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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.

two good reads

We love books in our house and we tend to read a lot. That’s why I decided to share a bit about some of the books we’ve been reading. While I always seem to be in the middle of some book, my focus today is more on some of the great kids’ books that Aidan and I have been reading. We have read many of the typical kids’ series–from Magic Tree House to Boxcar Children to Times Spies (once Aidan finds a series he likes we have to read all the books in the series!).

But just recently I stumbled across a couple excellent books. One was Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. This was a wonderful story about the adventures of Minli, a young Chinese girl, who meets up with a dragon as she travels through the land trying to find the man on the moon in order to change her families fortune. Along the way she and the dragon are helped by various people and characters who provide insight on the meanings of family, friendship, love, and happiness. And in the end she finds that she and her family had everything they needed from the beginning. It is a book full of descriptive Chinese folktales intertwined within the beautifully written story of Minli’s adventures.

Another awesome book that we just finished was Gaia Girls: Enter the Earth by Lee Welles. I highly recommend this book for everyone–not just kids, but adults too–especially with Earth Day just around the corner. This book brings forth the subject of factory farms and the negative impact they can have on the earth and the people around them (Here are a couple web sites on the problems with factory farms: Sustainable Table and The Meatrix). The main character of Enter the Earth, Elizabeth, meets up the the “spirit” of the Earth, Gaia, and learns powerful ways to connect with the earth in order to save her family farm from the monstrous factory farm that is trying to buy up (and “buy off”) the small rural community in upstate New York. It’s a great reminder of the power of nature and how everything on this planet is so interconnected; and how humans sometimes forget how destructive we can be to our own planet (and ultimately to ourselves)–often due to greed. It’s the first one of a newer series (there is going to be four total). We already have the request in at our library for the second of the Gaia series and can’t wait to read it.

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