Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk (2001).
Score: Accomplishes exactly what it set out to do.
Or at least what I, as the clueless reader, interpreted the book had set out to do, even when I can’t be sure that’s what the author intended. You get the idea. How do I know this book has an agenda? Well, this is one of the first lines of the first chapter: “What happens here is first going to piss you off. After that it just gets worse and worse.”
Choke tells the story of Victor Mancini, a recovering sexaholic, medical school dropout and hypochondriac extraordinaire. He works for minimum wage at a colonial reenactment museum with his best friend Denny (addicted to masturbation) and at nights he pretends to choke on food at restaurants so he can get saved by strangers whom he later asks for money. This money he dedicates to paying for a nursing home for his Alzheimer’s ridden mother. Ida Mancini spent most of Victor’s childhood behind bars, and several times she kidnapped him from his foster family and violated parole as a result. Furthermore, Ida fed Victor with factoids, conspiracy theories and a generally unpleasant view of life, turning him into the hypochondriac, misogynistic and generally obnoxious adult man he is.
So, this book really pissed me off. It was a nasty experience a lot of the time, so I kept asking myself why that might be. I remembered the opening paragraphs and deduced it must have been intentional (and skillful). I kept thinking why the whole thing was so disagreeable, and reached the conclusion that it was because none of the characters have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Well, maybe except for Denny.
Both Ida and Victor are detestable people, and they are both guilty for what they’ve become and the abusive relationship they maintain. Ida is guilty of her mischievous relationship with the world. Her litany about danger, excitement, society and ennui is pure nonsense (though I’m afraid some people would make a bible out of it like they did with Tyler Durden). She later regrets her destructive behaviour and wishes she had acted differently, but this happens when she’s already severly brain damaged. Victor is abusive, selfish and deep down scared shitless of everything. He’s masterfully written as a misogynist: “From now on, I say, I’m not giving any more ground. I’m going on strike. From now on, women can open their own doors. They can pick up the check for their own dinners. I’m not moving anybody’s big heavy sofas, not anymore. No more opening stuck jar lids, either. And never again am I ever going to put down another toilet seat”, says a character who is never seen opening doors, paying checks or helping move anyone’s sofa, man or woman.
The beige prose is quite well accomplished. The fact that the style mimics speech and thus uses limited vocabulary and grammar doesn’t mean it’s easy to write, and the pacing is excellent. Though at first it looks like it’s going to be the same thing as Fight club, it finds its voice early on and the story develops its own personality. The different flavourful passages have definitely come out of a very fruitful imagination: the sexaholics meetings, Ida’s conspiracy factoids, her hypnosis sessions with dead famous women, Denny’s rocks, the deformed chickens and so on offer us a window into an eerie world we don’t really want to live in. The passage about the rape roleplay is some of the most insightful lines about BDSM I have ever read.
If you’re looking for some escapist entertainment, you’re not gonna like it. If you are interested in literature as something capable of inspiring feelings and emotions, even when they are undesirable, this is an intersting book for you to read.