Everything in Victor Mancini’s life seems askew: a sexual addiction, a job portraying an indentured Irish servant at a historical preservation village, a dying mother responsible for his turbulent childhood, a morbid obsession with medical disorders, repeated fake chokings.
But the point of author Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel, Choke, is that our struggle to create meaning leads us all down strange and disillusioned paths. Victor’s problems appear extreme at first, but in the end we realize they are just the furthest extensions of an overriding social — not individual — disorder.
Choke is essentially a novel about personal relationships, albeit highly dysfunctional ones. For instance, Victor finds solace in a prototypically codependent friendship with Denny, a fellow worker at the historical village who has replaced chronic masturbating with rock collecting: “The oven is full of rocks. The freezer is full. The kitchen cabinets are so full they’re coming down off the wall.”
Victor’s main obsession is with Dr. Paige Marshall, a woman he sees as offering the sort of emotional completeness he most longs for. The rest of Victor’s relationships — starting with the interspersed chapters from childhood which recall his mother’s periodic escapes from jail or drug rehab centers — are compulsive and almost mechanized. The protagonist fakes choking in order to sustain himself (his “saviors” often mail him checks) and, more importantly, be held and comforted. He does comment, however, that “the miserable truth is, every night I have to pick through the telephone directory and find a good place to almost die.”
Like Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting), Denis Johnson (Jesus’ Son), Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) and Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), Chuck Palahniuk rose to prominence in the ’90s thanks to a fantastic film adaptation of a fantastic novel: Fight Club. Each member of this literary Rat Pack has his own slant on our existential predicament, clearly drawing influences from writers such as Camus and Burroughs.
While Choke is far from great literature — if anything it suffers from having been written in an age when books sometimes read like movie treatments — it is a humorous, articulate and sensitive page-turner. Although J.G. Ballard has addressed similar ideas about modern civilization much more effectively in novels such as Crash, Palahniuk appeals directly to the generation born in the ’70s and early ’80s. The author will probably continue to throw his hat in the ring for the position of spokesman for that very generation. That’s almost a compulsion in and of itself.
Aaron Warshaw is the MT listings editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.