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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.

on reading how we are hungry by dave eggers

I’ve been reading Dave Eggers’ collection of short fiction entitled How We Are Hungry and found myself underlining passages throughout. They seem important, as if I will return to them again at some point. So, I thought I would jot them here, using this post as a kind of commonplace book. So much of the work resonates with me–from the quiet desperation of the characters, to the honest and unflinching use of language, to the larger theme that binds the collection together. I savored this collection and found myself reading it slowly and deliberately, chewing each morsel a hundred times before swallowing. I could wax philosophical at length over much of the work, but for this post I want to focus on one story–“The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water.”

The story centers on a woman by the name of Pilar who one day flies to Costa Rica to meet her longtime friend, Hand. Told from third person limited point of view, we experience the narrative filtered through Pilar’s psyche and spend much of the time lingering in her thoughts about her relationship with Hand, about life and its invented meanings.

The conflict in the story is an internal one–between Pilar, her disires, the person she is and the person she wants to be. We see such conflict eking out in the following passage.

She counted the reasons she should sleep with Hand: because she was curious about sleeping with him, curious to see him naked; because she loved him; because sleeping with him would be a natural and good extension of her filial love for him; because there existed the possibility that it would be so good that they would change their ideas of each and then think of themselves as a pair; because to deny one’s curiosity about things like this was small and timid, and she was neither and didn’t ever want to be either; because he had really wonderful arms, triceps that made her jangly in her ribs and tightened her chest; because she was not very attracted to him when away from him–she’d never thought of him while in the tub or flat on her bed–but in his presence she didn’t want to walk to eat, she wanted to be nude with him, under a dirty sheet in a borrowed house. She wanted to hold his shoulders; she wanted to go snowshoeing with him; she wanted to go to funerals with him; she wanted him to be the father of her children, and also her own father, and brother; she wanted all this while also to be free; she wanted to sleep with other men and come home to tell Hand about them. She wanted to live one life with Hand while living three others concurrently. (32)

Pilar wrestles between the forces of what she wants and that which she feels is possible or expected of her–what is socially proper. She wants these things, and in fact she could likely have them if both her and Hand chose not to complicate it. But how often do we see human relationships that are not complicated. It’s as if we are predisposed to making things messier than they need to be. Why is that? Is it that we struggle between our baser instincts and our rationale minds, which have the potential of overriding such instincts? Is it personal, religious, or cultural ideology? Is the friction of social norms and expectations rubbing against our own hope to find happiness? What are we so afraid of?

As readers, we are privy to Pilar’s internal struggle. As she analyzes the possible impact of what she chooses or fails to choose, she concludes, “How many times in life can we make decisions that are important but will not hurt anyone? Are we obligated–maybe we are–to say yes to any choice when no one will be hurt?” (50). This line had me thinking for days. I believe so many of us are programmed to be unhappy or to create unhappiness in others (which is the same thing). The notion of our interconnectedness is a compelling one. Certainly, our actions affect others. One gentle tug on the web of life radiates in many directions and is felt in distant places by distant people. This is true. However, what if we were faced with a decision–with an action–that was really important, but would do no harm to self or others? Truly how often do we face such a choice? When we do, are we compelled to say yes–if for no other reason by virtue of the scarcity of such an opportunity?

“Sex invented God,” Pilar observes scrawled on a bathroom wall (44). What do we do to avoid happiness? Having survived 12 years of Catholic education, I should be an expert in answering that question. God–certain versions anyway–and the institutions built around the notion work as tools of control, often undermining the pure happiness that life offers us if we simply say yes. Floating free out in the surf, Pilar considers this question of God and happiness and the meaning of it all.

