At a recent family gathering my uncle asked me, “What are you reading?” I told him I was reading Choke, and he asked, “What kind of book is it, what genre?”
I was stumped. Do Chuck Palahiuk’s earlier books have a genre that defines them, other than “Fiction?” Perhaps he’s the literary equivalent of a gritty, dirty punk band. His writing is subversive, disturbing, and absolutely engrossing.
Choke is, I suppose, an extension of the narrative from Fight Club, even exploring some of the same themes of parents being our models for God, and a call for the demise of materialism. That is not to say it’s not worth the read, it is definitely its own tale. I guess what I mean to say is that Palahniuk has a certain type of hero (a down-on-his-luck loser who seeks out self-destructive behavior as a way to enlightenment) the way that Michael Crichton’s books mostly concerned groups of experts faced with a man-made disaster. And like Crichton, he tackles his tried-and-true character with aplomb.
In Choke we have the very unlikable Victor Mancini, an unrepentant sexaholic, who works in a colonial village when he’s not pretending to choke to death in restaurants. When a good citizen comes to his rescue, becoming a hero to all their friends, they feel responsible for Victor. They send him cards on his birthday, and letters through-out the year of well-wishes, along with checks. The main character/narrator comforts himself by telling himself he just needs the money to take care of his dying, mentally ill mother(who has a deep secret of her own). In between his day job and lusting after his mother’s doctor, he indulges in acts of sexual debauchery that would make De Sade blush.
If that doesn’t sound like your kind of book, well, I feel sorry for you. Where Palahniuk excels (and earns my eternal envy) is his ability to effortlessly describe disgusting, horrific acts and keep the reader coming back for more. To be sure, there’s nothing pretty or poetic about this book, but at the same time, it’s somehow beautiful. When he spends a chapter describing Victor’s roleplay-rape of a sexual partner, it’s as hilariously embarrassing as it is dirty, sweaty, sticky, and smelly. There is no “out-of-bounds” in this book.
“Classic” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.
The supporting cast is equally damaged, and that’s part of Palahniuk’s success. His characters aren’t anyone to aspire to be, they’re us. Granted, they’re us at our absolute lowest, but us nonetheless. We might not all be sex addicts who fuck in janitor closets, but we all have something we’re not proud of about ourselves. Choke merely allows us to stay the course, and see how far down our deepest, most shameful secrets can drag us.