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'Fight Club' author Chuck Palahniuk returns with 'Doomed'

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"If you hold the door for someone and they don't say, 'Thank you,' that person deserves to be in hell," Chuck Palahniuk rails — in the most mild-mannered way possible.

"It also ticks me off when someone pushes the button on the elevator more than once," complains the author of two nonfiction books and 13 works of fiction, including "Fight Club." "Pretty much everyone in New York is going to hell, because they never push that button fewer than 20 times."

Perhaps it's not surprising that Palahniuk's latest novel is "Doomed," in which the characters are routinely condemned to eternal damnation for such minor social sins as passing gas in public. He'll be reading from the book Friday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

It's the second installment of a trilogy starring the travails of a snarky 13-year-old dead girl named Madison Spencer and her flatulence-filled role in saving the universe. The three novels take place in, respectively, hell, purgatory (otherwise known as Earth) and heaven.

You might think of Palahniuk, a 51-year-old, Portland, Ore., resident, as the authorial equivalent of filmmaker and self-proclaimed "Filth Elder" John Waters. Both are sharp-eyed and funny observers of social manners. Both cram their plots with dangling viscera and dog poop. And Waters' films and Palahniuk's novels both have an underlying sweetness and optimism.

Joining Palahniuk on stage at the Pratt will be two up-and-coming novelist friends: Chelsea Cain ("Let Me Go") and Monica Drake ("The Stud Book"). Here's a condensed version of our conversation.

You're known for putting on a show at your readings. In fact, you eschew the traditional book signing, though readers can purchase copies of "Doomed" that have been pre-signed.

It's a bigger show now. Chelsea is a performer with so much star power, and Monica is really funny in a quiet, low-key way. We're calling this event "Adult Bedtime Stories," and readers are encouraged to show up in their pajamas. Chelsea and I first learned to love reading through bedtime stories we were told as children. We wanted to replicate the luxury of being read a story out loud while in the comfort of your PJs.

As people walk in, they will get a beach ball filled with glow sticks. They'll be encouraged to inflate them and then write something on their beach ball. Then we'll turn off the lights and everyone will throw the beach balls around the auditorium. We've done it at smaller events, and it's beautiful. It becomes this spectacular, glowing, bouncing thing.

"Doomed" channels "Gulliver's Travels," Dante's "Inferno" and, most notably, Charles Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle." Are you a Darwin fan, or are you just using him for your own evil purposes?

I am kind of a Darwin fan. I read "The Voyage of the Beagle" for maybe the first time in the seventh grade. I kept waiting for a plot to develop, and it never did. I see the whole Madison series as travel writing, in the same way that Darwin is travel writing and "Gulliver's Travels" is travel writing. Dante's "Inferno" is perfect travel writing. All these books take us to a different place and then explain it.

You're an omnivorous reader, from Joan Didion to Judy Blume, whose young-adult books inspired "Damned."

There's something spooky and Jungian going on with Judy Blume. In "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret," her father is mowing the lawn and he cuts off his thumb. He ends up hiring a neighborhood boy named Moose to do the mowing. Margaret has a huge crush on this animal figure, and then she gets her period. It's a really spooky book dealing with symbolic castration and animal figures and the novel is filled throughout with a lot of blood. I'm sure she [Judy Blume] didn't do that consciously.

You've said that all of your books are love stories. Is "Doomed" a love story between Madison and her family?

I think so. … My parents divorced about the same time the movie "The Parent Trap" came out, about two twins at camp who scheme to get their parents back together. I had that same fantasy.

What made you want to write a trilogy?

I was trying to process through the death of both of my parents. I started writing "Damned" while taking care of my mother during the last few months of her life, when she was dying of lung cancer. My father was murdered in 1999 at the same time the "Fight Club" movie came out.

I didn't want it to be a sad book by a middle-aged guy. I thought if I could write a funny book about a little girl who's dead and whose parents are still alive, I could make it a book that I would want to read and that I would want to write. By planning three books spread out over five years, I figured I would have enough time to figure out how to live forward in the future without my parents.

Is it working?

It's worked very, very well. I seldom think these days, "I need to call Mom." In this electronic age, there's a tendency to hold on to voice mails from our dead friends and relatives. … I finally stopped hitting "9" and preserving mom's voice for another 90 days. I finally let it die out.

I'm just now coming into my own. To be really frank and honest, I'm coming to terms with the enormous embarrassment my parents had about me being homosexual that made our lives uncomfortable and unpleasant and our relationship superficial.

I wish they were alive, but I'm a lot more free than I've ever been. My way of handling things is to reframe the painful and uncomfortable things and turn them into stories and make them funny. The act of writing is a way of tricking yourself into revealing something that you would never consciously put into the world. Sometimes I'm shocked by the deeply personal things I've put into books without realizing it.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Authors Chuck Palahniuk, Monica Drake and Chelsea Cain will read from their work at 7 p.m. Friday at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Reserved seating is sold out; some free seating will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Call 410-396-5430 or go to prattlibrary.org.

About the book

"Doomed" will be released Tuesday by Doubleday. $24.95, 336 pages.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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