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Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday / Random House

US Hardcover

ISBN 0-385-50156-0

Publication Date: 05-01-2001

293 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: 09-20-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



General Fiction, Horror, Science Fiction

09-20-02, 09-30-02, 10-08-02, 01-07-03, 06-12-03, 08-22-03, 10-22-03

You know you've got an untrustworthy narrator when the first words in a novel are "If you're going to read this, don't bother." In 'Choke', untrustworthy is a just a starting point in a rapid journey towards unlikable. But if you get to page 2 and enjoy the voice, you won't want to put the book down until page 292 and a number of very pleasant hours have been spent in the company of Palahniuk's unpleasant characters. 'Choke' is one of the funniest books you're likely to read this year. Rude jokes and crude characters tumble over a bedrock of solid language and genuine conviction. Palahniuk seems to blurt out the things that we'd rather not hear about when we don't want to hear about them. Paradoxically, he's at his most appealing when he's doing so. The crude underpinnings somehow manage to make the glimpses of sentiment more powerful. 'Choke' is an odd mixture that adds up to whole lot more than the sum of its parts.

That proves to be a rather forbidding task. Victor Mancini tells the story. He's a thirty-something scumball who stop the narrative in the middle of the novel to verify with another Denny, his best friend, that he's "an insensitive asshole". Denny and Victor work in "Colonial Dunsboro", where he and other losers pretend that it's 1734. Victor's mother, who performed some overly-liberated acts of rebellion in the 1960's and 1970's, now has Alzheimer's Disease and lives in an expensive care facility. Victor pretends to choke on food in restaurants, so he can be saved by people who later feel sorry enough for him to send him checks. It's a bit of a stretch, but Palahniuk's strong voice carries it off with little complaint from the reader. The stories of Victor's childhood and his life unfold simultaneously, sucking the reader into a resonance between Victor and his mother. This is perfectly appropriate, because the adult Victor is about to find out who his father is.

Palahniuk is a master at inventing degrading and detail scenarios that somehow mange to ring true and become explosively funny. He seems to be following a path set by Flannery O'Connor in 'Wise Blood', with a delicious mix-up of low life, high aspirations and divine intervention. Like O'Connor, Palahniuk in 'Choke' addresses Christianity and the Catholic religion in outrageous satire with irreverent glee. But he also has a genuine core of admiration for his characters, no matter how low they dive. This love of the people he is writing about enables Palahniuk to invest his satire with a real emotion that makes it both funnier and easier to tolerate when he goes all the way with his awful premises.

Readers familiar with other Palahniuk works will recognize a number of familiar themes and riffs. In some ways, it might seem like 'Choke' is yet another one of Palahniuk's imaginary 'fourth steps' of the 12-step programs, the one where he confesses all the worst things he's done. In 'Choke', you get the sexual addict12-step program. You also get the utterly decrepit friend and a rather surreal turnaround in Denny. The prose is rife with repetition. Sometimes it seems as if Palahniuk must write while listening to jackhammers. And even if you can spot the short story that ran in 'Playboy', it is no less integral and no less enjoyable. Hey, it's a highlight.

Between the all-pro facility for writing great language, the uncaring-all-seeing-eye and the lightly concealed core of genuine emotion, 'Choke' manages to do a lot more than the average satire. It's not really satire, by the end of the novel. Palahniuk invests enough emotion and care and reality in his characters that he moves well beyond the facile surface of the excellent language he wields. 'Choke' is nothing less than an excellent novel full of thought-provoking ideas. If it wasn't for the fact that all the ideas are utterly entrenched in reality, 'Choke' might seem to be a piece of science fiction, since it sends the mind reeling in the same way as the best SF. But for the clarity of its vision, it's much closer to science fact.