TalkSomeone explain it to me...

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Dec 18, 2007, 7:50pm

Choke was the book that led me to wonder if Palahniuk wasn't a wee bit overrated. That is it was the one that took me from believing that he was an important writer with things to say and an intriguing style to believing his major writing skill was disguising the inherent superficiality of his novels. And yet, people still discuss him as an important writer and Choke winds up in the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.

Frankly, part of my problem is that it often seems like the "message" in CP's novels is neither particularly sophisticated nor elegantly laid out. It often turns out to be stuff like, "You shouldn't hold on to your pain," which is good advice--it was good advice 2000 years ago when Jesus and Buddha were telling parables to illustrate this point--but isn't really going to rock my world.

Choke, however, fails in some pretty basic levels as a novel. To start with, it's so idiotically overdetermined. The book lays out how the narrator has a huge martyr complex, even stating that he's taking on people's sins for them--then has a twist where he comes to suspect that he might be Jesus' clone! Is this overkill meant to be parodic?

Also, why can't he write characters outside of a narrow range? And why does he attempt to create one in the person of Ida Mancini? Ida Mancini is an ex-radical, Italian immigrant; but she's may as well be Tyler Durden in drag considering how well she's written. CP attempts to pass this off with some platitude of how most immigrants seem more American than those born into it. This honestly made me wonder if CP had ever met an immigrant. Yes, many immigrants adopt a level of love for their adopted country and all its cultural institutions (Christianity, football, shopping malls) with a passion to put the native-born to shame, but unless they immigrated when they were very young it's pretty unlikely that they're going to be indistinguishable from someone who grew up in the culture.

Not to mention that Ida Mancini supposedly feels nothing but contempt for the US and its culture, which begs the question of why she bothered to immigrate and assimilate into a culture she didn't care for and why all her criticisms seem to come from an American, not Italian, perspective.

Also, Choke has got to have one of the creakiest plots I've encountered outside of a Dean Koontz novel. The narrator spends a large part of the book dodging his 12-step meetings and talking about the fourth step, and when he finally decides to shape up and goes to one, the moderator starts with, "Tonight, we're going to work on the fourth step." (If this was a movie, I would have half expected some soaring violin strings to clue me in that this is an important moment.) The narrator's fourth step is a rather funny vignette that's thinly connected to the rest of the narrative.

I could bring up other problems, but this probably a good measure of some of my objections: shallow "messages," poor characterization, unimaginative plotting. Is there a reason that Choke's merits outway those faults, or am I incorrect in feeling that they're faults?

Dec 18, 2007, 8:31pm

It's been a little while since I last read Choke, so I really can't answer alot of the issues you've presented-I should probably reread it to better address some issues. However, I do give him a little more credit for his ability to write a character, particularly an anti-hero. However, I'd never read Palahniuk as literature-his books are good, not great, but good. He does a fairly good job of showing many of the anxieties of the lower-middle class and weaving a good story while he does it. Yes, he uses mental illness and deus ex machina a bit more than most writers (not quite to the level of a crutch, but they are common threads), but it's always seemed like he was writing more about the people than their events. The plot has always seemed secondary. Even in Fight Club, it seems like the plot was just there as a support for explaining agnst and anti-matierialism. In fact, any time my husband starts getting on one of his rants, I tend to call him Tyler.
As for the 1001 books to read before you die-I looked through that list and scoffed at quite a bit. What one person thinks should be read isn't law.

Dec 18, 2007, 8:38pm

Choke is one of the few Palahniuk books I haven't read. My husband read it and told me about it, and I just wasn't interested. My favorite book by him is Survivor. I think that would make a GREAT movie.

Dec 18, 2007, 10:49pm

As for the 1001 books to read before you die-I looked through that list and scoffed at quite a bit. What one person thinks should be read isn't law.


