Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

Goes Down Easier Than The Author Might Like

Cool Cover, No?This is the first book I've read by Mr. Palahniuk--for some reason, my vast admiration for Fight Club the film has kept from Fight Club, the book, despite wanting to read it. So I thought perhaps I might perform a bit of literary legerdemain and start in on another Palahniuk book and work my way up to Fight Club. When I came across a lovely hardcover of Choke in a used bookstore, I saw my opportunity.

Recently I had a sort of life-changing event, that of writing a novel in 30 days. It's a big old mess of a novel, and I'm still up in the air if I should go back and do everything necessary to clean it up and make it presentable. But the main thing is I wrote a book. In 30 days. Whenever someone reading it came to me with an inconsistency, a complaint that the book no longer mirrored reality, or a valid argument that the book's narrative had simply disappeared for pages and pages at a time, I could just shrug my shoulders and go, "Hey, I wrote it in 30 days. What do you expect?"

I can't help but wonder what excuse Mr. Palahniuk uses.

Admittedly, he may not have to. there are patches of Choke that are brilliantly written, and little bits that show off meticulous research (the narrator, a former medical student obsessed with disease, is able to see death and disease in the most innocuous of physical manifestations), and Palahniuk's accelerated narration (short sentences, short paragraphs, forceful statements of narrative) hurtles you through the pages so that you're finished with the book almost by the time you've started it. And Palahniuk also understands story; by the time you've put down the book, you've seen the characters change and grow, the story twists and turns, banking hard left and right, and, if nothing else, Palahniuk seems to have taken to heart the screenwriter's credo: get in late, get out early.

And yet...

Choke is one of the few times I wished I was a reviewer for a major newspaper or literary review just so I could get the phrase "drive-by novel" introduced into the lexicon. It is a term that nails both Choke's charms and its shortcomings: it is very much like drive-by shooting--brutally simple, material spraying everywhere with a cojoined impression of lethality and impotence, of deadly earnest intention and hapless execution, over before you're even aware that it's started, and leaving one with a breathless feeling at the end of it all.

But for every scene that was done well (such as when the narrator muses about one's ability to do good or evil while removing the wax from a friend's ears), there was at least one scene equally shoddy (the earlier scenes with the two men in a strip club). Palahniuk, through sheer literary bravado, pulls off the characters' workplace (a theme camp that is a working replica of Colonial day America) as a metaphor for modern America (behind a demanding veneer of authenticity, the workers freely indulge their modern vices) and yet, for a book ostensibly about a sexual addict, it seems to utterly miss conveying any sense of addiction, of obsession, of compulsion. There's very few sections of the book about sex or sexual encounters and the only one of any length--a negotiation and encounter between the narrator and a woman who wants to enact a rape fantasy--stands out more by its awkward puerility (even by Pahalniuk's standards) and isolation from the narrative structure of the rest of the book than through any kind of facility or acuity. This is particularly frustrating if one's read Palahniuk's little essay about The Story Behind Choke, which possesses a very distinct concept from the book from which it's about. Having read the essay first, I found I could see in Choke the book that Palahniuk was talking about--if I squinted my eyes a bit and tried really hard to believe I was seeing it.

In the essay, Palahniuk says, "Everybody in my family does something compulsively. My brother exercises. My mother gardens. I write." And Choke, in a way, captures that feeling of compulsion--not through in anything the book recounts, but simply in the way that it reads, a way I feel I recognize from when I had a month to wite at least 50,000 words. Choke reads like a book written by a man terrified of not writing, and possesses at times the runaway power of a panicked man clawing his way over you, blindly rushing to be free. Palahniuk is talented enough to sweep you away with that power for a time, but I found myself wishing he'd slow down, learn how to edit better, maybe learn how to do more drafts. Pahalniuk is too good a writer for Choke to be a failure; but he's also too good a writer to see the book as a success. Pahalniuk can do much better (and perhaps, in his other books, has)--sadly, that feeling was the only thing about Choke that will probably stick with me.

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The Official Chuck Palahniuk Website, Which In Showing What's Good With CP's Work, Also Indirectly Points Out What's Kinda Bad About It, Too

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All written material on these pages is © 2002 by Jeff Lester. With the exception of non-profit distribution, all other rights are reserved.