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Book Review - "Choke" by Chuck Palahnuik

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:52pm

513R6M2EGFL__SL500_BO2,204,203,200_PIlitb-dp-500-arrow,TopRight,45,-64_OU01_AA240_SH20_ Yesterday I finished the novel Choke, by Chuck Palahnuik.  For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he is most well-known for having written Fight Club.  This is the first book by him I've read, and I based my decision to read him simply on having enjoyed the movie version of Fight Club so much.  In Choke, we follow the story of Victor Mancini, a sex addicted under-achiever (due in large part to the upbringing he experienced by his mother), who has stumbled upon a unique gimmick - "choking" at various restaurants, night after night, with the purpose of creating "heroes" who will thereafter see to his well-being via financial support.  He uses this money in large part to support his mother, who is now wasting away in a nursing home.  Dark, morbid, raw, and graphic - this isn't a made-for-TV feel good story.  As Victor attempts to juggle all of these competing problems, both internal and external, he consistently makes poor choices right up to a startling climax. 

Browsing descriptions of Palahnuik's literary style, words like " anarchistic" kept coming up.  Certainly in Fight Club there was a strong anti-authority streak (albeit accompanied by the conformity associated with said anarchistic goals).  My sense, after reading Choke, is that Palahnuik concerns himself (at least in these two stories) with individuals who have significant problems, for a variety of reasons.  The reasons may include upbringing, genetics, societal/environmental issues, and so on.  With these problems, the individual struggles to function in a society that doesn't do "different" all that well.  In addition, many of the routes society does offer toward addressing problems simply do not work for the individuals in Palhnuik's books.  For example, in both Fight Club and Choke, the protagonist avails himself to self-help groups.  However, at best, they don't help, and at worst, they exacerbate the problem.  No, in the stories of Chuck Palahnuik, addressing the issues will require more than working through the twelve steps.

What is interesting is that for the characters in these books, they tend to go from one extreme to the other, a reaction to whatever has been ailing them.  Then, as a result of all the problems this response causes, there seems to be some level of insight.  The characters realize that while one extreme is no good, going all the way over to the other side doesn't exactly clear things up.  While I've read Palhnuik described as nihilistic, I would have to disagree.  In both of the stories I'm familiar with, there is an awful lot of pain, suffering, and dysfunction (presented quite humorously in many cases).  But there is always some level of insight that, while not tying everything up in a neat bow, does provide the protagonist with a a path to follow, some trail towards something better - a light out of the forest.  What is nice about this that, as a therapist, I actually appreciate the subtlety of what may be described as recovery.  Too often, therapy in various forms of media is portrayed as an individual speaking to a therapist in their office, droning on about the problems in their life.  Suddenly, the therapist says something profound, and Bingo! a light bulb can be seen above the head of the protagonist.  Insight!  The clouds part, sunshine pours through, and fame and fortune await.

That ain 't how it happens.  Successful therapy generally requires a significant amount of trial and error, development of new skills, and a cert ain degree of confrontation by the therapist to 1) get the client to actually accept responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and 2) do something about it.  The characters of Palahnhuik don't go about things exactly the way I'd recommend, be they do eventually arrive at insight through story lines that, while dramatic, cont ain a much larger kernel of truth than most people are probably comfortable with.  Then ag ain, that is another similarity between Palahnuik 's books and therapy - they may be good, but they are often uncomfortable.

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