Paperback, 293 pages
Published: June 2002 by Anchor Books (1st published May 2001)
This is the first book I’ve read by Chuck Palahnuik, who is not only a critically acclaimed bestselling author but, according to my daughter, a bit of a cult phenomenon. Well. I am not puritanical; I enjoy a bit of steamy literary smut as much as the next person. But after finishing Choke, I felt like getting rid of the book then taking a scorching hot shower.
I don’t know how to review or rate this book. I admire Chuck Palahniuk’s well honed writing ability, his outrageous imagination, and his black sense of humor. And just as I was ready to toss the book aside, perhaps aiming for the toilet, I would stumble across something so clever, original, and hilarious that I’d catch my breath. How do I review a book that I found so cleverly crafted and original yet so pointless and disgusting? Especially when I suspect that this paradox is exactly what the author was striving for?
“If you’re going to read this, don’t bother,” Victor Mancini, the novel’s protagonist, begins. (At least I can’t say I wasn’t warned) “After a couple pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still in one piece.”
In alternating chapters, Victor tells of his bizarre childhood, in which his mentally ill mother repeatedly kidnapped him from foster homes, to his even stranger adult life. Victor is a sex addict, who spares no detail in describing some of his exploits, and he attends Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings because — well — they’re a great place to hook up with sex addicted women.
He is also a medical school drop-out who works as an interpreter at a Colonial theme park — telling groups of fourth graders morbid and disgusting bits of history, both real and invented, after having sex with their teacher in the corner of a barn. He spends Saturdays visiting his senile mother in a nursing home. The senile residents of the nursing home mistake Victor for people who have hurt them — a brother who sexually molested them in childhood, a person who cheated them, someone who had sex with their cat. He pretends to be all these people, allowing them to vent their anger and offer forgiveness.
Victor also spends time with his best friend and fellow sex addict, Denny. They enjoy pastimes like roaming an affluent neighborhood drinking the dishes of beer set outside to kill slugs. (They pick out the insects and bugs first, of course). Best of all — to raise money for his mother’s medical bills, and to garner attention — he repeatedly pretends to choke on food in restaurants.
Palahniuk’s bizarre world is populated with decaying, senile patients and deformed chickens who suffered birth defects when fourth graders deliberately shook the unhatched eggs, scrambling the fetuses, as well as strippers, psychotics, and sex addicts. None of the characters are three-dimensional people who a reader cares about; they’re just a canvas for Palahniuk’s vision of the world.
In this world, the realistic and the bizarre are side by side, and the line between them is often blurred. Sexuality is deliberately portrayed as crude and lifeless, and relationships are empty. In this world, stripped of sentiment and meaning, people constantly numb themselves with alcohol, drugs, and compulsive sex. If you look at this as a reflection of the society we live in, it is easy to see why The San Francisco Examiner praised this author’s “Swiftian gift for satire.”
Palahniuk’s protagonist has a relentlessly nihilistic view of life. In Victor’s mind, there is no God, though he briefly fancies himself a Christ figure, and humans have no souls. More to the point, there is no sense of awe and wonder, love does not exist, and nothing we do matters.
Ultimately the author seems to be conveying the idea that this view of reality liberates us to create our own meaning. This is illustrated in an interesting scene, near the end of the book, in which Victor and Denny take a pile of randomly collected rocks and begin creating their own structure. While I don’t see eye to eye with him in his vision of the universe, I find this existential theme to be intriguing and rich with possibilities. However, for me, it never really came together in this novel. In the end, I still just saw a pile of rubble.
So, dear readers, I wouldn’t presume to recommend this book or steer you away from it. The author is clever, even gifted, or his book is just bent, pointless, and painful to read. Or maybe both. Your mileage may vary.
If you have read this, or if you have any thoughts about Chuck Palahniuk’s work, please leave a comment. I am very interested to hear what you think.