Scoffing at it is not a problem at all, but do note that it's not put together by one person. There were over 100 so-called experts that came up with it. Just thought you should be clear on what you're scoffing at :-)

Edited: Dec 19, 2007, 9:14am

Then I'll scoff at "experts". Committee work doesn't always come up with the best suggestions. It is nice to know that it's not just one person's opinion, but it is still just opinion. :) (edited to add the smile-it sounded snarky before that-I was smiling when I typed)

Dec 19, 2007, 10:53am

Kaelirenee, I have to admit I haven't looked through the entire list, though I have heard complaints about it before, such as it's overemphasis on contemporary works versus classics. I guess using at as an authority on what constitutes literature is pretty questionable. I actually do like a lot of Palahniuk's other works: Fight Club as well as Lullaby and Diary. (But Haunted is a total mess.)

That said, I've never been all that impressed by his overall skill as a writer. Choke actually has phrases, passages, or even entire chapters that were pretty good, but it adds up to less than the whole of its parts.

He does create some interesting characters, which is what made the character of Ida Mancini so frustrating. An ex-radical, Italian immigrant who attempts to continue her radicalism through acts of cultural terrorism should make for a fascinating figure, but Palahniuk can't really pull off that kind of character. My theory, if you'll indulge me in some death-of-the-author post-modernism, is that she was third or fourth generation Italian (probably of mixed ancestry), born in the Midwest, studied Italian language and culture in college, dreamed of emigrating there but was unable to because her radical activities had produced a criminal record. She reinvents herself as Italian and spends the rest of her life taking out her frustration on the culture she feels she cannot escape from.

Perhaps Palahniuk even intended that to be a possible interpretation of the character, and I'm just too dense to notice. Though as with Haunted, I can't help escape the feeling that I'm trying too hard to find meaning where there is none.

Dec 19, 2007, 1:39pm

Must be why I never heard of or read anything by Palahniuk. If you can't do plot and you can't do character, what's left?

Dec 19, 2007, 4:54pm

I've noticed he's not the best at writing women-but then I have read very few male authors who are good at that.
And when I say his plot is secondary, I don't mean it in the way the plot was secondary (or nonexistant) in Ethan Frome. It's more like a plot is secondary to a parable. The message is the important part-not the messenger or the way to get to that message. I don't think Choke does the best job of it when compared to his other books (Diary and Fight Club in particular), but when compared to much of the writing out there, I think it holds its own. One thing I prefered about Choke to Fight Club-it didn't seem like a movie. It didn't seem like it could ever be made into a movie.

Edited: Dec 19, 2007, 5:56pm

Well, I think his failure to write women (as well as his failure to write foreigners) sort of reinforces the impression I get of Palahniuk as being very insular. It makes for an odd synergy between his characters' navel-gazing and his books' tendency to navel gaze.

I have to agree with you about the parable aspect; one of my problems is that the message doesn't tend to be all that earth shattering. In fact, I often feel about him the way I felt about the band Rush in high school--I could agree with every statement they were trying to make while being totally bored with the dull literalism of how they made them.

I often get the impression that CP gets a lot of credit for what he's trying to do more than for his ability to actually do it. Case in point: His "reinventing horror" phase, which produced a couple of good novels but didn't really add much to the horror genre. (Frankly, none of his "horror" novels seemed half as experimental as House of Leaves.)

Ironically, CP wrote Fight Club to be unfilmable. Also, Choke is being made into a movie.

Dec 19, 2007, 7:24pm

House of leaves is one of those that I could never get into-it felt like it was being experimental to completely cover for lack of talent or interest (and could probably be its own thread). I do think it's funny that Choke is being made into a movie. I'm all tapped out of ways to defend it/him, though-I like it, but not enough to get emotional about it-ask me about Margaret Atwood or Japser Fforde or Roald Dahl for that LOL. Anyone else want to jump in? :)

Dec 19, 2007, 10:51pm

9> What novels are considered "reinvented horror"? I haven't heard about his intention in that regard before.

