Choke, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2001, 293 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50156-0

Well, Palahniuk’s back with another book, and the bad news are that he’s not stretching many new writing muscles with his latest effort. Choke is in many ways the same type of stuff we’ve come to expect from the author of Fight Club, Survivor and Invisible Monsters. A first-person narration by a flawed character whose self-destructive impulse eventually break into weird self-salvation; this is and isn’t something we’ve seen before.

Victor Mancini, medical school drop-out, has two jobs: The first one is at one of those fake historical villages. The second is to pretend to choke in fancy restaurants and “allowing” people to rescue him, then milking their sympathy for a few checks from time to time. Whenever he’s got time, he hits sexual addiction recovery groups for hot chicks or visits his mother, currently wasting away at a retirement home.

But of course, you may suspect that as with any Palahniuk book, the real point of the novel isn’t as much in the main character as in the various vignettes he tells. No disappointment here, as we’re treated to a demented behind-the-scenes tour at a historical theme park (Chapter 4, 19, 28), the mechanics of scam-choking (Chapter 12), warning signals in public places (Chapter 15), a consensual mock-rape going hilariously wrong (Chapter 27), rock-collecting addiction writ large (Chapter 29) and the practical considerations of adhering to the Mile-High Club (Chapter 40). Good stuff, funny stuff. Not always particularly well-integrated stuff.

The usual Palahniuk tic of repeating particular catch-phrases are also included, this time with the medically inspired “See also:” cascades and the recurring “[foo] isn’t the best word for it, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.” These fragments work well, and don’t get too repetitive.

What is new -but not particularly successful- is how Palahniuk here flirts with the supernatural, with a less-than-definitive conclusion that disappoints in this regard. (It’s not the only problem with the conclusion, which is also a bit too hurried for full satisfaction.) There is also a small twist of sorts, but not a big one like the whopper in Fight Club or the barrage of steady revelations in Invisible Monsters.

At least one thing that’s steady is the high level of quotable material, hilarious vignettes and semi-deep thoughts. Also constant is the compulsive readability of it all; don’t be surprised to read the book in only one setting, as it’s small enough and vigorous enough to drag you all the way though it. If nothing else, Palahniuk’s prose kicks the stuffing out of all the turgid self-important bon mots found elsewhere in the “general fiction” category. It’s hip writing, and it makes for cool reading.

(Though, as usual, readers with weak sensitivities should steer clear of the Palahniuk oeuvre, as -in this case- it’s pretty much impossible to talk about self-destructive sexual addicts without, well, being graphic about it.)

And yet, despite all the reading goodness of a new Palahniuk, it’s hard not to feel slightly disappointed by it all. Familiarity breeds contempt, and if it’s a good thing for an author to deliver similar material to his fan-base, it’s hard to feel as if Palahniuk should unshackle himself and try something different. Even third-person narration might be a break from the norm!

In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with picking up his latest book. Funny, readable, not entirely superficial and filled with memorable passage, Choke might just make you wheeze, hiccup and snort with delight.

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