Thursday, October 16, 2008

Choke - Chuck Palahniuk

Here at Flying Houses, we have a new mission: review all of the books by Chuck Palahniuk and provide a detailed critique of his entire oeuvre. Okay well I am not sure I will be so excited to read Fight Club again since it is oh-so-familiar a concept at this point, but regardless, we have knocked out Survivor, Rant, and Choke long? 3 weeks? What! Coming up next on the table are Invisible Monsters, Snuff, Haunted, Lullaby, and Diary. And then maybe Stranger than Fiction. Difficult task, tedious description, but the books are always quite manageable.

I originally got onto this kick by wanting to read Choke since the movie had just been released. Well, now I can see the movie. There are many details of the film that seem to make it into the review. Main character who is a sex addict that works in a living museum of the colonial era who has a mother with Alzheimer's disease whose health care he pays for by choking at every restaurant in his area and being saved by a fellow patron so that they send him birthday cards with checks in them. The book does not stray very far from that description and I would guess the movie does not either. There is plenty of entertainment to be found and at least a few philosophical truths to be uncovered.

There are over forty chapters in the book and it does skip around in many little vignettes. The main characters are Victor Mancini, his mother Ida Mancini, his best friend Denny, and his mother's caretaker Dr. Paige Marshall. Every character goes through changes in the course of this novel. The opening of the novel shows Victor as a boy with a mother who is always breaking out of jail and sending out signals for him to find her so they can go on more adventures. She is an anarchist.

Some people comment that all of Chuck Palahniuk's books are variations on the same theme. That they're all basically the same book. Chapter 25 contains Ida Mancini's r'aison d'etre--one that does not seem all that far removed from Tyler Durden--but one which is a bit less violent:

"The Mommy, she used to tell him she was sorry. 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 left much room for adventure, except maybe the kind you could buy. On a roller coaster. At a movie. Still, it would always be that kind of faux excitement. You know the dinosaurs aren't going to eat the kids. The test audiences have outvoted any chance of even a major faux disaster. 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.
The laws that keep us safe, these same laws condemn us to boredom.
Without access to true chaos, we'll never have true peace.
Unless everything can get worse, it won't get any better.
This is all stuff the Mommy used to tell him.
She used to say, 'The only frontier you have left is the world of intangibles. Everything else is sewn up too tight.'
Caged inside too many laws.
By intangibles, she meant the Internet, movies, music, stories, art, rumors, computer programs, anything that isn't real. Virtual realities. Make-believe stuff. The culture.
The unreal is more powerful than the real.
Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it.
Because it's only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die.
But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.
If you can change the way people think, she said. The way they see themselves. The way they see the world. If you do that, you can change the way people live their lives. And that's the only lasting thing you can create.
Besides, at some point, the Mommy used to say, your memories, your stories and adventures, will be the only thing you'll have left.
At her last trial, before this last time she went to jail, the Mommy had sat up next to the judge and said, 'My goal is to be an engine of excitement in people's lives.'
She'd stared straight into the stupid little boy's eyes and said, 'My purpose is to give people glorious stories to tell.'
Before the guards took her into the back wearing handcuffs, she'd shouted, 'Convicting me would be redundant. Our bureaucracy and our laws have turned the world into a clean, safe work camp.'
She shouted, 'We are raising a generation of slaves.'
And it was back to prison for Ida Mancini.
'Incorrigible' isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind." (159-160)

Longest citation ever? How's that for literary interpretation, eh? You'd never get away with writing a paper on Choke but who knows--in one hundred years perhaps Palahniuk will be studied the same way Hemingway is. That stark, cutting prose style! To be serious again, the last line, "______ isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind" is one of the repeated mantras of the novel, as is "What would Jesus NOT do?" as is "See also: _____. See also: _____." But that above quotation sums up the spirit of this work. Eventually the reader sees how his mother has affected Victor's worldview, how she teaches him to interpret the world differently from what logic shows to be the truth. And truthfully, it does end up being a rather catch-all novel, with several different areas of focus and no real big, serious "theme."

But on the inside cover it does state, for the purposes of the Library of Congress: 1. Alzheimer's Disease--Patients--Fiction, 2. Sex Addiction. But there are basically a few vignettes that are repeated until the novel reaches its tidy, satisfying, closure-providing end.

1) Stories of Victor as a boy and his mother in her prime anarchy mode. The greatest diversion comes in the chapter that describes his mother's means of employment--as a hypnotist that provides spiritual rejuvenation by inducing a wet dream for her clients with famous women in history.
2) Stories of Victor at the Colonial Dunsboro theme park/museum, where he works with his fellow addict friend Denny, and scenes with him and Denny outside the workplace, sometimes at a strip club, and a few other places. These scenes end up being the most effective in the novel. Their friendship is portrayed quite touchingly.
3) Stories of Victor visiting his mother's at St. Anthony's Nursing Home, and his steadily advancing relationship with Dr. Paige Marshall. This also introduces the most ridiculous and absurd plot element--perhaps the most fantastic notion the novel presents--but also concludes rather eloquently.
4) Stories of Victor having sex with other sex addicts. Notably women who are put on a 3 hour leave-of-absence from jail to attend sex addicts meetings while they are actually not working towards their recovery at all. Notably Gwen, a woman who wants Victor to "rape" her. And then, in the longest scene, Tracy who introduces Victor to the "mile-high club" and sex addiction at the same time. The most particularly painful scene involves what happens during one of these sexual bouts and its prolonged effects on Victor's digestive system.

While it may not strive for the absurd heights of Fight Club or Rant, Choke is a fully-satisfying novel. It could be a book-of-the-month club for Oprah if its story wasn't so concerned with naughty subjects. I have read that the movie is not as good as the book, but the book is highly entertaining, and I am definitely looking forward to seeing the movie, now that I know what the story is all about, now that I can compare what was left out versus what deserved to be included. There's very little to criticize in the text itself.

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