Edited: Dec 20, 2007, 12:28pm

#10 - Well, I haven't read House of Leaves yet, though I have been intrigued by it since I heard about it. I am hoping to start it next week, since if I wait too long, I suspect the library will be revoking my privelleges. (But that's neither here nor there.) I think since horror is such a disreputable genre, the attempt of more serious authors to work in the genre gets a bit overblown. But that's probably a whole discussion for a different thread.

I've enjoyed the discussion even though it hasn't really changed my mind. I kind of suspect all Palahniuk books skate the fine line between stupid and clever, and where exactly they land is largely a matter of personal pathology.

#11 - Shortly after Choke came out, Palahniuk started talking about reinventing horror with his next three novels, which turned out to be Lullaby, Diary and Haunted. The front flaps of both Lullaby and Diary both feature some variation on the "reinventing horror" theme.

Dec 20, 2007, 5:28pm

I haven't read anything here that would make me reconsider my ban on all things Chuck Palahniuk. I picked up one or two of his books after seeing the movie, Fight Club. One was something about a bunch of people picked up by a bus (?) and taken to a theater; the other had a scene describing a dude in a pool getting his intestines sucked out by the pool drain. Not even sure it wasn't the same book. All I know is, every page had me saying "why am I reading this?". I don't think I finished 12 pages, which is very unusual for me. The only other book I absolutely could not read was Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose... for completely different reasons, of course. :-)

Jan 3, 2008, 8:00pm

A few more thoughts on Choke. Perhaps some of it has to be chalked up to overfamiliarity. Choke was the fourth CP book I had read, so I had some awareness of his collection of literary tricks. Choke pretty much starts off with a big orange sticker stating "WARNING: UNRELIABLE NARRATOR AHEAD," which is fine except that the narrator is so dishonest that his dishonesty is predictable. When he says, "Don't bother reading this book" I understand, "Please listen to my story!" And when he disparages his younger self, what he's really saying is "My inner child needs a hug!"
It ended up feeling like cheap reverse psychology, whereas if I had read Choke before his other novels I might not have been quite so "on guard."

Jun 1, 2008, 3:56pm

There is no denying the similarities between Chuck's books. The stylistic elements he employs, the shocking content, the nihilistic attitude of his characters and the underbelly of society he chooses to explore; these are all part of experiencing his writing. Whether you love it or hate it, you are arguing the same side of the Palahniuk coin, and I think he would be delighted just to get any major reaction at all. I am glad someone is out there experiencing the unusual and unknown fringes of society and bringing back to our safe little habitats in the form of a novel.

Is he a good writer? A couple of years ago, I might have said "Absolutely", just because he was so original to me. Now, since I have read quite a few more novels by different, better authors, I do think he relies on minimalism writing workshop tricks and techniques a bit too much. He is a great idea man, but his characters and plots can be weak. He was, however, fairly original when he first came out with his novel and, aside from Lullaby, Choke is one of his better novels.

-- M1001

Jun 1, 2008, 5:14pm

I always find discussions of Palahniuk by those who aren't very fond of him so much more enlightening than the discussions by those who are fans. (If you've read any of the early amazon reviews of his latest novel that just came out, you'd get an idea of what I mean.)

Now, before I dive in to this, I should tell you that I am an enormous fan of Chuck Palahniuk. I own all of his books, often multiple copies, and two boxes of stuff he sends to fans who write him letters. And I at least occasionally check out his official website. I am one big old Chuckie P. fangirl. (Which is a little odd, if you know much about the demographics of his readership.)

However, Choke is not my favorite book by him, so I think it's been about six years since I've read it. Despite this, I often think that Palahniuk is underrated, not overrated. (Surprise, surprise.) Let me explain why.

