Chuck Palahniuk is an author known for many things, but "dull" is not a frequently whipped-out descriptor. With Damned, his newest, he flirts with the adjective. On paper, the novel has a firecracker premise—13-year-old Madison ends up in the cellblocks of Hell after overdosing on pot. Yep, death by weed. Even with the clunky inclusion of a cast of characters straight out of The Breakfast Club as her No Exit partners, Damned has the makings of comedy genius. But it fizzles fast into a steaming puddle of humorless tedium.
Madison and her newfound friends (the jock, the brain, the criminal, and the princess) escape their prison to explore Hell's colorful topography—it's like Candyland, but with way more greasy dandruff and aborted fetuses. And because this is a Palahniuk novel (his 12th, in fact), there's a gross sendup of Guilliver's Travels in which the criminal kid's decapitated head eats out a Brobdingnag-esque giantess (the kid's puny tongue pleasures a clitoris the size of a Virginia ham). The whiny Madison is desperate to recall the details of her own death, an event she remembers little about except for watching her father and famous movie actress mother dole out Academy Awards on TV.
What Damned lacks in conventional plot focus—darting from place to place in Hell—it makes up for in steadfast sameness. It has the monotonous tone of a soap opera, yakking away about supposedly salacious goings-on that ring false. With growing tediousness, each chapter starts with a Judy Blume homage. "Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison." Then a never-ending stream of supposed teen-speak springs forth from Madison: "Yeah, I know the word construct. Put yourself in my penny loafers: I'm locked in a barred cell in Hell, 13 years old and doomed to be 13 forever, but I'm not totally self-aware." I hope no one recommends whip-smart author Christopher Moore's back catalog to Palahniuk—how red-faced Chuck would be if he read the funny-as-get-out wisecracks of teenager Abby Normal.
Palahniuk's Hell is chockfull of rote set pieces—like Hades as a bureaucratic morass filled with sinners who must serve out eternity as telemarketers. Damned is indeed hellish, but it's so full of attempts at skeeviness and patronizing screeds about the evils of our plastic culture, I think it might shockingly be more fun to go to squeaky-clean Heaven than remain here.