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Books: Choke

Say you arrived at work one morning to find a dead critter in the parking lot of the office building. A possum, let's stipulate -- one that had perished recently, but not too recently. Morbid curiosity might get the better of you, and you might stop for a moment to look at the corpse, maybe even going so far as to turn the thing over with your foot so as to see it from all vantages. But would you then go into the office and urge your friends and coworkers to go outside and check it out? Probably not.

Likewise, I find it difficult to recommend Choke by Chuck Palahniuk, one of the most aggressively unpleasant books I've read in a while. Seriously, portions of the book caused me to physically wince as I read them. It was one of those novels where, when I read it on the bus, I would turn the book so the spine pointed at the person sitting next to me for fear that they might glance over, inadvertently see the wrong passage, and quickly transfer to another seat, as far as way as possible. But despite (or, reluctant though I am to admit it, perhaps because of) this -- I plowed though the novel in record time, reading it at every available opportunity.

The story revolves around Victor Mancini, an unlikable loser who depends on the kindness of strangers; specifically, he pretends to choke to death in restaurants and allows people to "save his life." Afterwards his would-be rescuers feel personally responsible for Victor's life (such as it is) and often start sending him checks to make sure he's doing okay. Much of the money he makes from this scam he uses to keep his debacle of a mother in hospice care -- though, when someone at the hospital proposes a treatment that might extend his mother's life, he adamantly rules it out. In his spare time he frequence sex-addiction recovery groups in search of one-night stands, and hangs out with his pal Denny who has an unhealthy predilection for rocks.

All of this would be practically unreadable were it not for the author's ability to turn a phrase -- occasionally, while rooting around in the muck of Choke, you unexpectedly discover a jewel. While I'm not convinced that Palahniuk is a stellar writer, several portions of the book -- such as his description of prayer chains as "a spiritual pyramid scheme. As if you can gang up on God. Bully him around," and a revolting yet curiously inspiring bit about a man, a monkey, and some chestnuts -- made the whole thing worthwhile.

It even got me wanting to read some other stuff my the guy, though a friend of mine, who has read many of Palahniuk's works, told me not to bother. "They're all pretty much the same book," he said. Indeed, just having viewed the Fight Club movie, I could see how much Choke had in common with this earlier work, with self-help groups, railing against conformity, and the good vs. bad duality of the pro/an tagonist. But I may read Fight Club all the same, because it ooks like it shares a virtue with Choke -- they're both relatively short. And those snappy little soundbites Palahniuk employs are as addicting as potato chips.

Posted on July 07, 2004 to Books


Some think CHOKE is CP's best, but I thought despite a great beginning it really fell apart. LULLABY is strong from start to finish--a fantastic book. DIARY is also a great read. I listened to both of these on (unabridged) audiocassette versions, and highly recommend them in that form.

Posted by: Anon on July 8, 2004 12:00 PM

I have read all of CP's books, excluding Diary which I could not get through at all. I read them all in one self-depricating frenzied month. Lullaby is by far the best and most orginal. I love the ending. Fight Club, the movie, is better. Yes, I am saying that a movie made from a book is better than the book itself.

Posted by: jen on July 8, 2004 12:15 PM

The only thing that bothers me about CP's work is his rabid cult following that thinks he's saying something profound. Choke entertained me with, as you say, the fast food-style sound bites and I also loved the Fight Clubby plot twist, but it's definitely not deep.

Posted by: Greg on July 8, 2004 1:01 PM

Survivor is his best by far (having never read Lullaby, mind you). Your friend's correct... he's a one-trick pony, albeit a good trick.

Posted by: tim on July 8, 2004 1:35 PM

Wait - there was a real fake choking guy down in Florida. The Sun-Herald has an article on it - the reporter interviewed CP.

Posted by: Mickey on July 8, 2004 2:17 PM

one trick pony? only in so far as King writes horror and Hunter writes thrillers. While Palahniuk might not be deep, he writes the litery equivelent of a slo-mo car wreck. You don't wanna watch, but...

Fight Club was better than the movie, Lullaby was just plain great, and while the others only had touches of greatness they were far from bad. But I'm a fan of his gross out style.

Have you read the short he wrote on masturbation and swimming pool filters? You'll know if you have, and if you haven't, well, what can I say. Chuck Palahniuk is unique. Here's hopeing he's ascending.

Posted by: wetwebwork on July 8, 2004 2:26 PM

I listened to this book on CD during a road trip. UUGH! I felt sick to my stomach and yet entertained. Is it a good book if parts of it are seared into your brain permanently?

Posted by: orangina on July 8, 2004 2:33 PM

Guts - (shortstory, pool, masturbation) Good read, couple pages, found in Playboy.
Fight Club - Book > Movie. Despite trying really hard Fincher did "Hollywood-ize" it. *spoiler alert* Take for example the scene in the book with Jack actually trying to kill himself by signing up for all the extra fights. In the film Jack never wanted to die. It is a small distinction but changes the moral tone of the whole story.
Invisible Monsters - Must read. Probably the most different book of his simply because the protagonist is a girl.
Survivor, Lullaby, Choke, Diary - Sharing common themes, and in some cases scenes, is not a bad thing. More than anything it puts all his stories in the same "world" where anything can and does happen. If nothing else you can always count on his bizarre twist at the end that forces you to read it again.

Posted by: kevin on July 8, 2004 3:17 PM

I've read every book of his, tho now I'm halfway thru the story collection "Stranger than Fiction". Survivor by far is the best. Invisible Monsters is second (tho also kinda grody). Lullaby, Choke and Diary were okay... not great. And yes, FC the movie was better than FC the book. Fugitives and Refugees was also kinda fun.

Posted by: dunsany on July 8, 2004 5:11 PM

Ok, enough fooling around, lets get back to that adorable kid, shall we?

