What would happen if Judy Blume rewrote Dante's Inferno to star a sexually repressed teenager who thinks she's in hell for overdosing on pot? There's only one author alive qualified to tackle that question; luckily Chuck Palahniuk, maverick author of Fight Club and Choke, decided to give it a shot.
The result is a rollicking trek through a land of cascading shit waterfalls and oceans of hot vomit populated by Hitler and a cast of teen stereotypes out of the Breakfast Club. Palahniuk -- who visits the Miami Book Fair International this weekend -- uses the gruesome setting in Damned, his new novel, to skewer America's Puritan obsession with healthiness.
"My books all start with some horrible, unresolved thing in my own life," Palahniuk says. "Before I wrote this, I was taking care of my mom with cancer. There was this ridiculous expectation that if she'd done everything right, she could have escaped the disease. There's this condemnation and dismissal of the sick because we all want to believe we can forestall that moment ourselves."
Each chapter in Damned starts with the line, "Are you there, Satan? It's me Madison," a devious twist on Blume's classic "Are you there God? It's me, Margaret."
Yet Palahniuk says teen-lit wasn't the biggest literary trope driving his satire. "I actually wanted to suggest classic travel writing with this book," he says. "Guys like Anthony Bourdain, they go to these bizarre places and eat awful things for our amusement. What's the difference in the dynamic of sitting on the short of Shit Lake in Hell and eating grasshoppers on TV?"
Palahniuk has cultivated a reputation for shocking audiences. One infamous short story, called "Guts," is so brutal that when Palahniuk reads aloud on his tours, dozens have reportedly fainted.
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But in Damned - which has its own share of stomach-churning encounters - and other works, Palahniuk says his real goal is a legit human response.
"I am absolutely terrified of wasting readers' time," he says. "I'd rather readers reach the end and say, 'I can't believe he did that' than to feel like they regretted spending time with my work."
Palahniuk will speak at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Chapman Conference Center (Building 3, Second Floor, Room 3210).