And now, from the Well, What Did You Expect file: Chuck Palahniuk imagines a great hell.
His matter-of-fact underworld is the charming setting of “Damned,” a slight but very funny coming-of-age (after-you’re-dead) novel, which the publisher describes with rare book-jacket precision as “the Inferno by way of The Breakfast Club.”
Our Virgil, 13-year-old Madison, is the crackling, chubby daughter of a Hollywood power couple. Maddie, who may have died from a drug overdose, begins each chapter in warped Judy Blume fashion, “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.”
Her voice is so crisp and entertaining that she can’t help seeming like one of those idealized, too-smart teens who sometimes frequent young-adult fiction. When Maddie suggests that “thirteen years seems to be when human beings reach their fullest flower of intelligence, personality, and pluck,” you wonder if she (or Palahniuk) has ever visited an actual middle school.
But an overly sharp narrator is hardly a fatal flaw in such a lively book. Palahniuk’s descriptions of hell are inspired, crafted with great comic flair and the brilliant satirical stipulation that the Christian fundamentalists are right: Hell is literal, dinosaur bones were faked by Satan and among the unspeakable demons slurping about is Robert Mapplethorpe.