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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

What You Are Experiencing is Premature Enlightenment

What “Fight Club” did for dissociative disorder, Chuck Palahniuk’s new novel “Choke” tries to do for obsessive-compulsive disorder. With “Fight Club,” Palahnuik places his narrator between the roles allowed men in American culture, that of the passively successful and disempowered, and the violently destructive. “Choke” attempts a wider critique of the American concept of individualism. Instant gratification is refined into a quest for ultimate gratification, and addiction becomes the most available path to exhaust desire through excess.

“Choke” attempts this wider techniqe, but doesn’t quite succeed.

Perhaps its failure to do so is a consequence of premature publication. This novel could have stood another round of the revision process. As it is, we follow former med student Victor Mancini through a narrative reminiscent in style of “Fight Club,” but with plot and character devices that are much more complex.

After Victor leaves the field of medicine, his days are filled working at a Sturbridge Village-like theme park, where the year is perpetually 1734, and any anachronistic behavior is punishable by two hours in the stocks. Nights he spends playing a con game in which he pretends to be choking (hence the title). After unsuspecting patrons step up to Heimlich their way to heroism he addicts them to saving his life, all to foot his aging mother’s nursing home bill. He also attends a sexual addiction workshop in order to pick up women and tips on becoming a more successful sexual addict, simultaneously garnering sympathy under the guise of recovery. In the meanwhile, he fosters a relationship with his mother’s nurse, who is trying to convince him to impregnate her so she can use the fetal tissue to illegally inject them into his mother’s brain as a treatment for her progressing Alzheimer’s. This relationship develops into a bizarre cross between Jurassic Park and the Book of Mormon.

Whew! Did you get all that?

That’s what’s frustrating about this novel. It is such a frantic amalgam of time, place, personality, and plot that much of it gets lost in the telling. The con game, his shuffled and much interrupted childhood, his indoctrination and mastery of anonymous sex, his best friend Denny’s transformation from chronically masturbating poster child of loserdom to a self-directed architect, craftsman, and family man, and his mother’s spotted and criminally mischievous past are all there, fumbling over one another to be told.

Occasionally we see the glimmer of the great novel it should have been. One scene has Victor and Denny discussing the truths of life in their Colonial Dunsboro garb of pantaloons, buckled shoes, and tri-cornered hats, traveling through suburban backyards drinking the beer left out to kill garden slugs. Another scene Victor reminisces about a trip to the zoo with his mother. She tells him that they are going to liberate the animals, and his imagination plays with the image of loosed animals and the anarchy that will ensue, but is disappointed when she simply starts tossing LSD into the cages.

But mainly, “Choke” is full of too many loose ends and frayed edges to save itself: It is an example of incredible talent exercised with excessive laziness. In other words, typical contemporary American fiction.