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Interview: Chuck Palahniuk on “Choke”

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09242008_choke1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

In my favorite Chuck Palahniuk novel, “Survivor,” a former religious cult member-turned-celebrity messiah records his life story into the black-box recorder of a commercial airliner aimed to crash in the Australian outback. “Invisible Monsters” chronicles a former fashion model (before her jaw was blown off by a drive-by shooting) as she road-trips with a pill-popping transsexual to find herself. And I think we all know what happens in “Fight Club,” whether we read the book or just watched embittered everyman Edward Norton grapple with the Brad Pitt-looking anarchist sharing his headspace. Palahniuk certainly loves to satirize the nihilism and social diseases wallowing in the underbelly of American culture, so it makes sense in this confusing, tumultuous zeitgeist that a second film would erupt from Palahniuk’s pages. In the psychotically funny “Choke,” adapted and directed by character actor Clark Gregg (“Iron Man”), Sam Rockwell is perfectly cast as another of the novelist’s deeply troubled characters: Victor Mancini, a sex-addicted med school dropout who works at a colonial-era theme park when he isn’t deliberately choking in restaurants to scam empathy and money out of Heimlich-inducing Good Samaritans. I met up with Palahniuk to talk about the film, how he feels about making people faint and his former belief about orgasms.

The old chestnut says that the book is always better than the movie, and yet here you are promoting a project you didn’t adapt. What are your thoughts on what the film does or doesn’t achieve?

First of all, I think it stays with the book at least as well as the “Fight Club” movie did. It’s interesting how people have forgotten the fact that the “Fight Club” movie completely veers away from the book in the third act, where “Choke” omits some things but is probably more faithful to the book. Faithful or unfaithful, I think it’s done its job. I was really moved by [stripper] Cherry Daquiri’s speech because Clark’s father is a minister, and he was able to give him that bit from Galatians that I had no idea about. In a much more eloquent way [than I could], the speech basically says that our fulfillment, our salvation, doesn’t come from how much we are loved, but our own capacity for loving other people. That totally pegged the heart and soul of the book, and said it in a beautiful way from the least likely character to say that enlightened thing. That’s one difference that I really, really loved.

Is it catharsis that attracts you to such dark and cynical material about man’s failings?

Do you remember the movie “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”? Pretty much right after the credit sequence, the main character is walking home after having done a drag show. It’s pouring rain, and people are shouting and breaking bottles in the background. Watching it, a friend of mine leaned over and said, “Why is it raining in this scene?” It’s just a scene of complete misery, and I said, “It’s raining, so that when it’s not raining, it will be all the nicer.” If you start in the pit of despair with these profane, awful things, even a glimmer of hope or awareness is going to occur that’s much brighter coming from this dark, awful beginning. That’s a big part of it.

09242008_choke2.jpgYou regularly use a literary device based upon heavily researched ephemera. “Fight Club” punctuated ideas with “I am Jack’s medulla oblongata” and other body parts, and the “Choke” novel contains conspiracy theories, natural highs and medical terminology. Where do you discover these bits of trivia before you can flesh them out through research?

Typically, I’ll just hear one. I spend most of my life just listening to people. Someone will say something that really seems like a terrific metaphor. In “Choke,” the theme of the book is things that aren’t what they appear to be, and I had been at a party where people were talking about a coded security announcement in the Oregon school system. “Recess will be held in the library” means you have to lock the doors, have your kids lie down, turn out the lights, and wait for them to announce the lunch special is tuna noodle casserole. “Recess will be held in the library” means there is a school shooter killing people, and the all-clear is “tuna noodle casserole.” I just loved it, so I kept on telling this story to people who worked in hospitals, hotels and airports, and they would tell me their own coded security announcements. I used this one metaphor as bait to gather countless examples of the same thing.

On your book tour for “Haunted,” audience members began fainting just from hearing one of your short stories read aloud. Is it more flattering or unnerving that your words could cause that reaction?

When I first read the story “Guts” in workshop — my fellow writers that I’ve been meeting with for almost 20 years — they laughed; they didn’t have any kind of shock reaction. The first time I read it in public, we had our first two fainters. Subsequently, almost every time I’ve read it, we’ve had people fainting. On one level, I’m thrilled that the stories can do this, that words coming out of somebody’s mouth for seven or nine minutes could have this fantastic effect. But on a sweeter level, since I’m on the stage, I get to witness all the people around the fainter. Typically, it’s several hundred people who all kind of resent each other because they’ve all shown up, and maybe it’s crowded, and they all see each other as competition. They all want to ignore each other, until the moment that that one person collapses to the floor, and then suddenly all of these people care about one person and think that person has possibly died. Those people become instantly connected and empathetic. They scoop up and care for the fallen person until the fallen person is revived. At that point, all the witnesses become euphoric because it’s like they’ve seen Lazarus rise from the dead. They’re just buzzing, so united as a little group that’s experienced this death and resurrection that, from my vantage point on stage, it’s the most glorious thing you could watch. I’m the audience, they’re the performance, and I just love those four or five minutes. Everybody is so happy, they can’t stop smiling.