To me Palahniuk is an absolute master of the turn of the phrase and to some degree rhythm of language. If you've seen Fight Club the movie, you know how compelling those little tidbits sound when spoken out loud. I have copied down dozens of these little phrases that I just love to go over sometimes. However, I think this master ability may also be his downfall. Because I fully agree that sometimes there's not much to support those perfect phrases.

Palahniuk's other ability is his master handling and, potentially, creation of urban legends. Urban legends really are the modern folklore and I think he does a wonderful job of both creating his own and working in ones that already exist.

Those are the two reasons I love his work dearly. However, those really have nothing to do with why I suspect he deserves a place in a book like 1001 Books to Read Before you Die.

He may not be the "best" minimalist writer and I don't think he, nor any serious reader of his work, would make the argument that he is, but he is responsible for making minimalism mainstream, much in the way that Tolkien was responsible for making fantasy accessible to a wider audience. Of course, minimalism I think is quite an acquired taste and one that many people aren't interested in and I see no crime in that. I have no interest in insisting on enjoyment of his work, but I think there's a lot to be said for the argument that classic or important literature is not always going to be enjoyable for even every serious reader, much less the casual one.

Of course, I'm not an authority on literature other than being a heavy reader like a lot of the rest of us here, so that's really just my two cents as a Palahniuk reader.

Jun 2, 2008, 8:15pm

Thanks for the responses.

media, I have to give Palahniuk credit for one thing. I think his books are worth talking about, although I am as likely to be delivering scorn as praise on my end of the conversation.

To add to that, they do make me think. Now, I'm not sure how much of that thought Palahniuk really inspired. Like the thought, mentioned above, that Ida Mancini cannot really be Italian. Or how the protagonist in Choke mirrors the book itself in his own narcisstic love for his own outrageousness.

Now, this is part of my problem with Choke. I actually think characters living on the fringes of society (and their disreputable adventures) can make for interesting, thought-provoking reading. But Victor Mancini is less addicted to sex than he is to his own desire to show off what a bad person he is. In fact, I think that if there wasn't such a thing as sex addiction, Victor wouldn't be all that interested in sex. The book actually ended up reminding me of Jerry Springer, where you knew that if the camera was turned off, all of the character conflicts would cease to exist.

I do agree that Palahniuk does seem to have an ear for both sharing and creating urban legends (as well as those very quotable bits of dialogue), which may be part of the reason he doesn't move me so much. I have to admit, when it comes to urban legends, whatever their value as transmiters of unspoken cultural values, I'm not really that fascinated. Of course, this makes me think of the Jerry Springer comparison. Certainly, Springer's show mined some of the same psychic underbelly as Palahniuk's fiction. I don't know whether that can be taken as a swipe at Palahniuk or a call for reappraising Jerry Springer, but I'll leave it at that.

twomoredays, you bring up a couple of good points. It is pretty easy to misjudge an author based on what his writing is not meant to do. (I'm a big fan of Lovecraft and Borges and tend to object when people claim that the lack of characterization in their works renders them bad authors.) And Palahniuk certainly has his strengths, though it's always tempting to react to the way they seem to get blown out of proportion by his fandom. (That's a whole separate thread altogether.)

And I have to admit, I never did think of Palahniuk as being the guy who brought minimalism into the mainstream. There's probably a lot to be said about the merits of populizers of previously obscure movements, which I won't get into.

Instead, I want to mention a favorite author of mine, also a minimalist, also into writing about marginal, self destructive characters. Mark Richard, who wrote Fishboy and Charity, works in a lot of the same territory as Palahniuk. If you haven't read him, I highly recommend him.

Edited: Jun 2, 2008, 10:52pm

#17: and as an addendum to the minimalist writer recommendations...Amy Hempel is Chuck's writing hero and she is well worth checking out as well. She is an amazing writer and her collected stories were published fairly recently. You can really see where Chuck got his style after you read some of her work.

Edited to add author touchstone.

-- M1001

Jun 3, 2008, 4:11am

I second the recommendation of Amy Hempel's work. I found her through Chuck and I actually believe her work is much more masterful than his though she's not nearly as well known.

