'The Breakfast Club' Meets Hell In 'Damned'

Originally published on October 28, 2011 3:49 pm

Meet Maddy Spencer — or, to be exact, Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer — a ridiculous name she takes great pains to hide. She's 13, brainy, a little dumpy and very, very dead.

Maddy is the heroine of Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk's new novel, Damned. It's a sort of coming-of-age tale, except that none of the characters can actually age. They're all dead and in hell.

Palahniuk tells weekends on All Things Considered host Rebecca Roberts that Maddy's moniker is really a list of all the things that were ever important to her parents. "She is the result of all of the different phases of their lives that they thought would save them," he says. "Former hippies, former beatniks, former Scientologists, former Reaganites, former everything. And now she's dead."

In hell, Maddy teams up with a motley crew of friends — a scribe who died in the burning of the Library of Alexandria, a French noblewoman, a Greek soldier and a safety-pinned punk — all trapped for eternity as teenagers. It's an odd hybrid of The Breakfast Club and Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.

"It does have that kind of ship of fools, contained circumstance," Palahniuk says. "People have to deal with their issues together; they have to expose themselves and kind of exhaust themselves."

Palahniuk's hell is a place where people go to be stripped of their former lives and forget the things they were attached to in life.

It's also a place where the damned bribe demons with candy bars for better assignments in the vast telemarketing banks that are hell's main form of employment.

"That's kind of the backstory of all of this," Palahniuk says. "I was writing the book in the year that I was taking care of my mother while she had lung cancer. And her house was just such a quiet, isolated house ... and every once in a while the phone would ring and it would be a telemarketer, and it was kind of sweet and wonderful to have these connections to the outside world."

But throughout Damned, the sweet philosophical underpinnings of the book stand in stark contrast to the viscerally disgusting descriptions of hell.

Palahniuk says his idea of hell — as a place where all the sloughed-off bodily bits and fluids of Earth ultimately end up — originated in an odd place: the "author suites" many hotels maintain for writers on book tours.

"You know that on such-and-such a date, Paula Deen slept in that bed, and David Sedaris slept in that bed, and Jane Fonda slept in that bed," he says. "And so I find myself combing through these author suites, trying to find the stray hairs of Ann Coulter, or the fingernail clippings of John Grisham ... and just this juxtaposition of the very physical, the very sort of corrupt body parts of people, next to their thoughts ... that juxtaposition is so fascinating."

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REBECCA ROBERTS, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

CHUCK PALAHNIUK: (Reading) Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison. It's not true that your life flashes before your eyes when you die, at least not all of it.

ROBERTS: Meet Maddy Spencer, or to be exact, Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer - a frankly ridiculous name that she takes great pains to hide. She's 13, brainy, a little dumpy and very, very dead.

PALAHNIUK: (Reading) And, yes, while the dead do miss everything and everybody, they don't hang around the earth forever.

ROBERTS: Maddy is the unlikely heroine of Chuck Palahniuk's new novel, "Damned." It's a coming-of-age story whose main characters can't actually age because they are, in fact, in hell. Chuck Palahniuk joins me now from Portland, Oregon. Welcome to the show.

PALAHNIUK: Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: So Maddy has a whole lot of names, most of them a little absurd. Tell me about her and her parents who saddled her with that moniker.

PALAHNIUK: Maddy is the child of two very famous people, a movie star and a kind of Internet billionaire whiz kid, and she is the result of all of the different phases of their lives that they thought would save them. And so she is the product of former hippies, former beatniks, former Scientologists, former Reaganites, former everything, and now she's dead.

ROBERTS: You know, you are so often identified with generation X, especially after "Fight Club" came out and it was hailed as sort of the voice of gen X, and I assume you'd grow weary of that comparison. You know, you'd hope your work transcends generations. But you seem to really own gen X in this book. I mean, you make all these "Breakfast Club" and Judy Blume references.

PALAHNIUK: "Breakfast Club," Judy Blume, but also Dante's "Inferno" and Jonathan Swift, and more and more, it will be Charles Darwin and "The Voyage of the Beagle."