He's simply precious!

Posted by: rob cockerham on July 8, 2004 5:53 PM

I've only had two reads that I HAD to finish but had difficulty getting through because of how disturbing the books were. The first was the book SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which I read in hardcover when it first came out, knowing nothing about it beforehand. WOW, talk about impactful! It was the only book I ever read and loved and NEVER talked about at all, it was that disturbing. Then the movie came out and I really wasn't sure I wanted to see it, but was glad i did.

The other seriously disturbing book was Stephen King's GERALD'S GAME. I used to read it at lunchtime sitting in the small park at Herald Square, NYC. I'd find myself in broad daylight, in a packed little triangle of a park with cars whizzing by on both sides, slowly sliding down in my seat in my discomfort, occasionally involuntarily slamming the book shut! Wow again!!!

Posted by: mr. grooism on July 8, 2004 8:45 PM

Just out of curiosity, why do some of your posts accept comments, but others don't?

Posted by: Lafcadio "Chick" Hearn on July 8, 2004 9:51 PM

*spoiler alert*

How can you say Fincher Hollywood-ized the story when he did what Palahniuk didn't have the courage to do and actually BLEW UP THE BUILDINGS? I saw the film first, then read the book, and the book's ending feels like a copout to me.

p.s. Once for Halloween I went as Jack. It's still one of my favorite costumes.

Posted by: Flopdoodle Wallaby on July 9, 2004 1:56 AM

Tried to read Choke after seeing Fight Club. Liked the movie, but couldn't get through Choke. Being gross and sensationalistic just for the sake of being gross and sensationalistic isn't writing, it's just seeking to provoke a reaction.

I recently heard an interview with CP on a local radio station, and that's pretty much what he said he tries to do. He thinks he's being visceral (his word) when he writes that crap when all he is really doing is sticking his finger down your throat (my phrase). King is more visceral; playing as he does with our common fears (you know, things that go bump in the night, having your feet cut off by a psychotic fan, having to watch him appear onscreen in the screen version of one of his stories.)

CP can turn a phrase, but he's just working a niche he's found.

Posted by: Dave on July 9, 2004 6:00 AM

Whew! I am so glad you wrote this. I myself purchased Choke about two weeks ago thinking, "Wow, this should be pretty good." Since then, I've had two revelations about the book.

1. Goddarnit, I really don't like this book. (And I've made it through Bret Easton Ellis, Clive Barker, Stephen King, and Nicholson Baker with flying colors too.)

2. Goddarnit, I've already read this book (back when it came out) and I didn't like it then and now I've just lost $15 on this crappy book again! Arrggh! That's the worst feeling! I got suckered in by the new cover art and flashy back cover.

Posted by: myra on July 9, 2004 6:21 AM

Guts was floating around (I refuse to apologize for that excruciating pun) online in an mp3 a while back... some reading that Chuck had done. The lore around the event was that some people in the audience actually became physically ill because of what they were hearing.

The prose was tight, but shock for shock's sake isn't my cup of tea.

Posted by: Bruce on July 9, 2004 7:26 AM

See, Myra, you really can't judge a book by its cover.

Posted by: Dave on July 9, 2004 7:40 AM

Choke is about the last book I expected to see reviewed here. I am a fan of Chuck, though not one of the rabid ones. I don't think he's writing any novels for the ages, but I find his stuff fascinating, and pretty engaging in that rubbernecking/train wreck sort of way. I'm not normally that kind of person, so maybe this is tapping into my subconscious in some kind of way.

I agree with the general sentiment of the CP fans above. I think Lullaby is his best work, simply because he dials down the rage that seems to permeate his other novels and it succeeds in making Carl Streator (think I've got that right) a more sympathetic and tragic character, though I do think CP makes a bit of a sprint out into left field towards the end. Survivor is a close second for me, because I think it's a good black comedy. The protagonist in that one makes me think of what W. might have become had he been an evangelist instead of a politician.

Posted by: Enrique on July 9, 2004 7:43 AM

Hmm... after I read the review, I thought in my head "Why in the world would I want to go and read that?" But, after all these "train wreck" and "car crash" comments, I feel the urge to run out and get a couple of his books, just for kicks.

Posted by: Jae on July 9, 2004 8:19 AM

To: Dave
Re: yer comment above

*chuckle* I so deserve that. :)

Posted by: myra on July 9, 2004 11:26 AM

Although I'm late to the game, give Survivor a shot if you haven't read it yet. Like maybe one or two people in the 20 previous comments, I think it's his best. (And that includes Fight Club -- one of maybe a zillion times I could ever say the movie was way better than the book.)

When I get in the mood to read something dark and morbidly funny, I usually turn to Douglas Coupland instead. He's much easier to digest.

Posted by: Shannon on July 9, 2004 5:27 PM

i've always been a chuck fan, but not because of the gross-out factor(though it does make it fun to read his stuff aloud in a crowded cafe)
i just admire all the facts he puts into his work, like gardening/soapmaking/bomb-making hints(fight club), the various diseases of great artist(Diary), a brief history of artificial flowers(survivor), or how to steal pills by scamming real estate agents(Invisible Monsters). he's just a damn smart bastard.

Posted by: cat on July 10, 2004 1:34 PM

I have to make this comment even tho it dosen't add to the discution. Was it relly that bad? As a kid that grew up on the internet I may be jaded but it diden't seem to be that nasty as compaired to some stuff that floats around online. On a side note I've read most of his books and I think they are pretty good but his prose could use some work.

Posted by: His name was Bob on July 12, 2004 10:42 AM

That MP3 is linked from a boing-boing story found here: http://www.boingboing.net/2004/01/27/new_palahniuk_story_.html

Posted by: ColdForged on July 13, 2004 12:40 PM