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'Damned' Teens In Hell: A Condemned Coming Of Age

Madison Spencer wants you to forget everything you've learned about hell.

To be fair, she's something of an expert. The snarky 13-year-old narrator of the new novel Damnedwas sent to the underworld after dying of what she thinks was a marijuana overdose. It's not like she's having a blast, of course, but she doesn't seem to mind it any more than her life on Earth. Smart, wry and skeptical, Madison never really identified with her shallow billionaire parents. At least in the inferno, she has friends: a disparate group of teenagers who form a kind of Breakfast Clubfor the condemned. Crushes, awkward glances, humiliating moments — it's really just a typical adolescence. Except for, you know, the demon attacks.

Welcome to hell as imagined by Fight Clubauthor Chuck Palahniuk, doing his best twisted impression of Judy Blume, the teen-lit legend and author of the iconic Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. In many ways, Damnedis an archetypal young adult novel — the first words of the book are "Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison." But it's hard to imagine even the most progressive parents buying it for their middle-schooler. Palahniuk's 12th novel is just as gleefully, vividly, hilariously obscene as you'd expect — and it's also a hell of a lot of fun.

Palahniuk has always been known for his pitch-dark satire, and it's evident here in his depiction of the underworld. The author's version of hell is littered with discarded, unpopular confections (think popcorn balls, stale bubble gum and rock candy). Movies are provided for the entertainment of the damned, but the only films ever screened are The English Patient and The Piano. The condemned can get a job, but only in Internet porn or telemarketing. It's crowded, too: pretty much everybody ends up there, including "98.3 percent of lawyers" (ha!) and "100 percent of journalists" (d'oh!).

<p>Chuck Palahniuk is the author of <em>Fight Club</em>, <em>Invisible Monsters</em> and <em>Choke</em>. </p>
Shawn Grant / Random House
Random House

Chuck Palahniuk is the author of Fight Club, Invisible Monsters and Choke.

Madison proves to be an excellent tour guide and charming protagonist: She's tough but sweet, cynical but not quite ready to give up. It's hard to believe, but Palahniuk — previously known for his very, very masculine characters and themes — has come up with a believable, realistic teenage-girl narrator, and he channels her voice perfectly. She's full of youthful bravado, but she's a lot closer to Judy Blume's Margaret than she is to Tyler Durden.

And that's fitting — it's possible to read Damnedas a tribute to Blume, even if it's one that seems to be equally inspired by John Waters and H. P. Lovecraft. (Remember, this might not be a book you want to give your own young adult. If you found Blume's outrage-provoking teen-sex novel Forever ... to be too racy, this one will make your head explode.)

As a young adult novel, it's surprisingly sweet, hopeful and empowering; as a satire, it's funny, irreverent and hugely entertaining. "Hell is other people," mused Sartre. Leave it to Chuck Palahniuk to tell us that might not be such a bad thing after all.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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