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A Critique of DAMNED (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia
The English language contains approximately 600,000 words, if you believe that words are things that are housed in dictionaries. What of neologisms? What of inartful? Microsoft Word underlines inartful in red, and you won’t find it in any dictionary that I’ve ever come across, but President Obama used that word (if it is one) and used it well, and it seems right. What about sacrality? Jean-Francois Lyotard used that “word.” Is it a word? What of words that are no longer in currency? What of paleonyms? What of sireniform and egrote? What of names? Are names words? Is elbow one word or two (a noun and a verb)? What of plurals and possessives? Are head, head’s, heads’, and heads four separate words? Or are they variations of a single word? On what basis could we say one or the other? When does a word become a word? If a linguistic sign is spoken or written, does it then become a word? Let us say, as a hypothesis, that a word is a word if it is articulated and employed. If meaning is predicated on usage, as Wittgenstein believed, shouldn’t all words be used? The English language is rich and various, full of nuance and synonymy. Why, then, do so many English speakers limit themselves to the most common Anglo-Saxon vocabulary? When someone employs “too many” words of French-Latin origin, that person will usually be accused of using “big words.” There is no such thing as a “big word,” however, unless we are talking about morphology. There are familiar words, and there are unfamiliar words. The familiar words in English are of Anglo-Saxon origin; the less familiar ones are mostly Latinate. You will hear simple-minded English speakers tell you that Latinate words should be avoided, as if William the Conquerer’s French Latin were somehow a corrosion of a pure and original idiom. English, however, would not be English were it not the happy marriage of Germanic Anglo-Saxon and French Latin.
“Chuck” Palahniuk dwells within a micro-subdivision of the ever-expanding multiverse which is the English language. He “knows” approximately as many English words as a subnormal ten-year-old American boy. This explains why he writes on the level of a subnormal ten-year-old American boy and why he is beloved by so many subnormal ten-year-old American boys, his dwindling Hitler-Jugend. His ovine followers are entranced, as was I, by David Fincher’s visually captivating film Fight Club (1999) and mistakenly equate Fincher’s brilliant vision to that of “Chuck” (they refer to the writer by his given name, projecting an imaginary familiarity with the Leader who has bilked them out of their allowance money). Many of them are failed or failing elementary or high-school students, white, crypto-Christian, reactionary, American, and male. (Yes, there are chuckettes. But the chuckettes outgrow Palahniuk more quickly than the boychicks and the boychucks do.) And many of them, too many of them, think of themselves as writers: “If Chuck can be a famous writer, so can I…”
And this is the most nauseating thing about “Chuck” Palahniuk: He engendered a band of adolescents who think they have facility in literature because they read Choke. He is a slovenly, lazy writer who has given birth to a band of slovenly, lazy “aspiring writers” who think that fiction is EZ-2-write.
D. H. Lawrence once wrote of Herman Melville that his weakness as an author was that he felt his audience in front of him. “Chuck,” non-artist, writes juvenilia to appease a juvenile audience that, as I suggested above, still misidentifies “Chuck” with filmmaker David Fincher. If he thinks that horror fiction is selling, “Chuck” will read one book by Shirley Jackson and another by Ira Levin and upchuck what he believes to be horror fiction. If he thinks that young-adult novels are selling, he will read one book by Dale Basye and upchuck a very bad, very inept Dale Basye pastiche. Damned is such a pastiche, yet another atrociously written, publicly edited novel by the Tarzan of American letters.
* * * * *
Damned, it’s about a girl called Madison Spencer. Madison Spencer’s a real bad girl. She, like, uses big words so that people think she’s smart and stuff. But she’s not really smart. She just uses big words which is real dumb. Hell is a place for people who are deluded, pretentious poseurs and use fancy words and stuff:
“Yes, I know the word excrement” .
“I comprehend the term passive-aggressive” .
“Yeah, I know the word construct” [Ibid.].
“Yes, I know the word absentia [sic]” .
At the end of the book, this girl, her name’s Madison, she knows that, like, she’s just like the simple people. A simple person just like you and me. And she learns to talk simple just like the simple people later on in the book. A simple person. Just like you. Just like me. Just like Chuck. She’s in Hell ’cause she uses big words but at the end of the book she becomes good when she uses simple words like the simple people do:
“Even now, I hesitate to use words such as eschew and convey and weltschmerz [sic], so thoroughly is my faith shaken. The actual nature of my death reveals me to be an idiot, no longer a Bright Young Thing, but instead a deluded, pretentious poseur. Not brilliant, but an impostor who would craft my own illusory reality out of a handful of impressive words. Such vocabulary props served as my eye shadow, my breast implants, my physical coordination, my confidence. These words: erudite and insidious and obfuscate, served as my crutches” .
She just an idiot like us simple people too. So, like, at the end of the book and stuff, she don’t use big, fancy words anymore and talks real simple and good like the simple people do. She was bad when she used the big words. Now that she don’t use the big words she real good. Just like us. Just like Chuck.
Two things in the passage cited above immediately strike the attention:
1.) Palahniuk-Howard believes that insidious and convey are “big words.”
2.) In a paragraph that denounces “big words,” the word illusory is employed–which the non-literate would consider a “big word.”
Sloshing through this slush, it is easy to see why Doubleday delayed the publication of Damned for five months. Even after Gerry Howard edited (i.e. recreated) the manuscript, it is still unpublishable. What we are left with is a fetid and fetal scrawl that is far below the level of your neighborhood writers’ workshop.
If Hell were a library, Damned would be burned on the ninth floor.
* * * * *
Why, precisely, is Palahniuk’s Hell a place where The English Patient (1996) and The Piano (1993) are endlessly spooling and screening? Why are showings of THESE films considered “punitive presentation[s]” ? What exactly do these films hold in common?
The answer: They both limn the elegant bodies of beautiful women. The lovely, flowing, alabaster skin of beautiful women. The svelte, exquisitely sculpted, rotund bodies of Juliette Binoche, Holly Hunter, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Whereas the female body is seen by many of us as a locus of fecundity and as a wonderland of infinite delights, for Palahniuk, the body of a woman is Hell. I am not exaggerating. In Damned, “the actual terrain of Hell”  is the body of a woman, with all of its creases and crevices and folds, all of its loops and nodes and lobes.
Did you hear that? Palahniuk’s Hell is the body of a woman.
* * * * *
The time has passed when “Chuck” could be taken seriously as a serious novelist, postmodern or otherwise (though phrases such as “attachments to a fixed identity”  demonstrate that he still has postmodernist aspirations). It is now generally recognized that this forty-nine-year-old Average American Male writes insufficient young-adult fiction and that his books belong in the ‘Young Adult’ section of libraries and bookstores, or perhaps in the ‘Special Interest’ category. It is saddening that D students wasted their youth on hasty fictions agonizingly scribbled out by a dopey yokel.
As I suggested above, the Palahniuk cult is dissolving, though there remain fanatic boys and apostolic Lumpen “writers” who still slavishly cry out their Leader’s given name in the same way that religious zealots cry out the name of their tombstone messiah: “Chuuuuuuccckkk… I will dress up in a wedding gown for youuuuuuu…!” At the core of Palahniuk’s die-hard following are rabid mall rats who are ripe for fascist indoctrination. In general, however, the Cult has moved from proselytization to disillusionment and is slowly shifting toward its eventual decontamination.
We live in a sad society in which opportunistic hacks are hailed as “artists” and genuine art is ignored. It is time for the intelligent to stand up and denounce these hacks and to show them for what they truly are: money-sucking subliterate robots.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
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