Don’t Hold Your Breath: Chuck Palahniuk’s CHOKE [Part 1]

(This article has been divided into 2 sections.  The first half is an introduction and review of the “SNUFF” book tour.  Part 2 is a review of the film “CHOKE” .  It is a singular piece and we encourage you to read it in its entirety if you have the time and/or inclination, but please feel free to jump to your specific point of interest)

When the film version of Fight Club was released, it seemed as if any and every pseudo-trendy movie-goer that I spoke with tried to shove their praises of it down my throat.  There were better films released that year (see: “Magnolia“) and Brad Pitt isn’t a name that bumps a film up on my priority list, but I did eventually see it and found it to be worth a recommendation, especially for a Hollywood film.  It definitely lived up to it’s hype much better than “The Blair Witch Project” and “Eyes Wide Shut”, but I didn’t find it to be as cutting edge and revolutionary as many had hailed it to be.  You have to remember that 1999 was the year of “The Sixth Sense” and “The Matrix” or, in other more elaborate words, the year of solid concepts that could have been delivered more effectively outside of Hollywood but were still more than enough to blow Joe Average Consumer’s mind right through the back of their skull.  Regardless of what your feelings about “The Matrix” may be, the quality could have been greatly enhanced without the talents of Ted Theodore Logan in the leading role.  The concept may have been incredibly interesting and foreign to those of you who are isolated and/or have never had a hallucinogenic experience but, for those of us who have experienced the wonders of what linoleum floor patterning has to offer, a methodically constructed false society is an old philosophy and 2: Johnny Utah is a bad trip waiting to happen.  “Fight Club” was a better film and that somehow left me with an ironically diminished interest in the literary source of the script.  What I mean to say is that the glossy, cut-corner Hollywood execution of a film with such a cerebral basis as “The Matrix“, reeked of a commercial takeover while “Fight Club” appeared to be trying to going “balls out” just to fall short of what I would have considered amazing.   I knew that “The Matrix” was 40 milligrams of intellect diluted in a spoonful of Hollywood Rocky Road from the beginning but, “Fight Club” was just good enough for me to assume there would be nothing more to discover from reading the novel that spawned it.

I thought that the elaborate set up of the “twist” was more satisfying than that of “The Sixth Sense“, but not by much.  Whether it was done subconsciously or out of sheer laziness, “Fight Club’s” casting director created some potholes that effected my theatrical carriage ride.  I know that this “twist” is what made the film for many viewers and gave them a little special secret to hold close to themselves but, in my opinion, there were too many obvious and unsurprising things about the movie.  For example, Helena Bonham Carter plays the mysterious and emotional weird girl while Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durdan is the same fly by the seat of his pants, rebel heart throb that he’s been playing since he dated Carol Seaver on “Growing Pains“.  The main thing that really fucked the twist, and in turn the core of the film, was the type-casting of Edward Norton who, just a few years earlier, made his big breakthrough in “Primal Fear“as a character dealing with a dual personality disorder.  Certain aspects like these dulled the sheen for me and, without the added interest of experimentation to excuse any possible flat points (see: “Julian Donkey Boy“/”Being John Malkovich“), it wasn’t quite spring-loaded with enough umph to embed itself very deep into my mind after the credits rolled.  This, at least, is how I used to feel but, earlier this year, I realized that I had never really given that adaptation enough credit and learned to appreciate it for what had been done right.  When I saw the, soon to be released, motion picture “CHOKE“, during an advanced screening in June, It became evident how much worse “Fight Club” really could have been.

I’ll admit that I never really wanted to like Chuck Palahniuk but, that desire was never actually fueled by the writer or his work at all.  There were always situations like the uninvited girl who showed up to the New Years party and kept turning off the Fela Kuti to put Dave Mathews on.  I lived with a writer/book collector who she kept asking, “Have you heard of Chuck Pa-lay-nook?  He’s con-tro-ver-see-uhl!”  Grant would reply by correcting Chuck’s name and stating that he had never read his work but had met him and that he seemed pretty cool.  Then she would say, “You should read some.  His name is… Chuck… um…Play-haw-neek, and he’s con-tro-ver-see-uhl!  What’s this book?!”  “It’s Tom Robbins.” “Oh, is he con-tro-ver-see-uhl?  Chuck Plow-hoot-nick, is con-tro-ver-see-uhl!”  That meeting ended with Grant blatantly spitting a mouth full of wine on her pant leg while she obliviously continued to ramble, and with me putting my copy of Palahniuk’sSurvivor” even further on the back burner.  It was a good year and a half later when I grabbed that book in a rush out the door and began to read it on a bus trip.  The minute that I read the part where the main character created a false crisis hotline to encourage people to commit suicide, I was hooked.  I knew that he had me and that I was becoming the last thing that I had wanted… a fan.