She closed her eyes. Opened them, closed them. She could end this world or allow it. This was a moment when a believer, a thoughtful believer, would think of God’s work, and how good it was. The waves were perfect to the right and perfect to the left… For a while she was enchanted by those who proposed that God was in nature, was all around us, was the accumulated natural world. “God,” they would suggest, “is in all living things. God is beauty, God is in the long grass and the foam finishing a waterfall.” That sort of thing. She liked that idea, God being in things that she could see, because she liked seeing things and wanted to believe in these things that she loved looking at–loved the notion that it was all here and easily observable, with one’s eyes being in some way the clergy, the connection between God and–

This reminds me of the scene from the Oscar winning film by Sam Mendes American Beauty (1999) where Ricky shows Jane the most beautiful thing he’s ever filmed, and he is overwhelmed.

Sitting there in the dark with Jane, watching a plastic bag dance in the wind, Ricky confesses, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it.”

But a single contained God implied or insisted upon a hierarchy that she didn’t accept. God gave way to a system of extremes, and implied choices, and choices required separations, divisions, subtle condemnations. She was not ready to choose one God, so there would not be this sort of god in Pilar’s world, and thus the transcendental deity–

But then why God at all? The oil-wet water was not God. It was not the least bit spiritual. It was oil-wet water, and it felt perfect when Pilar put her hand into it, and it kissed her palm again and again, would never stop kissing her palm and why wasn’t that enough? (51-52)

We all hunger for something–love, freedom, pleasure–but so many of us have gotten into the habit of starving ourselves. There is so much beauty. Often it is simple. Right before us. It’s of no greater meaning or complication and it’s as fleeting as life. It’s time to eat and love and overflow; faced with happiness and beauty without harm to self or others, we are obligated to say yes.

on reading deschooling society by ivan illich

Ivan Illich offers both a bleak view of contemporary institutionalized society and an inspiring vision of what Deschooling Society by Ivan Illichcould be in his 1970 treatise Deschooling Society. “Good radical stuff,” notes the Observer in its cover accolade. Indeed it is radical in the best and truest sense of the word as defined below:

Radical. adj. Arising from or going to a root or source; Departing markedly from the usual or customary; Favoring or effecting fundamental or revolutionary changes in current practices, conditions, or institutions; slang – Excellent; wonderful.

What’s fascinating about Deschooling Society is that Illich goes beyond criticism of all that is wrong with contemporary western society and culture (arguments put forth by many social critics and educational reformists) to actually propose detailed solutions and alternatives. The problem is, though, his alternatives are so radically (and wonderfully) different and depend so much upon the goodwill of men and women that they are borderline Utopian. Just the same, important changes start by affecting the mindsets of people by stating what might be possible even if ostensibly infeasible.

Before offering detailed–even if radical–solutions, Illich does layout in considerable detail the problem he sees with societal institutions–with institutionalized schooling in particular. He contends that school is the basis of widespread discrimination, is socially divisive, and profoundly inegalitarian. Illich points out how school serves to divide the world into very separate realms which are anything but equal:

The very existence of obligatory schools divides any society into two realms: some time spans and processes and treatments and professions are “academic” or “pedagogic,” and others are not. The power of schools thus to divide social reality has no boundaries: education becomes unworldly and the world becomes noneducational. (24)

Furthermore, Illich suggests that the school system and curriculum serves to assign social rank. Rather than doing as it purports to do–giving everybody an equal chance at achievement–school instead monopolizes the distribution of such chances (12). This is very true. Certainly it is school that tends to systematically separate the haves from the have-nots. We tell kids this all the time, after all, right? School pays off. You want to be diggin’ ditches your whole life? No? Then go to school. To many of us, this seems like pretty sound advice and we don’t for a moment question it. It’s true. The more schooling you have, the greater your employment, material, and fiscal opportunity in our society. Is this fundamentally fair? Only if one has subjected him- or herself to “the form of a ritual, of sequential sacred ordination” (12)–a treatment of years–can he or she be “certified” to gain access to the spoils of “achievement.” Note that this has nothing to do with intellectual [singlepic=837,275,275]  Ivan Illichcompetency or demonstrable skills. It has everything to do with being “certified” that you have passed through a curriculum–that you have spent a predetermined amount of your time enduring sustained curricular treatment. What is the real purpose of this curriculum?

