Constricted messages

Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk chokes with his new novel

Chuck Palahniuk must not enjoy life very much. His four novels portray a modern world filled with therapeutic violence, a refined version of gross-out humor, pessimistic antiheros and rampant commerce. The books are also fever-pitch funny, filled with streams of intelligent satire and a remarkable sense of rhythm, which leads to the assumption that California author Palahniuk may like life very much, as indicated by the almost jarringly cheerful author photos that appear on the back leaf of his books.

Fight Club, Palahniuk’s memorable first novel, was a perfect encapsulation of all his strengths as a writer. Filled with clever cultural critiques and a compelling story, the book was big on technique and served as a figurehead for much of the new fiction emerging in the late ‘90s.

It feels like the gig is up in Choke, his fourth novel. The book begins by telling readers to put the book down, to find some other diversion to while away their time. This is a cute authorial trick, but an unnecessary one. Choke is not threatening enough to warrant such ominous warnings.

Palahniuk is a master at investing boring characters with fascinating character traits. His main character, Victor Mancini, numbers among his accomplishments: dropping out of medical school; working in Colonial Dunsboro, a 18th-century reality park; having made it to step four in his 12-step sex addiction program; and intentionally choking himself to pay for his mother’s hospital bills.

Victor’s anarchist mother is now an Alzheimer’s patient who regularly mistakes her son for one of the many lawyers she has retained to defend her for her prankish behavior. Between jail times, the author reveals in flashback, Ida Mancini would pick up her son and pass on her dysfunctions, which serve as a guide to what Victor apparently is trying to escape in his own life:

“People had been working for so many years to make the world a safe, organized place. Nobody realized how boring it would become. With the whole world property-lined and speed-limited and zoned and taxed and regulated, with everyone tested and registered and addressed and recorded. Nobody had much room left for adventure, except maybe the kind you could buy. And because there’s no possibility of real disaster, real risk, we’re left with no chance for real salvation. Real elation. Real excitement. Joy. Discovery. Invention.”

Victor’s great invention is an emotional pyramid scheme, which entails liberating the people who save him from choking by getting them to send money his way for various misfortunes he details through mass mailing. By the time it is revealed that Victor might be the son of Jesus, the cleverness of Palahniuk’s inventions is unhinged by Choke‘s lack of plot or focus.

The wealth of satire is that the reader is in on the joke; while the characters act out their hyperbolic lives, the audience can feel smug, and hopefully a little unsettled, by their recognition of the author’s winking intent. There are some surprises toward the end of the book, but they feel weighted down by the confused intent of the novel.

It is this overwhelming spirit of passive message in Choke that constricts its purpose. One can learn methods of decoding emergency messages in public places and earning induction into the mile-high club in Choke, but there is no indication why this information is important or relevant to the story being told. Though Palahniuk is rarely less than interesting, he stuffs Choke with a surfeit of disconnected ideas, giving the title a special, if unintended, resonance.