“SNUFF” Book Tour

After thanking my little brother for the novel and admitting that I had trusted his recommendation so much that i waited three years before reading it, he gave me a copy of the book CHOKE.  It sucked me in within the first few pages but, since i was already reading “Ham on Rye” (Bukowski) and 2 other books, I had to put this one aside before I delved too deep.  I thought about it from time to time but, not until learning that CHOKE had been adapted into a film which would be playing at the Seattle International Film Festival, did I finally get down to reading it last May.  I can’t remember the last time I read a book that fast and within a days time I had already torn through it.  I put it down satisfied and immediately jumped on line to check the showtime for Harmony Korine’s film “Mister Lonely” (highly recommended).  When I got to the film page, however, I noticed an announcement in the corner for a Chuck Palahniuk appearance at town hall and it was schedule to  start in about an hour.

As we entered the front door there was a merch table run by the UW bookstore.  I went over to sift through the books and I noticed some bookmarks advertising CHOKE the movie.  When I picked one up, a string of anal beads that were connected to them swung down like a pendulum.  On closer look, the bookmark read, “For your book or your bum and not for small children“.  Palahuniuk was doing the tour for his novel, “Snuff” about a woman breaking the group sex record, so I picked up a copy of that, grabbed my novelty ass toy, and headed upstairs to an immense autograph line.

To get in line, it was necessary to have obtained a special slip of paper by purchasing the book weeks earlier, so I took a seat in one of the pew-like benches of the auditorium and opened my own book.  To my surprise, my copy was already signed and stamped by Palahniuk, anyway.  The benefits of the line were that you could shake his hand, get a more personalized inscription, and even take a picture with the author holding a sexy latex blow-up doll.  The wait was incredibly long but Chuck waited until every body with a slip had a chance to meet him.  The scheduled start time had long passed and he was still signing books but Leonard Cohen was playing and I appreciated how accomodating he was being.  He cleary appreciates his readers and Palahniuk has even been known to respond to fan letters by sending elaborate packages, complete with hand written letters and miscellaneous magic store-style novelty items.

Palahniuk was formally introduced to the stage to with applause as he stepped up to the microphone.  He said something to the effect of, “There are a lot of beautiful, important, and touching stories” and then swiftly let us know that we wouldn’t be hearing any of those stories that night.  He explained that he wrote a special short story for the tour by saying, “I figured you’re gonna make the effort to be here then you should get something that the rest of the world is not getting.  Something that will only exist as a told story.”  He laid out the nights format which would consist of the story, playing games, and the answering of some questions before he would, “Go back to the misery that is signing books“.  Palahniuk had a book called “Knockernstiff” (Donald Ray Pollack) which he recommended and had planned to distribute to the winners of the games.  The first way that you could win a book would be to answer a question.  The second way was to blow up a blow up doll the fastest.  He went over to a large cardboard box and began to throw un-inflated male and female rubber sex dolls into the audience.  Each doll had the writer’s signature written across its body in marker.


Palahniuk sat down but, before reading his story, he spoke about watching footage of Billy Idol dissecting his own music.  When Idol explained that all of his songs start at full intensity and maintain it until an abrupt ending, the author realized that it was the same formula for the ideal short story that he had envisioned and that he had always been trying to write a punk song.  The story he read was called “Loser” and it was definitely a highlight of the evening.  It was about a frat boy hopeful during rush week who takes a tab of “Hello Kitty acid” and gets called up on “The Price is Right“.  The story was well written but from the first person perspective of a guy who isn’t all that well read or spoken.  The visuals used to describe an acid trip swallowed up in so much commotion and intensity were solid and, by the time the character reached the “Showcase Showdown“, I almost had visuals of my own.  I’ve been on the CBS Studios lot sober and I can tell you first hand that it’s an absurd and confusing site to begin with.  I don’t know if I would ever want to try and pull in the mental reigns in a situation with that many people wearing that many giant price/name tags.  The story ended abruptly.

