Talk about an eating disorder. Chuck Palahniuk's novel Choke is about a guy so starved for affection, he's taken to choking himself in public places in order to get attention. Early in the book, protagonist Victor Mancini, who holds down a shitty day job as a historical re-enactor at a Colonial Williamsburg theme park, confesses that he discovered as a child that "you have to risk your life to get love." His entire life is a way of compensating (or overcompensating) for the fact that he was never loved as a child.
"You know, you have to risk your life to get intimacy with love," Palahniuk explains via phone from a New York hotel room. "It's hard for me to collapse the two. I know a lot of people who have a lot of problems with intimacy. They create these enormous scams and illusions to trick people into loving or caring for them. I would venture to say it's a predominantly male affliction. Women are better at making their needs known and getting them met. Men are not trained in that way at all."
Best known as the author of Fight Club, Palahniuk, who's openly gay, has a view of masculinity that's quite complex. Victor, played perfectly by madcap actor Sam Rockwell in the new film version, embodies many of these attitudes. A sexaholic who has a love/hate relationship with his dying mother (Anjelica Huston), Victor struggles with abandonment issues from his past and tries to break his habit by attending weekly recovery sessions. But more often than not, he ends up hooking up with other sexaholics for cheap, meaningless sex.
"I just really love any kind of group where people tell their worst stories and make their confessions," says Palahniuk. "Those are really compelling places to study storytelling. With Choke, I went to Sexaholics Anonymous three times a week for about six months, maybe 10 months. There, everyone has to account for their life once a week, and I find that really interesting."
Victor, however, can't seem to make it to the program's fourth step, where he should take an inventory of his life. His struggle is the central conflict in the film, which stays so true to the book, it doesn't alter its bleak ending and often takes passages directly from the novel for the running voiceover.
"I'm really happy with the film," says Palahniuk, who says he often spoke to director Clark Gregg during the six years it took to finalize his adaptation. "I can't complain. It's a romance and even more of a romance in the movie. Clark toned back the things I was maybe a little too crazy with. The female lead isn't totally the shitty, crazy person she was in the book. The stripper character, Cherry Daiquiri, gets built up as a much brighter, more enlightened character too."
Palahniuk admits he's continually surprised by the way the film version of Fight Club has taken on a life of its own, spawning abominations such as Never Back Down, the recent teen film about kids who kickbox at renegade after-school events.
"I'm always stunned when I see these echoes all these years later," says Palahniuk, who admits to being fairly isolated from mainstream popular culture.
Though he's known for extreme fiction, the soft-spoken Palahniuk is hardly as callous as many of his characters are; it's something that takes many fans off guard, he says.
"Every time I'm meeting someone they're kind of disappointed and let down because they think they'll be meeting Charles Manson," he says, adding he's just finished Pygmy, a book he describes as your "standard novel about 12-year-old terrorists."
In fact, the publicity-shy writer wouldn't mind if he could have someone else do all the dirty work that comes with promoting his career. "Right from the get-go, I would have hired an actor to be me," he says. "I could stay home and this other person who was better at presenting himself would be me on the road."
And given that the author has licensed his novels Lullaby, Survivor, Diary, Rant and Haunted for films, that wouldn't be such a bad gig.