As the provocative novelist probably intended, reading this book is hell.
Through 11 previous novels (Tell-All, 2010, etc.), the author who first achieved notoriety through the movie adaptation of his Fight Club debut (1996) has continued to mix edgy humor with sharp social commentary while flirting with taboo. Yet his latest isn’t particularly funny, insightful or powerful. Its narrator is 13-year-old Madison—who tries her best to keep secret her full name: Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer. She has the voice of a typical teenage girl, one who is precocious and a little overweight. But she is dead. And her parents are obviously patterned on Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (actually more the former than the latter), whose relentless self-promotion includes a series of high-profile adoptions, and who do their best to keep their daughter stuck in time, well short of puberty. Or did, because now that Madison is dead, she is beyond their reach—in hell. The author’s creative imagination in conjuring the realm of eternal damnation falls considerably short of Dante’s. Telemarketing comes from hell. So does porn. It has rivers and lakes of bodily secretions. It spawned TV and the Internet. It is remarkably easy to become consigned there, making the reader wonder what might possibly be required to gain entry into heaven. Madison is there because of a fatal marijuana overdose, or at least that’s what she says at the start. Almost all lawyers, journalists and celebrities are there. It is not a metaphor for life on earth: “What makes earth feel like Hell is our expectation that it should feel like Heaven. Earth is Earth. Dead is dead,” writes Madison. Each of the 38 short chapters begins, with a nod toward Judy Blume: “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.”
The novel sustains a consistency of narrative voice, but there is little plot or momentum, until it climaxes at the end with a power play, identity transformation and O. Henry–ish twist, followed by the most frightening of all possible promises: “To be continued…”