The interview was conducted by Warren Etheridge of Seattle’s, “The Warren Report“.  Right from the beginning, Warren took the conversation into uncomfortable territory by simply trying too hard.  He wasn’t having a conversation with Palahniuk as much as he was trying to impress some persona that unfairly surrounds the author, based on his writing.  It was like Etheridge felt it necessary to establish a bad-boy image for himself in front of the audience.  The same thing occurred when I saw John Waters speak but on a smaller scale.  Waters addressed these misguided assumptions by telling a story about a girl yanking out a tampon and asking him to sign it while, Palahniuk had a tale about a guy showing him a stack of Polaroids taken of men who had died jacking off in video booths.  These situations of metaphorical house-cats bringing in the dead mouse to please their owners have left both men with permanent, unshakable images scarring their minds.  By this point in the night, it was already clear that Palahniuk was actually the intelligent, creative, and compassionate artist who had  only started writing because he “couldn’t find the kind of books that (he) wanted to read“.  Oblivious pandering like that in an interview drives me nuts because it’s borderline patronizing, even when it’s coming from a place of nervousness or well meaning.  It’s like a mom getting all “street” on you and speaking ebonics because she thinks that it’s “hep” and had heard on Dateline NBC that the “funkiest” kids all talk like that .  Etheridge pulled out a flask and was cramming as much unprovoked profanity and off-color statements as he could into the conversation.  “Hey guys, you didn’t know your old man was this cool, right?!  You didn’t know that I could still get down, huh?  It is ‘get down’ right?  Isn’t that how you kids say it… ‘gettin’ down’?

Palahniuk fielded the question about how he researched a book about “gang bangs” with answers like, “The way Hemmingway would have done it” and mentioned that he sprayed Stetson cologne inside all of the book tour copies of “Snuff“.  He was full of humorous anecdotes but balanced them with an equal number of well thought out, detailed descriptions, enlightening theories, and useful information.  It was clear that Palahniuk was sincerely drawn into the research and that retrieving and sharing this knowledge are what truly make him continue in the field.  At one point, he even admits that “writing is the last of (his) priorities“.  He also admits to having his back waxed for the book and seems to be able find other innovative and interesting ways to gather information.  When Chuck needed to hunker down and come up with fictional porn titles, he recruited his friends and turned the brainstorming into a party game of sorts.  He said that it had became such a joyful obsession that he would receive phone-calls at all hours with suggestions like “Chitty Chitty Gang Bang“.  My favorite research method that he utilizes is the one where he makes outlandish statements to someone that are completely devoid of fact.  When it goes right, he claims that people will get so agitated that they will actually bring him a stack of evidence just to prove him wrong and, in turn, end up doing the leg work for him.  Apparently, an incidence of sex is defined by “Any protuberance in any orifice” and, while facts like that are interesting, they would become worthless trivia questions in the hands of a less talented author.  Pahlahniuk states that he is always fascinated and inspired by working “with an unresolved area of the culture” and that he wanted to explore areas of sexuality and woman empowerment with his novel.

One of the most enthralling observations uttered by Palahniuk that night was about egotism.  He brought attention to the fact that we are all guilty of consistently judging others based on our own personal determination of ethics or social acceptability.  His theory is that comments like, “What a sellout” or, “Oh, I’d never wear my hair like that” are simply methods to reaffirm that our own personal realities and perceptions are the correct versions.  It’s a captivating topic to explore and one that deals with the very epoxy that fuses one’s “sanity” together.  There was just  enough time for 2 audience questions that night.  I knew that I wouldn’t get called on but I had hoped that there would be a question stimulating enough to evoke a theory like the last one.  Nope! Some kid got to ask Chuck if he would ever write a book strictly devoted to the “drug culture”.  It was like getting 3 wishes and blowing one on a packet of discontinued Kool-AidPalahniuk responded very respectfully that he would not and then shared the video trailer for “Choke” with us before ending the evening with more autographs.


Dead C

Located in Seattle, Dead C is the founder/editor, as well as the principal writer and photographer, of Monster Fresh. Creating the site in 2007, he did so with a specific dream in mind. Unfortunately, being a muscle relaxer-fueled fever dream, it's hard to recall all of the details. "I remember that my mom was there, but it wasn't actually her in the dream, it was actually 70s heart throb, Jan Michael Vincent. And everything took place here, in this room... but it wasn't actually here... it was different. The colors were washed out and, for some reason, there was a raccoon kicking it with us and it was wearing a holographic monocle."

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