Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Andy Langer, Fri., June 15, 2001
by Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday, 293 pp., $24.95
Under the heading "Praise for Chuck Palahniuk," Choke's back cover copy offers up this gem from Bret Easton Ellis: "Maybe our generation has found its Don DeLillo." Considering how skillfully Palahniuk disemboweled our national psyche in 1996's Fight Club and 1999's Invisible Monster and Survivor, it's not an immediately outlandish comparison. But combined with additional jacket blurbs praising his "psychopathic brilliance," "mordant social analysis," "antic surrealism," and "prickly prose and repetitive rhythms," another correlation makes more sense: Contemporary modern fiction has found its own Eminem. The Fight Club veteran is the real Slim Shady, all right -- Palahniuk has little regard for conventional literary form and an extraordinary flare for verbalizing the sleaze and nastiness of our inner low-life. In fact, Choke's "protagonist" is a medical-school dropout who chokes himself at restaurants for attention and cruises sex-addict meetings for companionship. "Painting a picture, composing an opera, that's just something you do until you find the next willing piece of ass," he says.
And while both Palahniuk and Eminem show equal flair for scene-setting that's alternatively laugh-out-loud funny or turn-your-stomach disturbing, they even share the same Achilles heel; they don't know when to stop, too often trading in exhausting excess and sophomoric humor merely for shock's sake. Using a sex addict's back to fill out her sponsor form while you're inside her is funny. Blood and food bits splattering a lab coat after a flossing demonstration isn't.
And yet, almost in spite of similarly odious moments like a badly bungled attempt to fulfill a woman's rape fantasy, the bulk of Choke is eminently memorable. Palahniuk's cut 'n' paste approach to plot development winds up yielding dozens of compelling vignettes. Our antihero's day job at a colonial-era theme park provides as many bizarre moments as his mother's "bordello of the subconscious" -- hypnotherapy sessions where clients imagine lifelike handjobs from famous dead women like Edith Piaf and Indira Ghandi. More often than not, Palahniuk's most disconnected and least plausible scenarios wind up leaving behind the best post-read impressions; if Fight Club made us forever wonder what the waiter did to our soup, Choke could forever alter our view of airplane bathrooms, department store P.A. announcements, and the motives of good Samaritans.
Ultimately and unfortunately, each slice of situational comedy may be more memorable than the overall story itself. In theory, Choke is supposed to be a larger riff on addiction (behavioral and intellectual) that winds up tying together sex, Alzheimer's, and the Heimlich. But what singularly keeps Choke from completely unraveling and makes it so frustratingly unfocused is Palahniuk's exhaustive research on such a wide variety of disciplines -- he shows a Bob Costas-like authority on everything from Internet urban myths and cancer treatment to seating arrangements on Boeing 747-400s and butter-churning in 1734. Add the graphic sex and it's enough to leave you staring at his inside-flap picture wondering just how sick Palahniuk is and just how autobiographical Choke might be. It's the recipe for a weird aftertaste -- one that makes the "new Don DeLillo" tag harder to swallow. Tagging Choke as a guilty pleasure is far easier.