Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk

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Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Ed Robson
Reviewed by Ed Robson
Summary: Doomed is the second in a series of books featuring the afterlife adventures of Madison Spencer, a recently deceased 13-year old who narrates her story through a series of blogs from aftrlife.hell. Whilst intended as a satire on contemporary obsessions with religion and celebrity lives, the novel works as a comic monologue but is unsuccessful as a critique of contemporary mores.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 329 Date: August 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0-09955-263-5

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The central character, Madison, is a strangely unlikeable narrator who has been murdered. She finds herself in hell but is able to return to Earth to observe the dramatic goings-on of her celebrity parents, who fit the stereotype of the Brangelina couple - socially responsible, universally famous and obscenely rich. Without giving too much away, Madison is a pawn in Satan’s plan to destroy the earth and ensure everyone goes to hell. This being Palahniuk, the focus is on the comedic possibilities of this scenario rather than the moralistic.

Palahniuk is extremely readable: Doomed has an air of being written over a wet weekend, but this is one of the book’s real strengths. You don’t have to have read the first novel and there are many amusing turns of phrase – if you haven’t died yet you are described as 'predead'; those who have passed on are 'postalive'. He doesn’t flinch from some pretty grisly metaphors either: the second page of the novel describes a car stretching as long and black as the tongue of someone strangled by a noose, which fairly sets the scene for what’s to come. Madison’s grandmother preserves vegetables which are dismembered and embalmed rather than pickled, which adds a welcome touch of Southern Gothic imagery to this unashamedly modern story. Palahniuk has lost none of his wit, either. The drug-crazed home she grew up in is a place where: instead of being booked into a kennel, our poor dog was constantly being shuttled off to rehab.

Despite this, Doomed fails as a satire because the central themes and characters are simply too thin to sustain the action. The narrator’s grandparents, for example, are presented as characters reminiscent of a family from dustbowl-era Steinbeck but without any real depth, seemingly only there to act as a counterpoint to Madison’s jet-setting, cosmopolitan parents, who are also insubstantially drawn. Whilst they are clearly designed to represent Hollywood at its shallow worst, they aren’t given enough substance to even work as effective caricatures. The story is told in a series of blogs, but like many aspects of the novel, this is of no significance other than to perhaps portray the afterlife as a place that keeps up with technology. Palahniuk also tends to overuse IT imagery which badly blunts its effect – whenever Madison expresses an emotion, she’s Ctrl + Alt + Stunned rather than stunned. Other figures of speech are also repeated to the point where they become irritating: whenever Madison refers to places where her parents have homes, she does so alliteratively, in threes. Referencing “Manila and Milan and Milwaukee”, for example, clearly highlights the obscene wealth of the Spencers but I gave up counting after fifteen cities had been mentioned (less than halfway through the book).

What really lets the novel down though, is the fact that any sharp observations and satirical energy are lost under a welter of toilet jokes and incessant references to bodily functions. Palahniuk takes real glee in exposing the vacuity of celebrity hero-worship, but attempting to criticise religious belief by creating a belief system whose adherents swear, break wind and insult people, feels like a spoof written by a crass English comedian from the 70s. Palahniuk takes every opportunity to descend into the scatological – Madison going to the toilet takes several pages and probably breaks the world record for the number of times variants of the word 'poo' appear on the same page. The writer is at his best when making concise, witty observations (describing the grandparent’s home state as a missing-link neighbourhood) rather than indulging in extended toilet-humour monologues.

In respect of satirising celebrity culture and mass religion, Palahniuk weakens the effect by enmeshing the two. Yes, huge numbers of Americans espouse extreme religious beliefs; yes, millions follow the minutiae of celebrity lives: but suggesting that millions of people will convert to a new religion because celebrities espouse it is just too much of a stretch. Another disappointing aspect of the narrative is Madison’s constant references to her being overweight. In a novel supposedly mocking contemporary values, this feels counter-intuitive because a valid point could have been made about body image; instead, the idea that fat=disgusting is reinforced.

As a comic novel, Doomed is easily readable and intermittently humorous; however, it fails as a satire and is ultimately a disappointment because for a writer so adept at chronicling the trauma of modern American living, the book singularly lacks any grit or bite.

Damned is the predecessor to "Doomed".

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