19 September 2007

Choking the Shark

Though the prophet tells us that it was invented by the Devil, I am rather fond of reasoning by analogy. A new analogy occurred to me with regards to Chuck Palahniuk's writing as I was part way through "Diary." There is something very shark-like about his writing: sleek, primal, brutal. Unfortunately, just like a shark a Palahniuk story must maintain forward momentum, or it will suffocate and go belly up. Dead in the water.

Case in point: Choke.

The novel is not without its merits. It is certainly the most heartfelt of Palahniuk's novels; were it more skillfully written it would likely qualify as poignant, instead of sentimental. That the novel aims for the former but achieves the latter may be a difference of opinion, and may be due in part to one's tolerance for Palahniuk's sloppiness.

The warning of things to come arrives in the first chapter, not with the narrator's hostility to his story or his contempt for a small boy. It arrives with a seemingly innocuous story about a Greek girl who develops a romance with a boy visiting from a foreign land. After some time he gets news that he has to go back to his country, and they will never see each other again. The girl uses coal to trace his silhouette (created by a candle flame) on the wall, so as to never forget what he looks like. The girl's father then uses the silhouette as a model for a sculpture. And that is the source of all art.

Yes, the source of ALL art.

Never mind the hunt, the harvest, or the handling of the dead, all of which have much better claims to that title. All art is derived from a girl wanting to remember the lover she'll never see again. It is at this point that I started wondering if Palahniuk is Ukranian for "Mitch Albom," or at least "manipulative uplift." Though not fatal, it certainly serves to rob the shark of plenty of momentum. Enough to go from sleek in its brutality to simply stupid and crude.

"Choke" was the first book Palahniuk book I read in which I was painfully aware of the sentimentality lurking beneath the surface, which served to highlight the problems with the book. Palahniuk's flaws are usually hidden being the transgressive nature of his characters and the shock value of their actions. When Victor, our narrator, tells this story, without comment or irony, all his subsequent anti-social behavior became robbed of impact. He was like a teenager listening to satanic-themed metal because it's, you know, scary.

The story is not helped by the rather ridiculous mystery regarding Vincent's mother. (Spoiler Warning) We are given to understand that Ida Mancini, Vincent's mom, immigrated to the US from Italy to attend med school, and that she has never told Vincent about his father. Because she engaged in acts of "cultural terrorism" (switching hair dye colors among boxes, stealing school buses), Vincent grew up in foster homes. At the end we learn that Vincent was a random baby that Ida had snatched from a stroller so she wouldn't be sent back to Italy.

Although Palahniuk deserves kudos for avoiding stereotypes, he seems to have no idea how to portray an immigrant. (I don't know if that's just his insularity or if it's outside his range as a writer.) He attempts to pass this off by stating that immigrants often seem more like Americans than those native-born do. There is a grain of truth to that, but it comes off as more of an excuse for poor writing than anything else. Firstly, unless they immigrated as children, even immigrants who wholeheartedly embrace American culture and society will seem bit different, too enthusiastic in their Americanism. Secondly, the type of immigrant who is going to practice "cultural terrorism" is not going to be all that interested in assimilating. It doesn't help that Ida is something of a left over from the '60s. If she was native-born, her hair dye switching might seem kind of edgy. In Italy, the Red Brigades would probably consider it a paltry bourgeois copy of real revolutionary action. (Maybe Ida emigrated out of embarrassment over being such a sad excuse for a radical.)

The revelation of Vincent's background mostly made me wonder why Palahniuk had not bother to think through this development. Does it really work that way? Can you just walk into an INS office, flash them a toddler and get upgraded to permanent resident status? Without even a birth certificate? And once you're incarcerated and custody of your only child taken away, do they let you keep your resident status? No wonder we have an immigration problem.

Of course, there's a possibility to explain all this, one of which sadly makes a lot of sense. Ida isn't really Italian. Maybe her parents were, but they emigrated to the U.S. At some point, she may have visited, even lived there for a couple years. That would explain why she seems about as Italian as Chef Boyardee and also why another character refers to her as "having spent some time in Italy," a phrase not usually reserved for people who were born in and spent their formative years in a country. And since Ida Mancini may not be from Italy, perhaps Vincent Mancini was not abducted as an infant.

Of course, this dulls much of the drama that might arise from the final revelations. Vincent tells us that we spend too long dwelling on the past and would do better to forget it, yet this blurring of reality suggests that those who do not learn from the past are destined to hopelessly muddle the present.

No comments: