Choke author Chuck Palahniuk

Seven minutes into my conversation with Chuck Palahniuk, I’m still not sure that he exists.

If he does exist, he might as well be my neighbor. He talks to me in the same calm tone a high school guidance counselor uses. He talks about searching for love. He likes Simon Pegg comedies. If he doesn’t, he might just be an elaborate hoax created by an underground chaos society partnering with the publishing community to inject American literature and the cultural landscape with stories about prescient, viral epidemic spreaders and images of teenage boys at the bottom of pools chewing through their own viscera.

Both options seem likely.

After all, Palahniuk is an odd sort of cultural icon. He’s dismissed by detractors as a shock-artist, angling for the most disturbing visuals possible as to make young minds swoon. He’s nearly worshiped by his fans, an act that makes him seem misunderstood by those who have lifted him to Durden-esque cult status. There are stories of him mailing strange objects in response to fan mail, and, of course, the now infamous tale of him causing people to faint during readings of ‘Haunted’ during his 2003 tour. But you’d never know it to speak to him. His calm tone. His matter-of-factness. If he’s a monster, he’s the calmest monster on the planet.

Ironically, I’ll probably only add to the mythos by calling him normal. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Palahniuk might just be doing exactly the opposite of what’s expected – acting polite and pedestrian. That is, you know, if he actually exists.

His fourth book, ‘Choke,’ comes out in movie form on Friday, featuring Sam Rockwell, Kelly McDonald and Anjelica Huston.

Brad William Henke and Sam Rockwell in Choke

Palahniuk describes the moment the inspiration for ‘Choke’ hit him as a drive down a long country road somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. He was hit with the urge to stop his car on the shoulder, leave his headlights on, and go lie down face-up in the light until an authority figure came to his rescue. He assumed since he was wearing nice clothing, the authority figure would assume he’d been hurt and look after him until more help could come. It was that concept – a stranger embracing you, keeping you safe – that helped give birth to Victor Mancini, the main character who commences choking to death in restaurants to be saved by those that don’t know him. Palahniuk claims he didn’t actually go through with the act because he would have gotten filthy.

When I ask if he’s ever gotten filthy for a story, he pauses to think and jokes, “I’ve gotten filthy drunk.”

After speaking at length about “liminoid space” and trying out a new life to see “if it works better” than your own, the kind of thing most people only experience in their freshman year sociology course when their tough-but-fair professor makes them strike up conversations in elevators or walk backwards across campus to gauge responses, Palahniuk becomes average again – making an ubiquitously relatable comment. Further proof that a camera crew could pop out of my closet at any moment to let me in on the joke.

Instead, Palahniuk continues calmly conversing as if I’m not creeped out by how decidedly uncreepy he’s being. When discussing the film, he sounds more like a spectator who won a contest than the creator of the source material. More at home watching his creation molded by new hands than the stereotypical novelist, cringing at every slight dialog change.

“I showed up, and I went up to New Jersey every day for a couple weeks and watched them shoot the movie, and talked to people, and sort of enjoyed being around folks who really loved what they do. They’re just very good at it. It kind of gets you high to be around people like that,” he said going on to enigmatically describe his faith in director Clark Gregg to handle the story since Gregg made “such a splash” with What Lies Beneath.

He seems so disconnected from the process, in fact, that he doesn’t know the status of several of his optioned properties. Even more admirably, he seems at home with this situation. He doesn’t think of actors to play his characters. He claims he doesn’t write his novels with an eye to them being adapted because, “It’s just so unlikely. It’s such a slim hope that I just never think about that.”

It’s a slim hope that’s gotten two of his novels produced and the rest all optioned, but Palahniuk laughs when I point this out, humbly reacting like he’s just not quite sure what all the fuss is about.

Ultimately, the fuss about Choke is that underneath the anal beads, balled-up panties, and compulsive masturbation – audiences may miss that it’s a story about finding love. In fact, when I ask if he’s comfortable with the film’s ending, one that strays from the novel, Palahniuk claims Gregg and company did right by the material by “keeping the romance in tact.”

Strip Club scene from Choke

Love is obviously a central focus of the narrative of Choke. It’s a story about the search for acceptance and appreciation that highlights the difference between intimacy and physical proximity – two things our modern age seems to conflate all too often. Go ahead and laugh at Victor’s hapless attempts at coitus, cringe when he pictures a fat nun naked, scratch your head as he gains a following of elderly mental patients. But if you don’t have your heart warmed by the end, you’re missing the point.

“It’s a natural plot progression,” Palahniuk explains, “for a character to connect with an enormous number of people and then to eventually choose one person out of of all the options in the world. To choose one, very great, deep committed relationship out of all the ones that are possible.”

Chuck Palahniuk, everyone. Possible shock-author. Definite hopeless romantic.

And this is the question. Where the guy who writes about a woman eating the flesh from her own ass in ‘Haunted’ and the guy who paints romantic love in such lofty terms collide. How they meet each other in the middle. What one has to do with the other.

By the end of the interview, I finally get an idea of how real Chuck Palahniuk truly is.

While telling me about his new novel, ‘Pygmy,’ I’m placed in the very interesting position of having Chuck Palahniuk show concern for me. I make a terrible joke that doesn’t translate at all over the phone leading to a series of awkward start-stops between us. After a moment or two of silence, Palahniuk asks, “Are you okay over there?” with a slight hint of genuine urgency in his voice. It’s simple, almost quiet, like a waiter whose customer has just had a long coughing fit, but in that moment I see what Palahniuk was searching for on that Pacific Northwestern dirt road back before ‘Choke’ was born. I can understand the feeling that Victor Mancini strives for every time he shoves a too-large piece of steak down his throat in the hopes that the richest man in the room will want to be a hero. What we’re all probably looking for as we go about the trivia of our daily lives.

Choke is a fantastic film. Go see it.


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