In novels for adults, almost all children and teenagers are precocious. Precocity saves the novelist a lot of work; instead of having to think, talk or narrate like some dumb kid, the novelist can think, talk or narrate like an occasionally naïve adult who sometimes uses the word "like" without grammatical justification.
Madison Spencer, the 13-year-old who narrates "Damned," Chuck Palahniuk's new novel from an infernal afterlife, employs juvenile intensifiers such as "way-total" and "million-billion," but can also argue that a passage in Swift is nearly unmatched for "descriptive bluntness and unwelcome, masculine crudity." She flaunts her impressive vocabulary -- "Weltschmerz," "disassociation" -- and anticipates our raised eyebrows. "Yes, I know the word 'tenacious.' I'm thirteen and disillusioned and a little lonely, but I'm not simple-minded," she writes, one of a million-billion corresponding protestations.
As with Mattie Ross, the similarly named 14-year-old heroine of Charles Portis' "True Grit," Maddie's linguistic sophistication is part of the book's comedy, or is meant to be, and eventually it gets explained, first psychologically, then with a closing-act revelation.
If "True Grit" is a possible source for "Damned," Dante's "Inferno" is the more explicit inspiration, though it's Dante filtered through Judy Blume books and John Hughes movies. Maddie has recently died, of a marijuana overdose, she believes, and like most people she's been sent to hell. Instead of Virgil, her guides are teens borrowed from her favorite movie, "The Breakfast Club": the princess, the jock, the brain, the punk (Maddie stands in for the Ally Sheedy character). When they aren't enduring hell's torments or surveying its disgusting waters and landscapes -- the gross-out factor is perhaps tame by Palahniuk's standards, but will turn some stomachs all the same -- they're working (as telemarketers, naturally).
Maddie's narrative shifts between her increasingly heroic underworld exploits and gradually recovered memories of her last weeks on Earth. She's the child of a movie-star mom and a billionaire dad -- "former beatniks, former hippies, former Rastas, former anarchists ..." -- who represent every bohemian affectation and liberal-elite hypocrisy of the past five or six decades. Whenever there's a movie to publicize, they adopt a kid from a beleaguered nation, then ship him off to boarding school once the photographers are gone. The satire here is broader than the River Styx.
In the romping, mixed-genre spirit of the book, Maddie is part comic-book warrior, part YA underdog, and though her voice can grate, it's easy to sympathize with her anger and vulnerability. Palahniuk even manages to address her budding, confused sexuality without being exploitative or creepy -- impressive, given that one quasi-sexual scene involves four pubescent girls in school uniforms. Still, her journey of self-discovery doesn't offer much to chew on, and the flat secondary characters and flatter jokes contribute to a spirit of vexing pointlessness, less like a tour of hell than like a crawl through L.A. traffic.
Dylan Hicks' first novel will be published in 2012 by Coffee House Press.