I wish I could say I was cool enough to have known about Chuck Palahniuk before others had discovered him, but I had actually never heard of his first published novel, Fight Club, until I had seen director David Fincher's brilliant film version of it. A few days later, I bought the novel, read it and then quickly bought his second and third books, Survivorand Invisible Monsters, devouring them one after the other. I was enraptured by Palahniuk's world of anarchists making explosives from human fat, transsexuals feeding estrogen to unsuspecting chauvinists, suicide cultists, and fashion models without faces wreaking vengeance on old boyfriends. I became an instant fan.
In his new novel, Choke, Palahniuk introduces us to Vincent Mancini, a twentysomething whiling his life away in a shitty, low-wage job at a colonial amusement park. His mother is wasting away from Alzheimer's in an expensive elder-care facility, and to make enough money to help her, he goes into restaurants, stuffs food into his mouth and pretends to be choking. When someone comes to the rescue, a plea for financial aid soon follows. Feeling an obligation to look after the person he's saved, the "hero" eagerly complies.
Faced with his mom's painful end, Vincent goes into meltdown. He becomes obsessed with death and sex, diagnosing people's minor ailments as symptoms of potentially excruciating death, cruising addiction sections of bookstores and going to Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA) 12-step meetings to pick up women. Not that he doesn't realize just how much of a lost soul he is. Written in the form of a brutal self-inventory—Step Four of the 12 Steps to Recovery pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous—Vincent warns us off at the beginning:
"If you're going to read this, don't bother. After a couple of pages, you won't want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you're still in one piece. Save yourself."
A chapter later, he's humping a girl on the floor of a 12-step meeting bathroom while giving us a philosophical introduction to the world of sexual compulsivity. The bit is both funny and hot enough that we're inclined to agree when he says, "I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a hot-gushing, butt-cramping, gut-hosing orgasm."
But there's despair here amid the debauchery. Vincent's mindless fucking around is a symptom of a deep ennui laced with a soured spirituality. In Fight Club, the relationship with God is always seen in the context of the absent father: If I never know the warmth and trust a good father delivers, then how can I love and trust a faceless, seemingly absent Father in heaven? Daddy's missing in Choke, too—Vincent has never known his father. When he's tossing off a line like "Parenthood is the opiate of the masses," he's not just flipping the bird at people who've found some measure of happiness in breeding; he's also mourn.ing his own loss of family.
Sadly, the origins of the fiction in Choke are rooted in Palahniuk's real-life tragedy. His father—a chronic womanizer—was murdered by a girlfriend's ex-husband who stalked and shot the couple to death. Trying to reach some parity with that loss, Palahniuk attended 12-step programs for sexual compulsives, hoping to get a line on how his father's mind worked.
He's gotten the details right, based on my attendance of SCA meetings with a onetime girlfriend. (Yes, you get laid a lot with a compulsive girlfriend, but there's little joy in it. Sooner or later, infidelity and sexually transmitted diseases rear their ugly heads.) He's nailed the 12-step minutiae dead-on: the circle of blandly normal faces; the small green church meeting rooms; the coffee and cigarette smoke; the horrific, matter-of-fact recitation of stories that sound like urban legends; the trembling raised hand; the eyes that look only at the floor; the weeping and self-loathing; the fact that you'll never ever look at people without wondering what secrets they're harboring.
I don't mean this to sound like the book is a downer because it isn't. The particular strength of each of Palahniuk's books is that no matter how colorfully degraded the characters, his tight, economical writing never bores. It's also never preachy, delivering the bitter pills of his sharp observations with wry humor and a steely-eyed but generous humanity.
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For Palahniuk and his readers, the unexamined life isn't worth reading about. His characters have to reach the lowest depths before they can reclaim their lives, and, like a 21st-century Virgil, he's there to take our hand and give us a guided tour of hell. Palahniuk's interest is in redemption, not nihilism, despite the objections of uncomprehending critics.
But social criticism isn't enough unless you're prepared to follow through and actually change things. That's a tough truth to take to heart, and I suspect many will simply gloss over that aspect of the book, preferring to focus on the sexual activity and snarky asides simply because it's easier. Palahniuk warns us that we can only tear down the world—and one another—so much before we run out of things to level.
It's a sober lesson, but once you've learned it, you're fucked. You can't go back; you can only move forward and try to improve things or stay where you are, frozen in panic.
Choke by Chuck Palahniuk; Doubleday Publishing. 293 pages, hardcover, $24.95.