ROBERTS: So it's just allusions all over the place, not specifically to mid-'80s and afterschool special good feelings?

PALAHNIUK: Well, to some extent, it is the mid-'80s afterschool special because for Madison, for someone who's 13, these really are the classic romances of her generation. They're what maybe "Casablanca" was for my generation. But beyond that, it is just an overall love of books, and one of the defining themes throughout the book is, is Madison seeing herself as this fantastic Rebecca de Winter over-the-top heroine, something from Daphne du Maurier or something from Jane Austen. And so so much of the book is Madison's references to these other very classic gothic Jane Eyre-type books.

ROBERTS: "The Breakfast Club" comes up again and again because these characters that Maddy journeys through hell with represent the same icons as represented in that movie. And, you know, it made me think about that movie differently. I never really sort of saw the "No Exit" elements of "Breakfast Club" about them all being trapped in this limbo land of detention. I think I need to go re-watch it now.

PALAHNIUK: It does have that kind of "Ship of Fools" contained circumstance where it is like Sartre's "No Exit" where people have to deal with their issues together, they have to expose themselves and kind of exhaust themselves. Hell is a place where people go to forget their attachments to, in a way, really focus and fixate on who they were and really exhaust their stories about why they were important in the world and then to forget those stories before moving on to something else.

ROBERTS: I'm speaking with author Chuck Palahniuk. His new novel is "Damned." It takes place in hell. The book takes place in hell. You've got all of these great details about the way hell works. I particularly loved the hierarchy of candy, that things like Milky Way bars are valuable, and then there's, you know, the wax lips and the popcorn balls that people just discard all over the floor.

PALAHNIUK: Candy is the currency of hell. And if you want to get anything done, you've got to provide the certain amounts of the right kind of candy. And that Halloween serves as a function of a kind of fundraising for hell. Everyone in hell goes back to Earth for a few hours every Halloween for the purpose of harvesting candy and bringing it back to Hell so that they have something to spend in the coming year.

ROBERTS: And they spend it on things like getting a better assignment in the telemarketing phone bank because telemarketers are, of course, from hell.

PALAHNIUK: They are. And that's kind of the back story of all of this, is that I was writing the book in the year that I was taking care of my mother while she had lung cancer, and her house was just such a quiet, isolated house and it was basically just an older woman dying of cancer and a middle-aged man writing a book about a kid in hell. And every once in a while, the phone would ring and it would be a telemarketer. And it was kind of sweet and wonderful to have these connections to the outside world that were just about something banal like toothpicks or what brand of shampoo do you buy. And so my mother and myself would both kind of clamber to get the phone to have some connection to the outside world.

ROBERTS: Before we get too warm and fuzzy about this, I have to say there's a lot of your description of hell that is just frankly gross. I mean, at one point my 10-year-old son was reading over my shoulder and I had to tell him to knock it off because it was so inappropriate. Although I suppose in some ways, it's kind of the hell that a 10-year-old might imagine. But it's really just eww, a lot of it.

PALAHNIUK: Well, you know, a lot of that comes from when I'm on tour and I travel to cities that have a very large hotel. These hotels now have what they call an author's suite, a couple. And I love these rooms because one wall is always covered by the autographed books of everyone who has stayed in that room, and you know that on such-and-such a date, Paula Deen slept in that bed and David Sedaris slept in that bed and Jane Fonda slept in that bed.

And so I find myself combing through these author suites trying to find the stray hairs of Anne Coulter or the fingernail clippings of John Grisham. And pulling back the bed sheets, the mattress pad, and finding out just exactly who the bed wetter was. And just this juxtaposition of the very physical, the very sort of corrupt body parts of people next to their thoughts, their kind of most cerebral higher selves against that wall. And that juxtaposition is so fascinating.

ROBERTS: Which makes me think hell is not quite as distant as one might imagine.

PALAHNIUK: No, and all of these little aspects of ourselves that we think are resolved are still lingering somewhere, you know, waiting to be discovered.

ROBERTS: Author Chuck Palahniuk. His new novel is "Damned." Thank you so much for joining us.

PALAHNIUK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.