100 Pages: DAMNED if I do…

You have to give Chuck Palahniuk his due – the man is versatile. Sure, he sticks to gross & creepy…. but he never repeats the same gross & creepy.  Palahniuk’s latest book has raised the gross-out factor to a new level that the producers of FEAR FACTOR could only dream of.

DAMNED pays twisted homage to Judy Blume’s 1970 YA classic by beginning each chapter with the deceased 13-year old anti-heroine (sent to Hell for smoking marijuana, which seems a bit excessive) asking “Are you there Satan? It’s me, Megan”.  She and her Breakfast Club crew of teenage misfits journey through hell searching for… well, to be honest, I’m not completely sure.  Because I barely made it through the first 100 pages.  Palahniuk’s vision of hell isn’t fire and brimstone – it’s seas semen and waterfalls of excrement; dunes of nail clippings and deserts of dandruff.  I could go on – I doubt you want me to.  Suffice to say that the landscape of Hell is made up of the effluvium of the human body.

Palahniuk captures teenagers in all their tackiness, horni-ness, irreverence, profanity and arrogant stupidity  – i.e. he revels in the dark side that most YA glosses over.  I feel like I know (and have known) kids that act and sound a lot like the ones in this novel.  I bet you did, too, when you were that age and had a  “KEEP OUT” sign on the bedroom door.  DAMNED is strictly for adults but the depictions of the teenage behavior reek of authenticity.

“What are you in for?”

“Me?” the kid, Archer, says.  “I went and got my old man’s AK-47 semi…” Dropping down on one knee, he shoulders an invisible rifle, saying, “And I blew away my old man and old lady.  I slaughtered my kid brother and sister.  After them, my granny.  Then our old collie dog, Lassie…” Punctuating each sentence, Archer pulls an invisible trigger, sighting down the barrel of his phantom rifle.  With each trigger pull, his shoulder jerks back as if pushed by recoil, his tall blue hair fluttering.  Still sighting through an invisible scope, Archer says, “I flushed my Ritalin down the toilet and drove my folks’ car to school and took out the varsity football team and three teachers… all of them, dead, dead, dead.”  As he stands, he brings the bore of the imaginary rifle barrel to his mouth, purses his lips, and blows away invisible gun smoke…

“That’s total bullshit,” Paterson (the football player) says, shaking his head.  “I saw your paperwork when you first got here.  It said you’re nothing but a lousy shoplifter.”

Leonard, the geek, laughs.

Archer snatches a rock-hard popcorn ball off the ground and wings it, line-drive fast, against the geek’s ear.

*parenthesis mine

What blows me away about DAMNED specifically (and Chuck Palahniuk’s books in general) is the sheer virtuosity of the man.  He does nothing by halves.  Pygmy terrorist cells, schizophrenic anarchists, African culling songs and witchcraft…any one of those topics would be enough for a single book.  Palahniuk, though, stacks insanity upon insanity.  He doesn’t just cross the line, he pole vaults it.  This new novel is no different.  Along with the obvious Judy Blume and John Hughes correlations, DAMNED owes something to Sartre’s No Exit.  And there’s more!  In the 100 pages I got through he made references to D&D, a mini-lecture on pagan gods (yaaaawn!) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  I can only imagine what he jammed into the remaining 156 pages.

Any way you look at it DAMNED is a powerful and visceral book.  The premise is a great one – and Palahniuk is at his perverted, hilarious best.  Still, as much as I’d like to see how it ends (and trust me, I do) I’m not sure my stomach can handle it.  Actually, I’m positive my stomach can’t handle it.  So while it’s embarrassing to admit how I wimped out on this one, it speaks to Chuck Palahniuk’s skill and creativity when I say that DAMNED made me gag.  If that appeals to you then definitely, by all means, give it a go.

Publisher:  New York, Knopf Doubleday (2011)
ISBN:  9780385533027

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100 Pages: One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina

The series 100 Pages was started to highlight those books I’ve put aside after 100 pages – not due to any fault of the author or the quality of the writing, but because ultimately they were not to my taste.  100 Pages is a way to recommend deserving books that I know BookSexy Review readers will be interested in, even when I am not.

One Day I Will Write About This Place is a memoir by author Binyavanga Wainaina.  Writing in the first person present tense, Wainaina takes the reader through his Kenyan childhood in the 80′s, college in South Africa in the 90′s, and his eventual immigration to the United States in the first decade of the 21st Century.  More than the typical coming of age story – the book reminded me of Eudora Welty’s autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings.  Binyavanga Wainaina is telling a very specific story which focuses on his development as a writer.  He tells it in full-throttle, turn-the-spigot-on-and-let-it-rip stream of consciousness style.

“Stream” may even be too tame a word.  Wainaina has unleashed a river of memories, impressions and emotions.  The disorganization of his thought process – which he wrestles and maneuvers into the context of his life and the semblance of a plot – feels unusually authentic.  His words and ideas are not being arranged with an eye for poetry or artful composition.  The writing between these covers reads like raw, unedited data.  And I mean that in the best possible sense.  There’s a cognizance here that I feel is missing from many memoirs.

And Binyavanga Wainaina stays true to his GRANTA article.  The Kenyans he describes do not live in grass huts.  They are, in fact, Kenyans in the sense that a New Yorker is from New York.  There is a multi-cultural aspect to his childhood.  As he says in the article, “Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people…” and you feel that when reading One Day I Will Write About This Place.  His mother was born in Uganda and owns a beauty salon. She “speaks Kinyarwanda (Bufumbria), Luganda, English, and Kiswalhili.”  His father is Kenyan, a Gikuyu and is the Managing Director of the Pyrethrum Board of Kenya.  He too speaks multiple languages – Gikuyu, Kiswahili and English.  They are committed to seeing their country prosper.  Young Binyavanga is aware of the politics happening around him, but larger events take place on the periphery of his child’s world.

The most scenic description I came across in the 109 pages I’d read was of a corrugated roofed village that young Wainaina visits with his father to find a mechanical part.  It is located in the poorest section of the city, not the section where his family lives.  Wainaina is careful to differentiate.

…It is lunchtime, and women are gathered around huge pots cut out of old oil drums; beans and maize are boiling, men queuing for a two-shilling lunch.  Screaming, shouting, ladles clashing hard on enamel plates.  Now it is the smell of boiling suds of beans.

The grass has been beaten down to nothing by feet over many years in this large patch of ground of banging.  Somewhere, not far from here, an open-air church service is taking place: loudspeakers and shouts and screams.

You would not believe that not five hundred meters from here are roads and shops, and skyscrapers and cool restaurants that are playing the music of noiseless elevators, and serving the food of quiet electric mixers and plastic fridge containers.  Burgers and coke.  Pizza.

My problem finishing One Day I Will Write About This Place have more to do with my personal likes and dislikes than a weakness in the author’s story.  First person present is my least favorite narrative tense.  The author is not just asking me to immerse myself in his book, but to accept that I am present as the events occur.  It’s always felt gimmicky and I’ve difficulty moving past it.  Also, I generally don’t like memoirs.

But I can recognize when a book is well written and important.  Binyavanga Wainaina has given the reader something that he recognizes as all too rare:  an honest representation of modern Africa.  A place much more familiar (and less romantic) than that we in the West imagine it to be.

Publisher:  Graywolf Press, Minneapolis (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 55597 591 3

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