Sunday, January 11, 2009

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

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I used to work in a bookstore, and my fellow employees either loved Chuck Palahniuk’s writing, or they hated it. Choke is the first of his pieces I’ve read, and if it is possible to have two such opinions at once – let’s call them “enjoyed” and “not sure I actually liked what I enjoyed” instead of “loved” and “hated” – then I have them about this book.
I never want to give this blog a rating of any sort, but if I’m going to follow the premise and discuss my thoughts on every book I read, then some of them are just going to be downright crude. And, well, the first book of 2009 will not be given by me to my siblings. Take that as you will, and proceed on your own free will.
Now why is discussing sex (and particularly sexual deviance) so uncomfortable? Why is simply reading about it so uncomfortable? Personally, I have very little problem doing so, and I imagine my tolerance for such readings and discussions is higher than other folks’. But there are passages in this book I wouldn’t read again in front of females I know and whose opinion of me I value, half because of the tent I might pitch and half for the reasons in Choke why my jeans might decide to go camping. (I’ll just say the scenes in Palahniuk’s book aren’t of the romance-story variety your grandma might read to get her ya-yas out. Unless your grandma would belong in this book.) And while I tried to view the sexual conversations and scenes in Choke as an integral part of the story, tried to understand what purpose they served to the rest of the writing, I couldn’t help but think of how many people would be downright uncomfortable reading these passages.

A big part of why my former co-employees didn’t like Palahniuk is that they believed he writes these sorts of scenes – and, indeed, complete stories – just for the shock value. (To be fair, his latest book, Snuff, which was released while I worked in this bookstore, was all written from the perspectives of three men out of several hundred acting in a single pornographic film. The New York Times Book Review slammed this book harder than a professional wrestler who breaks script.) And the shock value is, I now believe, an important tool in Palahniuk’s arsenal.

But I don’t believe that the sexual passages and ideas in this book are there only for the shock value. I won’t pretend to understand Palahniuk’s motives. But what passages like the ones he writes force us, as readers, to do is to face the sexuality that we each possess as reproductive mammals. For very few of us is sex an entirely approachable subject, despite the fact that it’s one of the few things that every single person who reaches puberty on this planet thinks about.

Not all of us think about sex the way that Victor Mancini does in Choke, but that’s because not all of us are sexual addicts to the extent that Victor is. In the context of the book, it makes sense that so many of his thoughts and so many of his actions center around sex, the possibilities of getting it, and how sex (and not, say, murder or theft) is what Jesus would not do. But whether we are repulsed by Victor’s ideas and actions or secretly aroused by them (or – and why not? – both), by reading this book, we confront his sexuality and our own.

I think as humans (especially those of us from the United States), we need to be confronted more often by our own sexuality. Living in Germany, people in Europe and America ask me what the differences are between the two cultures. Of all the differences, the biggest one I can point to is the way we treat violence and sex. In the United States (and elsewhere in the world), we hide sex and sexuality. We ban it from television, we don’t talk openly about it within families and among friends, we put magazines in plastic wrap on the top shelf behind a black barrier. Some of us think abstinence is the only answer for teen pregnancy, and not least of all because that means we don’t have to talk about sex with our teens. And we take our five-year-olds to the theater to watch people get shot and blown up and tortured. In Europe, sexuality walks the streets like all the other citizens. Naked people appear in television commercials. Nudie magazines are sold on street corners – and even the newspapers will show an odd breast on the cover. Teenagers having sex? Yup, it happens, and the funny part is, they educate and talk about it. But you don’t see half the death glorified on screen that we get in the U.S.A.

I don’t believe that sex should become a Huxleyan freedom, where everyone belongs to everyone else and sex is purely recreational. And if someone chooses to remain celibate, well, power to them. But that doesn’t mean one doesn’t have sexuality, or even that one is repressing it. We all have the drive to copulate, and even if we don’t all get it whenever we want it, even if not all of us do want it, our sexuality is always there. Why the hell can’t we talk more openly about it?

Choke does. And even if I didn’t try out the advice Victor gives about getting laid on a Boeing 767 – despite being on a Boeing 767 while reading it – I’m a little more open than I already was to talking and hearing about human sexuality after finishing this book. The sex here has a purpose, and although Palahniuk might take it a bit over the top at times, Victor’s sexual addiction is no more repulsive than an alcohol addiction or a video game addiction. I have to believe all addicts (and who among us isn’t one?) would benefit from a bit more openness with one another.


  1. You've piqued my curiosity; I think I'll have to check this out. It'll be interesting to see if I'm shocked by the same things that seem to shock everyone else.

    Looking forward to seeing more of your book thoughts.

  2. You make it seem like his sex scenes are practically a transcript of a porn video. Is that what it is or not so much?

    I have to admit that I'm very open about my sexuality and my desires and what not, so I wonder if I would be bothered...who knows?

  3. Late response, I know. I'll be better at responding to comments from here on out.

    I wouldn't say the sex scenes are "practically a transcript of a porn video" (at least not in this book -- I haven't read Snuff though). It's not so much a play-by-play in the sex scenes as it is simply descriptive, and the sex described is definitely not of the "when a mommy and a daddy love each over verrrry much" variety. And much of the shock comes from the thoughts of and conversations with the main character, rather than in explicit scenes.

    Only one way to find out if you'd be bothered, though.