”If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.” So Chuck Palahniuk introduces the reader to Choke, showcasing the punkish style of his fourth novel from line one. The narrator, Victor Mancini, continues: ”After a couple pages, you won’t want to be here,” he warns. ”Save yourself.” The hero’s warning is the author’s awkward wink, and there, in the third paragraph, you have the story’s over-worked theme: salvation.

Palahniuk is a cult writer in the truest sense. Fight Club, his 1996 debut, preached the evils of consumer capitalism to a choir of boys and girls sulkily in touch with their suburban disaffection. In 1999 Palahniuk hit it big, earning critical raves for Survivor (a DeLillo-tinged satire about a televangelist), following with Invisible Monsters (a gory road story), and seeing the director David Fincher adapt Fight Club into a high-profile spectacle of groovy nihilism. The cult has gone pop and, with Choke, will likely gather force, so let’s advise reader discretion: not on account of the skanky sex scenes. Nor the calculated sacrilege. No, rather because of its ”message” — Chuck Palahniuk wants to save your soul.

His agent in that mission is Victor, and this fast-paced coming-of-age story opens with one of the protagonist’s many flashbacks to his youth. ”Imagine,” Victor writes, ”some dweeby little boy wearing no seat belt and riding in a stolen school bus with his mommy after dinner. Only there’s a police car parked at their motel so the Mommy just blows on past at 60 or 70 miles an hour.” Mommy is a menacing lunatic given to sniffing chemicals, pulling antiestablishment pranks, and kidnapping her son from foster parents.

Victor, a medical school dropout now in his 20s, leads an empty life. He works, in degrading period costume, at a mangy colonial history museum in some nameless nowhere. Much like the hero of Fight Club, he delights in hanging out at support group meetings, though Victor — who uses compulsive sex as an anesthetic — has practical motivations. ”[I]t’s a terrific how-to seminar,” he writes. ”Plus there’s the jail girls out for their three hours of sex addict talk therapy.” The sex scenes themselves — friskily sordid fantasies slathered with comic disgust — constitute a kind of paranoid porn.

Further, the lad dines out every night and chokes on his meals. He’s discovered that Heimlich-maneuvering strangers tend to feel warmly toward him and send him yearly checks. He needs the loot to support Mom, who’s now installed in a mental clinic. More accurately, she is cooped in a loony bin; Choke‘s best running gag finds Victor involved in free-form role-playing therapy as he lets each doddering granny in the ward believe that he’s a villain, a bad guy who inflicted psychic trauma in the dim past.

As Victor becomes increasingly plagued with anxiety about his mother’s imminent death, Palahniuk, disdaining the tight control that made Survivor a thrill, spins away from the meaningfully absurd and into juvenile nonsense. Ex-med student Victor comes to believe that Mom’s life might be prolonged with a procedure involving harvesting the brain of a human fetus. The reader is further asked to consider the notion that our hero might, thanks to genetic science and an unmentionable sacred relic, be the son of Christ. Palahniuk piles impossibilities atop hollow provocations and scatters ridiculous references to religion and myth on that ungainly heap, and the plot sinks.

As the first page promises, Victor, his name unironic, emerges winningly from his ordeals and sets off on a quest for personal meaning. And there’s your allegory. The world of Choke is like a jaded adolescent’s version of our own; Victor, an Everyman struggling to find the true path. He’s not a defined character but an angsty blank for readers to ”relate to.” Palahniuk, it seems, wants to do visionary comedy, and though the jokes are often funny, the vision is bogus. His only point here is to preach the rock-bottom-obvious notion that the unhappy should take control of their lives, that ”maybe it’s our job to invent something better.” Well, sure, and it’s a writer’s job to invent better than this. C

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