Victor is a sex addict. He attends 12-step meetings, not in the hope of recovery but to hook-up with other addicts on the bathroom floor of the community center while the meeting is going on in the room next door. Victor scrapes together a modest income by working at a colonial theme park with his sex-addict friend Denny and supplementing this income significantly by dining at high-end restaurants where he causes himself to choke on the food until some good Samaritan steps forward to save him. Victor realizes that once a person saves him, they feel responsible for him and will send him money in the mail for years to come. He spends his evenings keeping an accounting of his many saviors, the details of their meetings (should he run into them again on the street), and the financial support each offers.

Victor lives in his mother’s house. His mother is hospitalized, as she is losing her mind (or perhaps she lost it years ago.) Victor’s life was anything but normal–falling in and out of foster homes as his mother fell in and out of prison–a result of her conspiracy-theory-related reactions to the world around her. Victor pays for his mother’s hospitalization, and it is draining him.

Victor needs the money, but he needs more than that, as he consumes and is consumed by his very existence. Victor Mancini is Chuck Palahniuk’s hero in his bestselling novel Choke.

There’s no escaping from constant escape. Distracting ourselves. Avoiding confrontation. Getting past the moment.

As expected, Palahniuk does not disappoint here in his creative storytelling, laced with strong social commentary and unflinching language. It’s a seedy story of desperation, postmodern alienation, and our frustrated search for identity and connection. What drew me into this story was the unity of the tale and the argument of the narrative (and the darkness of the protagonist to be honest). Victor is constantly struggling with (avoiding) his “4th step” in his 12-step sex addiction program. This is the step where you are supposed to write the “complete and relentless story of your life as an addict” (276); he doesn’t want to do this; he resists it. He is bent on finding another story to tell. He wants to know who he really is. He turns to his mother for this, but she has filled his life with lies since as long as he can remember, and now she is losing her mind. As Victor’s mental and physical suffering builds and as his mother’s condition worsens, he comes to believe that he is the second coming of Christ. This hopeful delusion gives him a temporary sense of meaning in his life; however, it is based on lies told to him regarding the contents of his mother’s diary (written in Italian) interpreted by Paige, a mental patient pretending to be his mother’s doctor. When he learns the truth that his existence is, in fact, little more than it seems to be, he hits rock bottom and comes face to face with the void of his life.

The colonial theme park where Victor and Denny work represents the artifice of our world and mocks the illusion of puritanical ethics. We build the fiction of our lives, and we pretend that it is as real as anything, but it’s not; it’s a constructed reality–an illusion, the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. We enjoy the shadows and want to believe that they mean something, but what? Towards the end, Victor sees the shadows and begins to realize “there’s no escaping from constant escape. Distracting ourselves. Avoiding confrontation. Getting past the moment. Jacking off. Television. Denial” (281).

We don’t need to accept old narratives. What we build could be anything.

He consumes and is consumed–meaningless sex without satisfaction, food swallowed in whole chunks that he never tastes but instead chokes upon, good Samaritans who care about a man who does not exist, people he pretends to be for his mother and the other patients couched deep in their dementia. And then there is Denny who decides to rebuild his reality. He starts compulsively collecting rocks–boulders even. He carries one swaddled in a blanket like a baby. It means something to him. Eventually Denny begins building a stone house on a vacant parkway in town. For him, it’s the act of building that matters–the process–not the structure. When it’s torn down in the final pages by a mass of people out for revenge on Victor for the lies he’s told, Denny, Victor, and the rest of the sordid cast start anew–recognizing that “what we build could be anything” (293).

I enjoyed Choke because, like most books I enjoy, it lingered with me for a week or two and gave me a new lens through which to see my world–even if just for a while.