Illich’s commentary in his chapter on the “Institutional Spectrum” is particularly compelling regarding the differences between true public utilities and services and those “false utilities” that are designed to serve a product (and its related industries) at tax payer expense rather than the good of the public at large. An illustrative example he uses is the superhighway system, which he argues is an accessory of the automobile and serves only those privileged enough to own or have access to an automobile. “Genuine all-purpose roads are true public utilities. Superhighways are private preserves, the cost of which has been partially foisted upon the public” (57). Illich outlines a host of “false utilities” that orient themselves on the far right of our societal spectrum, and school he suggests is the worst of them.

“Modern” technology transferred to poor countries falls into three large categories: goods, factories which make them, and service institutions–principally schools–which make men into modern producers and consumers. Most countries spend by far the largest proportion of their budget on schools. The school-made graduates then create a demand for other conspicuous utilities, such as industrial power, paved highways, modern hospitals and airports, and these in turn create a market for the goods made for rich countries and, after a while, the tendency to import obsolescent factories to produce them.

Of all “false utilities,” school is the most insidious. Highway systems produce only a demand for cars. Schools create a demand for the entire set of modern institutions which crowd the right end of the spectrum. A man who questioned the need for highways would be written off as a romantic; the man who questions the need for school is immediately attacked as either heartless or imperialist. (59-60)

Consider the amount of money the average university graduate has spent on school (not to mention the amount tax payers have spent on him or her, whether those tax payers maximize their own schooling or not). According to Illich, at the time of his writing, “Each American college graduate had an education costing an amount five times greater than the median life income of half of humanity” (34). School is big business in America and most of the Western world. A lot of money moves through the schooling system; plus schooling in America is intricately interwoven with the economy; corporate interests in our schooling system run deep and wide, as the system works to breed workers and consumers. Learning itself has become a commodity–a consumer product. We’ve been for so long and so consistently told that the only learning that really matters happens in school–that in fact, we can’t learn in the absence of curriculum, teachers, and institutions. Our economy is built on this lie. This leaves me wondering about this industry of obligatory mass schooling. Is the phrase and purported principle of “lifelong learning” little more than a marketing tag line to keep the money flowing and to keep people addicted to a consumer product education? What does school prepare us for other than to be better consumers? School is good for the economy, but is it good for our humanity? We can engage in learning without teachers and without schools after all, and we can do it for free. There is learning without teachers!

Let’s be real. No one needs teachers, curriculum, delivery systems, or packaged learning of any kind to take a liberal education. If one can read, has access to books, people, and other such resources, and has a desire to learn, he or she will. That’s it. How much money do we need to spend to have our learning “certified”–with a certificate that, by the way, does not guarantee any learning but rather serves only as testimony that a person has gone through a state approved ritualized process of “education?”

Ok, so what does Illich suggest by way of solution? He writes at length about this, detailing his idea of “learning webs.” “The alternative to dependence on schools,” he writes, “is not the use of public resources for some new device which ‘makes’ people learn; rather it is the creation of a new style of educational relationship between man and his environment” (73).

An entirely new elite would be promoted, an elite who earned their education by sharing it.

In order to de-institutionalize and decentralize learning as a consumer product, he suggests a radical new paradigm that puts education back in the hands of the learner and orients it in a real-world context. This new paradigm does not ask the question “What should students learn?” or anything of the kind; rather, it asks “What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?” (78). Illich describes in considerable detail how this new way of providing educational opportunity to citizens might be fairly distributed to everyone–rich and poor–as their birthright. He suggests four established approaches that would help any learner define and get at his or her educational goals. These four approaches or networks include 1) reference services to educational objects, 2) skill exchanges, 3) peer matching, and 4) reference services to educators-at-large. By participating in these networks of learning–these learning webs as he calls them, one would both get an education and participate in providing one to others. This is the part I love. Citizens could draw on these services using a “basic credit” that they could use to learn fundamental skills. “Beyond the minimum, further credits would go to those who earned them by teaching… An entirely new elite would be promoted, an elite who earned their education by sharing it” (90). Now that would be nice.

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