Jun 4, 2008, 6:05pm

I have read enough about Amy Hempel to be intrigued and definitely plan on checking out her work at some point. However, my current TBR pile means I probably won't seek out her work anytime soon, so unless fate intervenes, it'll probably be next year before I get around to it. (The same might be said for Palahniuk's non-fiction, which sounds intriguing in a way his fiction no longer does for me.)

Edited: Jun 4, 2008, 7:03pm

It's been a long time since I read Choke and I don't remember much other than that I didn't really like it. I did however like Survivor and I agree with cheri0627 that it would make an awesome movie. I liked Lullaby too. What I wanted to point out because I think you all might find it interesting is that Choke has actually been removed from the updated edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. The updated edition has more of a focus on international (rather than just American and British authors), and to keep the list at 1001 a bunch of books were removed from the list. Have to say I agree with it being removed. Just my opinion though and I'm glad that others disagree because that makes discussing this far more interesting.

Edited: Mar 31, 2019, 8:09pm

Greetings from Mexico. Really enjoyed reading most of the input here. I just finished the book, and I agree that one knows more or less what to expect when reading CP. That's why I don't quite understand the criticism about characterization or plot. Seems to me that in CP's books the plot is built within a series of philosophical issues the author wants to address, some of which probably sprout randomly. Nonetheless, there are real issues that create empathy and reflection at times.
Noticed how the setting wasn't quite introduced until chapter 3? I respect the fact that CP doesn't care so much about what other people think about his writing. I take his writing is like therapy to him, taking off his chest issues, doubts, and fears he wants to explore or transform with.
I have to agree with Carlos McRey or whoever said that CP makes us think. I think that's one of CP's biggest strengths. I also agree with the fact that you can find many "tids and bits", memorable quotes in his work. And that sometimes his "novels" seem a bit inconsistent. I recall how people killed CP's Pygmy in the Amazon Reviews whereas I, being a teacher found it to be a funny parody most of the time. CP doesn't strike me as a guy taking himself too seriously, or as someone who considers himself a master of the trade. He has developed a way and a format for the way he writes his books. Most of the time I'd rather read him or Hempel than to pick up a classic "superbly" written novel like "Madden Bovary". Why? Because these things move faster and sometimes deeper. Like how some of the main social issues of our time are addressed. Find it refreshing to find that someone else is writing about these matters, in a way that just puts the conversation on the table and doesn't try to solve it. Contrary to all the modern therapies and philosophies that are flooding us nowadays. This type of ambiguity, the chance to consider different or even opposing points of view without having to team for one side, and a big dose of black sarcasm have to be taken into consideration when reading this dude.

The challenging part, some may not be considering is that using minimalism writers can explore or at least put on the table many different and powerful ideas in a few paragraphs. For me, the core of the plot has to be the 1)"Modern Edipo Relationships". There's other interesting stuff to think about like 2)Can parenthood be opium?... 3)Old age and social responsibility towards it... 4)How sick is society really? The backside of this is that like in Freud you will explore the pathology without the certainty that you will find a cure. So the again, we can always not read these types of books remember "ignorance is bliss".

I mean, these "minimalistic" writers like Hempel or CP don't strike me like trying to follow the pre-established form and style on how a novel is supposed to be, in all truth I'm not even sure Choke or Fight Club are novels or better a series of interrelated short stories. If a book was interesting enough to finish, made you laugh, think and made you a bit uncomfortable or empathic at times, I'd say it's done the trick.

Oct 6, 2019, 11:10am

Well to the first poster, I had never heard of this book before so after I read your posting I went to Audible and listened to the 11 minute sample. If only the author had not narrated it himself, I could have liked it. But, with the author reading it there was an awful sense of self pity. Was that intended by the author? I hope not. Anyway, now I want to read it. Thank you for your post about this book.