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Category: creative writing (page 1 of 7)

consumption, the void, and palahniuk’s choke

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.

beware of the jabberwocky!

Lewis Carroll gave us the his wonderfully nonsensical and heroic poem of the Jabberwocky, but it takes a child to deliver it with such power. Check it out. A wonderful reading. I wish my college students could perform to this level.

reading ken robinson’s out of our minds

This past summer I read Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative by Ken Robinson. The cover of the book has been sitting in the “Good Reads” (formerly “Now Reading”) area of this blog for nearly a year, so I figured I should drop a few thoughts on the book and rotate the cover image to another book lest folks think me perpetually stuck in this text. Although, if one’s mind had to be stuck in one text perpetually, this might not be a bad choice.

For some time now, I have been fascinated by what it means to be creative, that is, to think and act creatively. Robinson’s book came to me just when I was ready for it. Robinson discusses what it means to be creative and offers a prolonged discussion of how academia and, by extension, many of the driving forces of our contemporary world are systematically stifling human creativity. He traces this matter back to 16th and 17th centuries when the Enlightenment and rationalism supplanted Romanticism along with intuition, myth, and felt sense. “The driving forces of the Enlightenment and of the modern world view,” Robinson writes, “have been rationalism and empiricism. The aim has been to see the material world as it is stripped of superstition, myth and fantasy” (71). This has been felt nowhere better than in the Academy, but by extension has been carried through most post-industrial western culture. “Academicism,” Robinson calls it–“the conflation of academic ability with intelligence” (80). An ability to perform well in school and intelligence are not the same thing, as academic ability embodies only the narrowest of views on intelligence. The Academy privileges above all else “a particular sort of critical analysis and short-term memory” (85). The academic illusion he calls it. This is the idea that all knowledge must be framed in terms of rational, critical, empirical analysis. The disconnect is no more obvious than in the arts, as approached by the Academy.

Professors of English are not employed to produce literature: they are employed to write about it. […] Producing works of art often doesn’t count as appropriate intellectual work in an arts department: yet, the equivalent in a science department, doing physics or chemistry does. So why is it that in universities writing about novels is thought to be a higher intellectual calling than writing novels; or rather if writing novels is not thought to be intellectually valid why is writing about them? (66)

So, regarding this academic illusion, Robinson concludes that it isn’t the subject matter that divides traditionally academic (i.e. privileged) work and knowledge; rather, it is the way in which one engages with the work. “You didn’t do art in university; you wrote about it,” he contends (83). This bugs me because the implications are huge. Our students are being educated out of their creativity (as Robinson states elsewhere). In the vast wake of the era of Enlightenment, we have become detached from what we feel in favor almost exclusively of what we can verify in the physical world. The cost is a division between intellect and emotion (not to mention between science and art), and this is a dire cost. The two are not incompatible nor can they be truly teased apart. The human experience and a more accurate view of human intelligence is one of both emotion and intellect.

This broader view of intelligence and of knowing is something I’ve been exploring with my students for a couple years now through the work of Gregory Ulmer and his mystoriography approach to learning and writing. Ulmer writes the following:

[Mystory is] designed to simulate invention, the crossing of discourses that has been show to occur in the invention process. Realizing that learning is much closer to invention than to verification, I intended mystoriography primarily as a pedagogy. The modes of academic writing now taught in school tend to be positioned on the side of the already known rather than on the side of the wanting to find out (of theoretical curiosity) and hence discourage learning how to learn.

The idea in Ulmer’s mystoriography approach is that knowledge and “the wanting to find out” can operate just as much on a sub-rational level as on a rational one–on an emotional level that is best conveyed through the juxtaposition of words and images such that a mood or a feeling is suggested. It’s messy, intuitive, emotional work that does not fit neatly into the compartmentalized world of the Academy or the rational mind. Robinson touches on this very point when he discusses E.M. Forster’s notion creating as a lowering of a bucket into the subconscious mind to draw up something that is normally beyond our reach (154). Emotion should not be dismissed. It is equally a part of our human experience as is the rational, critical mind. Why one is privileged over the other is a mere consequence to historical, social, and political forces. There is not an innate superiority of intellect over emotion. These are divisions and hierarchies of our own creation–and they are detrimental to human creativity. “A critical factor [in creative work] is intuition and a feel for the materials and processes involved. The relationship between knowing and feeling is at the heart of the creative process” (Robinson 137).

Many of the problems we face in the world today are unlike any we’ve seen before. To address them will take an enormity of human creativity–a dipping of that bucket deep into the wells of our selves to see what we might draw up. We must learn to re-frame our view of knowledge and human intelligence so that we can give proper attention to what is possible. This means asking the right questions. “The most important characteristics of an intellectual age is the questions it asks–the problems it identifies. It is this rather than the answers it provides that reveals its underlying view of the world” (Robinson 72). We must resist single-mindedness in the true sense of the word–and embrace our more complex selves that allow for the richness of our imaginations. “If our explanations are theoretical, our questions are ideological,” writes Robinson (73). We have to reconsider. We have to look again. “Creativity is not a separate faculty so much as an attitude: a willingness to reconsider what we take for granted” (Robinson 137). Everything is possible.

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