Say you arrived at work one morning to find a dead critter in the parking lot of the office building. A possum, let’s stipulate — one that had perished recently, but not too recently. Morbid curiosity might get the better of you, and you might stop for a moment to look at the corpse, maybe even going so far as to turn the thing over with your foot so as to see it from all vantages. But would you then go into the office and urge your friends and coworkers to go outside and check it out? Probably not.
Likewise, I find it difficult to recommend Choke by Chuck Palahniuk, one of the most aggressively unpleasant books I’ve read in a while. Seriously, portions of the book caused me to physically wince as I read them. It was one of those novels where, when I read it on the bus, I would turn the book so the spine pointed at the person sitting next to me for fear that they might glance over, inadvertently see the wrong passage, and quickly transfer to another seat, as far as way as possible. But despite (or, reluctant though I am to admit it, perhaps because of) this — I plowed though the novel in record time, reading it at every available opportunity.
The story revolves around Victor Mancini, an unlikable loser who depends on the kindness of strangers; specifically, he pretends to choke to death in restaurants and allows people to “save his life.” Afterwards his would-be rescuers feel personally responsible for Victor’s life (such as it is) and often start sending him checks to make sure he’s doing okay. Much of the money he makes from this scam he uses to keep his debacle of a mother in hospice care — though, when someone at the hospital proposes a treatment that might extend his mother’s life, he adamantly rules it out. In his spare time he frequence sex-addiction recovery groups in search of one-night stands, and hangs out with his pal Denny who has an unhealthy predilection for rocks.
All of this would be practically unreadable were it not for the author’s ability to turn a phrase — occasionally, while rooting around in the muck of Choke, you unexpectedly discover a jewel. While I’m not convinced that Palahniuk is a stellar writer, several portions of the book — such as his description of prayer chains as “a spiritual pyramid scheme. As if you can gang up on God. Bully him around,” and a revolting yet curiously inspiring bit about a man, a monkey, and some chestnuts — made the whole thing worthwhile.
It even got me wanting to read some other stuff my the guy, though a friend of mine, who has read many of Palahniuk’s works, told me not to bother. “They’re all pretty much the same book,” he said. Indeed, just having viewed the Fight Club movie, I could see how much Choke had in common with this earlier work, with self-help groups, railing against conformity, and the good vs. bad duality of the pro/an tagonist. But I may read Fight Club all the same, because it ooks like it shares a virtue with Choke — they’re both relatively short. And those snappy little soundbites Palahniuk employs are as addicting as potato chips.