What inspired the choking scam in “Choke”?

09242008_choke3.jpgThe germ of the story was me driving home after having identified my father’s body in Idaho after he was murdered in 1999. My life was so filled with stress: the “Fight Club” movie coming out, my father being killed, and being responsible for helping the police. On the way home, I started to fantasize about someone with a very boring, but stressful life who would periodically pull over on these isolated highways in the middle of the night, leave the car running, the headlights on, even the driver’s door open, and would lie down on the shoulder just off the highway, in the gravel, in the headlights, knowing that someone would eventually show up, see his very boring car with a baby seat, and see him as this well-dressed person collapsed in the road. This would be a sheriff or a deputy, an authority with a uniform, badge and a gun, and they would put two fingers against his neck. At that point, he would be really cold lying on the gravel at night. And these two warm fingers would feel his neck for a pulse, and this authority figure would say, “It’s going to be okay. Are you all right? I’m here to help you.” This person would embrace, lift and coax him back into his life, all the time repeating this reassurance and nurturing mantra. I almost did it that night as I was driving back, but I really didn’t want to get that dirty, lying down in my best clothes. So I turned it into a guy who would choke in restaurants for that same moment of public catharsis, where he would be allowed to completely look terrible, weep, and be in crisis, but have the complete sympathy of all the people around him.

What would be your outlet if you didn’t have writing to vent?

It would either be some sort of extreme sport thing that would really exhaust me, or it would be substance abuse. Either way, I think it would be some sort of physical outlet that would wear me out. [Physical activity] clears my head. Some of the best ideas I get seem to happen when I’m doing mindless manual labor or exercise. I’m not sure how that happens, but it leaves me free for remarkable ideas to occur.

Were there any sex addict confessions that struck you but didn’t make it into “Choke?”

There was an extraordinary story that took place over three or four months. The first time this man spoke — this burly general contractor with a big Joseph Stalin mustache — and he talked about leaving his wife and kids at the Thanksgiving table while he went off to an adult bookstore, put on a woman’s evening gown and gave blowjobs all Thanksgiving evening. He was keeping track of all his transgressions in a notebook that was his fourth step [in the 12-step recovery]. About three months later, he came to group shaking his head, and saying, “I’ve got to kill her. I have no choice.” His wife had found that notebook, the complete record of all of his sexual acting-out. She made copies of all the pages and announced to him that afternoon that if he didn’t leave her, the kids, the house, all the money and move to another state after 25 years of marriage, she was going to give copies to his family and everyone he worked with. She was going to completely out him and destroy his life, and that night, he was at group, really firm in the decision that when he went home, he was going to have to kill her and himself. You read about murder-suicides in the newspaper, but here, I was seeing how they happen, how people come to that point. The whole group spent about four or five hours just talking to him, moving him past this crisis to the point to where he wasn’t going to kill her or himself. Within two or three months, they were back together, and their marriage had been saved.

09242008_choke4.jpgSince all of the damaged characters in all of your books have sprung from your head, who would you say you’d most identify with?

Denny [from “Choke”]. I really love idiot, enlightened characters — these characters who fail to engage with the drama of their immediate circumstances; they fail to be reactive and enrolled by drama as it happens around them. It’s not mentioned in the movie, but in the book, there’s a sentence that sums up Denny, that when he had his first inadvertent orgasm as a child, his impulse was that he had invented this thing. [He felt] he could teach it in seminars and it would make him rich, and no one in his family would ever have to work again because he would be so fantastically wealthy from this thing he had invented. That was the same way with me. I really thought the first time that I had invented this thing and I was heartbroken when I realized it was just an orgasm.

So that, and both you and Denny are chronic masturbators.

I wish I had that kind of energy. [laughs]

[Photos: Brad William Henke and Sam Rockwell in “Choke”; Anjelica Huston; Kelly Macdonald; Chuck Palahniuk (taken by Shawn Grant) – “Choke,” Fox Searchlight, 2008]

“Choke” opens in limited release on September 26th.

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Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

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Lane 27: Broken Windows

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Lane 69: Filthy Cars

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Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

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Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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