“Choke” by Chuck Palahniuk has one of the most artful examples of tension I’ve encountered.
For background, the main character is a sex addict, and is going through a sort of mid life crisis, wherein he craves attention and gets it by pretending to choke on food at restaurants. This and other behavior has him stumbling through the novel trying to find himself, or at least find some purpose other than the occasional orgasm he can coax from other addicts.
In the final fourth of the novel, he is banging a nutjob named Tanya, his “Friday” for the week, “and Tanya means anal.”
While she blows him and pushes a long string of anal beads into his butt, the main character goes into a sort of psychiatric visit state of mind, talking about how he doesn’t care about anything. After getting ten beads in him, Tanya yanks them out and makes him cum so hard he “for serious” feels it. Then, the disaster:
Leaning forward with both my hands spread against the wall, my knees folding a little, I say “easy does it.” I tell Tanya, “You’re not starting a lawn mower.”
And Tanya kneeling under me, still looking at the greasy, stinking balls on the floor, says “Oh boy.” She lifts the string of red rubber balls for me to see, and she says, “There are supposed to be ten.”
There’s only eight and what looks like a lot of empty string.
For context, the main character has talked about hypochondria, impacted colons, bowel blockages, and the like for the entire novel.
And then the novel just moves on. The main character calls a cab and heads off to his next task. The beads are entirely forgotten. He visits his friend who is building a castle in a local neighborhood rock by rock. He visits his mom. And the whole time, the reader can’t help but ask, every page, “But what about the anal beads?!”
Finally, two chapters later,
With the load already building up behind whatever in my guts…
As he talks with a maybe-pregnant girl. And then, again, forgotten, for a page, until
A belch rumbles up from my blockage, and the taste in my mouth is acid.
And the chapter ends. Going forward, the main character reflexively touches, thinks about, pokes, and considers the blockage in his colon, but refused to just go to the hospital and get it taken care of. He goes into detail about medical procedures, and does nothing. He begins treatment for his nymphomania, goes to work, and so on, always with the colon blockage worsening, never treating it. “You don’t look so hot,” his friends say to him. A camera records him and everyone notes how bloated his belly is. He doesn’t eat, he “doesn’t dare” to. He gets arrested. Driven to desperation, he tries to kill himself by choking himself with a ketchup cap. The scene is drawn out. He blacks out, and we get an entire chapter of flashback.
The anal beads are lost inside him about 75% of the way through the book. There are only a few pages left when this happens:
In another minute, the arms come around me from behind. Some police detective is hugging me tight, doublefisting me under the rib cage, breathing into my ear, “breath! Breath, damn it!”
Breathing into my ear, “You’re ok.”
Two arms hug me, lift me off my feet, and a stranger whispers, “You’re going to be fine.”
Somebody pounds me on the back the way a doctor pounds a newborn baby, and I let fly with the bottle cap. My bowels burst loose down my pant leg with the two rubber balls and all the shit piled up behind them.
The author leaves us wondering about the anal beads, leaves them on the back of our mind, for 1/4 of his novel. How’s that for a literary device?