self-indulgent. Like so many experiences you venture into knowing full well that they’ll be terrible, in fact the core pleasure resides in their very innate badness, like eating Swanson frozen chicken potpies at boarding school or a Banquet frozen Salisbury steak on the cook’s night out. Or eating really anything in Scotland. Allow me to venture that the sole reason we enjoy certain pastimes such as watching the film version of Valley of the Dolls arises from the comfort and familiarity of its very inherent poor quality.
From the Hardcover edition.