As the setting for a Chuck Palahniuk novel, hell seems strangely overdue. The Portland-bred novelist specializes in damaged protagonists in vile scenarios—people well deserving of eternal damnation—yet none of those characters has actually existed in that foul place where (per Palahniuk's imagination) those who love to whistle are forced to interact with people who peed in the pool too many times. Madison Spencer, the pleasantly cynical narrator in Damned (Doubleday, 247 pages, $24.95), goes and finds that it's not so bad.
Spencer is the 13-year-old child of detestable Hollywood royalty and the most sharp-witted and sarcastic girl in her boarding school. Then (spoiler alert!) she dies and finds herself in Palahniuk's hell, which isn't a deserted wasteland with lava rivers and imps in red spandex. No oppressive heat, no sulfur—just a plethora of butter rum Life Savers and stale Bazooka gum. The description of old popcorn balls is where Damned began its steady, calculated assault on my subconscious.
Palahniuk uses Madison's experience to advance the idea that hell—like any other unsavory situation—is what you make of it. He interjects flashbacks from Madison's pampered above-ground life, which was, in fact, far more hellish than hell. It's an old-fashioned, touchy-feely idea that works well paired with Palahniuk's aggro prose. Madison was a miserable wretch with no self-worth while alive, but she really finds her place in hell, acquiring a mélange of friends in her new and unfamiliar world—a nerd, a punk, a preppy girl and a jock. They form their own little Breakfast Club and, as teenagers are wont to do, take on the establishment, defeating Hitler and Vlad the Impaler before floating crepe-paper lilies on the surface of Shit Lake.
For a novel with such a dark setting, Damned manages to entertain readers with Palahniuk's sharp, pithy wit. There's one motif involving Spencer's slandering of classmates that he more than exhausts (one he didn't think of: Slutty McSluttberg), but it's hardly the novel's undoing. What comes forth is another lucid, yet skewered, tale from the famously warped mind of Palahniuk. Damned does, at times, feel like Palahniuk is simply living up to his subversive authorial reputation, yet it's his polish and undeniably unique storytelling that save the reader from a schlocky, formulaic hell.