Perhaps it’s fitting that the trailer for Choke, the upcoming film adaptation to be released in September based on pop-brutalist author Chuck Palahniuk’s 2001 novel of the same name, looks conspicuously like the newest Judd Apatow joint. For all their aesthetic divergences—sexual violence vs. sexual anxiety, sexual predation vs. sexual responsibility, etc.—the two bro-auteurs essentially court opposite sides of the same, Jäger-gargling, controller-hamming demographic. Palahniuk writes books for people who don’t really like books, and Apatow makes chick flicks for the fellas.
In all likelihood, fans of this writer’s practiced nihilism will find themselves gagging on the Choke preview. The first thing we see is two dudes in a red-lit bar. It’s pure 40 Year Old Virgin-ity, except there’s a woman in lingerie and everyone’s talking about cancer. That jaunty guitar noodle that seems to find its way into every funny/sad flick out there makes a repeat appearance, dropping out portentously whenever the pretty, damaged girl unleashes a punch-line. I’m not all that excited, but apparently this won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for Work by an Ensemble Cast, so really, all bets are off.
Despite this boost, the market leader in grand-guignol fiction, or, as he probably prefers to be called, Shaulkner, has tipped precariously into critical disrepute. Peep the New York Times epic rip of his latest novel, Snuff. Writes Lucy Ellmann: “…[H]is latest novel, Snuff, the dry-as-dust tale of people making a documentary about a woman who wants to break (as the promotional copy delicately puts it) ‘the world record for serial fornication,’ is not so much shallow as bitter. Whatever point Palahniuk meant to make seems to have been lost in a self-induced miasma of meaninglessness.”
That Ellmann’s point about Snuff is about at boring as Palahniuk’s deeper intentions are nonexistent makes for a whimsically scathing, if predictable review. Yes, desensitization and disenfranchisement stopped being interesting, or at least surprising, about half a century ago. But invoking the canon as qualitative ruler got old, not to mention regressive and grandmotherly, midway through freshman year: “What the hell is going on?” writes the columnist, “The country that produced Melville, Twain and James now venerates King, Crichton, Grisham, Sebold and Palahniuk. Their subjects? Porn, crime, pop culture and an endless parade of out-of-body experiences. Their methods? Cliché, caricature and proto-Christian morality. Props? Corn chips, corpses, crucifixes.” The good news is that the same age-bracket of men who are most likely to read Palahniuk novels are also the least likely to peruse newspapers like the Times. Times readers, however, love alliteration.
But Ms. Ellmann knows she sounds like an octogenarian, and she knows that her review is not for the people who would actually consider picking Snuff up for the flight home from Brussels. In fact, those people probably already got a copy when the book came out in May.
And while I’m sure my sympathies and pretensions lie closer to the heart of the Times than the 5 o’clock shadow of the Palahniuk cartel, there is a certain irony in knowing that the same individuals who will balk at Snuff, either for being offensive, unrealized or merely brain-dead, will also be more receptive to Choke, the rom-com, than the darker vision so many Fight Club-ers seem to crave. Who knows? A couple of years ago, would any of us blinked if we heard the latest Palahniuk crass-test was called Knocked Up?