Madison is 13, and in Hell.
Exactly why is unclear, because her claim that it's due punishment for smoking pot lacks credibility. In customary Chuck Palahniuk fashion, she is an outsider, alienated from school and parents both. She's also a spunky girl. "Death is what you make of it," she declares, as she gets to grips with her new abode.
As you might expect, Palahniuk's version of Hell is less elegant and elaborate than Dante's. It is not high on horror, thankfully, and its topography owes as much to the transgressive end of contemporary art as Bosch or Breughel. Madison encounters lakes of superfluous sperm and tepid bile, rivers of vomit, hills of nail clippings; a vista of bodily wastes writ large.
It turns out that Hell is not other people either, when we watch Madison befriend an engaging punk, Archer, and a teenage fashion victim, Babette, whose killer heels are great for avoiding the cockroaches that scuttle about on Hell's floors. At times, Madison's reflections appear unduly mature for her tender years, but the upside is the entertaining riffs on the shortcomings of her parents – a couple of self-indulgent Hollywood stars addicted to adopting children from impoverished countries.
So death is not the end of the world, and soon Madison is being put to work. You might be interested to learn that Hell's residents toil away in call centres dedicated to tormenting the living, primed to ring us up with pointless marketing questionnaires just as we sit down to dinner. This is satire as diverting as Will Self's conceit that the dead go off to live in Dulston (a hitherto unknown east London borough).
Palahniuk has never fully emerged from the shadow of Fight Club, his first and most successful fictional work, despite writing no fewer than 11 successors. And as ever, other than a certain amount of camp discussion about Madison's sartorial sensibilities, subtlety is not a consideration here.
Yet it is entertaining to witness Palahniuk's energetic flailing, while he flogs the dead horse of another narrative into fictional pulp. If death is done to death and beyond, Damned is an entertaining addition to his oeuvre – in part because, some way in, the story begins to take on a distinctly optimistic quality, and Palahniuk dangles the possibility of redemption in front of Madison. It looks as if there might be a sequel in store for us, too.