This review originally appeared in The Washington Post.
By Chuck Palahniuk
Reviewed by G. Beato
In Chuck Palahniuk's first novel, "Fight Club," a botched messiah wraps things up by killing himself. In Chuck Palahniuk's second novel, "Survivor," a botched messiah wraps things up by killing himself. In Chuck Palahniuk's latest novel, "Choke," a botched messiah wraps things up by making slightly hokey declarations of cautious optimism. This change, one imagines, is as good a measure as any of the positive impact Brad Pitt can have on one's life.
Pitt starred in the movie version of "Fight Club," which was, in strict box office terms, a flop. In obscure cult novelist terms, however, "Fight Club" was a certified blockbuster. After the movie came out, legions of new fans discovered Palahniuk's work and the former diesel mechanic was able to quit his day job for the first time.
So how has success brightened Palahniuk's worldview? Well, with the exception of that ray-of-hope ending, "Choke" is just as dark and outrageous as his previous work. From Palahniuk's perspective, the world is a place where "every little breeze seems to whisper squamous carcinoma." Palahniuk milks consensual rape for sitcom-style laughs, builds a plot around Jesus' foreskin, and details the ins-and-outs of "colorectal foreign bodies management."
But for the first time ever, it feels as if Palahniuk is faking it. While he's always tended toward prosyletism, his best work achieves its sense of comic nihilism through character and situation more than his own ventriloquistic doctrine. In "Choke," however, he offers too little of the former and too much of the latter. Over and over, his characters nakedly lament their meaningless lives, and after awhile, it begins to feel like whatever the opposite of euphemism is, or even worse, a Papa Roach song.
Choke tells the story of 25-year-old Victor Mancini. Despite his name, Victor is a loser, a medical-school dropout who works as an "indentured Irish servant" at a tourist attraction called Colonial Dunsboro. In his free time, he picks up women at sexual addiction support groups, visits his dying mom at a constant care facility, and engages in a unique form of masticatory theater at local restaurants.
It's the latter pastime that gives the novel its name: by pretending to choke on his food, Victor affords bystanders an opportunity to save him. "You're the proof of their courage. The proof they were a hero…" he explains. "You might be the one good deed, the deathbed memory that justifies their whole existence." Victor says he does this for money - in the aftermath of these incidents, his saviors, protective and paternal, often send him birthday cards with checks enclosed, and sometimes Victor exploits their generosity even further via hard-luck solicitations he periodically mass-mails to his hundreds of saviors.
But it's not just the money that motivates Victor. "Choke" is told through Victor's perspective, and throughout the narrative, he characterizes sex as a kind of anesthetic, something that negates feeling instead of facilitating it. Indeed, the connections he establishes with his sexual partners are connections only in the most technical sense; the moment they disengage, he explains at one point, "we'll hate each other…we won't even want to look at each other."
With his fake choking liaisons, it's a completely different story. A stranger squeezes him tightly until he ejaculates a mouthful of food, then there's tender cuddling, weepy endearments, and commitment: "You'll be sobbing while someone tells you how everything is going to be all right," Victor explains. "For years to come, this person will call and write…this person will love you."
There's a certain amount of disdain in that assessment, sure, but also a certain amount of sincere desire. And while it's not exactly clear that Victor's saviors love him as much as he thinks they do, it's definitely clear that he needs to believe they love him that much. In "Fight Club," Palahniuk's botched messiah was a Nietzchean sort; in "Survivor," he was an accidental celebrity god; but this time around, he's a Christ-like figure who wants to offer salvation himself. In this respect, the choking episodes function as a kind of reverse communion, with secular deity Victor puking up little globs of his transubstantiated divinity.
With all these facets, fake choking is a great conceit on which to build a novel, but as it turns out, it's just one of many conceits that Palahniuk concocts. Some of them are equally promising, some less so, but Palahniuk doesn't explore any of them fully, nor does he use them together to create any sense of escalating drama. A diversion about Victor's mom's exploits as a hypno-prostitute allows Palahniuk to discourse about the empty, selfish nature of desire or something, but if Doubleday had somehow forgot to include the chapter in the book, you wouldn't have noticed its absence. Same with the consensual rape chapter, and much of the Colonial Dunsboro material, and, well, you get the picture: ultimately, "Choke" feels more like a collection of semi-related essays and short stories than a novel.
Which doesn't necessarily signal its failure, but there's another problem too: much of the material comes off as a lesser writer's efforts to imitate Palahniuk's obsessions and tone. A secret society of people who meet in airplane restrooms to have sex is reminiscent of "Fight Club's" secret society of people who meet in empty parking lots to beat each other up, only the idea is not as provocative. The sex addict support group meetings are reminiscent of "Fight Club's" terminal illness support group meetings, only they're not as harrowing…
Parodists have always goofed on the camp and absurdity that lurks beneath the surface of hard-boiled noir. Palahniuk does that too, but he retains the alienation and despair, and even cranks it up a few notches: at his best, his voice is so distinctive he exists as a genre unto himself. But while "Choke" has its moments, it also illustrates the downside of creating your own genre: if you stick too closely to your rules and formulas, you begin to sound generic.
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