Review: Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

TITLE: Choke
AUTHOR: Chuck Palahniuk
PAGES: 306
FORMAT: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0385720922
BUY IT: Amazon
RATING: 5/5 [in the genre] or 9/10 [all books I’ve ever read].
FOR: Anyone who has read or seen Fight Club. Fans of horror movies. Fans of Bret Easton Ellis, Don DeLillo, George Saunders, or Quentin Tarantino. People who won’t mind a lot of graphic sex and violence. Would-be urban philosophers.

Victor Mancini, a medical-school dropout, is an antihero for our deranged times. Needing to pay elder care for his mother, Victor has devised an ingenious scam: he pretends to choke on pieces of food while dining in upscale restaurants. He then allows himself to be “saved” by fellow patrons who, feeling responsible for Victor’s life, go on to send checks to support him. When he’s not pulling this stunt, Victor cruises sexual addiction recovery workshops for action, visits his addled mom, and spends his days working at a colonial theme park. His creator, Chuck Palahniuk, is the visionary we need and the satirist we deserve.

The Basics: If Gaiman is my literary hero, Palahniuk is my literary god. He’s made his way to favorite author status in a remarkably short time, to join Kurt Vonnegut, Fyodr Dostoyevsky, and Diana Wynne Jones. He’s our Oscar Wilde, with an R rating. Choke has every ounce the brutal sarcasm and psychological torment of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but with teeth. Passages will make you recoil and cringe, passages verging on pornographic, verging on psychotic. Yet never exploitative. Never overdone. The explicit excesses of the book only serve to make Victor’s pathos more real as he struggles to reconcile his tumultuous childhood with a cruel and bleakly disappointing adulthood. As with all Palahniuk’s heroes, he is outwardly a complete cad, inwardly a broken toy. The plot takes you through Victor’s struggles to support his dying mother, dropping you off at an ending that is neither happy nor sad nor definitive, but ever hopeful.

Plot (5/5): Palahniuk is a master of the nonlinear. The book alternates between first-person narration of Victor’s current life, mingled with shocking facts and back-alley philosophy, and third-person accounts of Victor’s childhood, told by a cold and loathing narrator. The jumps allow us to piece Victor’s life together, observing his pathology while simultaneously glimpsing its origins. It’s both horrifyingly beautiful and tragic. The turn is psychotic, of course, and leaves both reader and Victor lost and reeling. We break as he breaks. It’s a fast moving read, even when it seems that little movement occurs. 

Concept (5/5): A sex addict feigns choking to collect money for the treatment of a mother who kidnapped and abandoned him repeatedly as a child. And it only gets weirder from there. But, it works. It feels authentic, even at its most ridiculous. The satire is so sharp that you feel these people and situations probably exist out there somewhere, with different names and faces. Just ridiculous enough to make the truest of points. 

Characters (5/5): Deeply flawed and deeply heroic, Victor is the crux of the piece. You love him even as he’s doing the most dastardly of deeds. He’s the lost puppy you warn your teenager daughter away from. His best friend, Denny, is a great supporting character with a pathology of his own. He’s a foil to Victor, no less broken but differently manifested. Victor’s mother is talked about more than she talks; she’s the perfect villain that only her own child could find sympathetic. As for Paige Marshall – she’s wonderfully fanatic. These are all extreme caricatures of people who, like the plot, are just ridiculous enough to be real. 

Style (5/5): Effusive, is a great word. Palahniuk gushes. He gives you lists and lists of examples of the worst sex offenders, the injustices at Colonial Dunsboro (theme park of doom), the indiscretions of Victor’s past. It’s gritty and doesn’t shy away from very explicit material. If you can decide, for a moment, to set aside your ideas of morals and creeds, it’s addictive. And if you don’t mind that it sticks up the gears of the plot sometimes. It’s not a thriller; it moves quickly if you want to soak up the ideas, but if you’re looking for something more focused on plot progression, it’s not for you. 

Mechanics (5/5): Lovely. A little too much repetition of some key phrases, but that only got annoying towards the end, and said annoyance could even have been intentional. 

Take Home Message: A guide to the most accepted sins of the modern time, in fiction.

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