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those who run long…

I’ve been running and reading Relentless Forward Progress by Bryon Powell (not simultaneously, mind you), and have taken on a pseudo-obsession with the topic as of late, so much so that I think I’m beginning to really bore my friends and family members with my incessant chatter of running, trails, hydration and nutrition strategies, body mechanics and physiology, spiritual journeys, and such. Anyway, this passage from the foreword by Eric Grossman struck me. I get it. I get it.

Relentless Forward ProgressThose who run long are not freaks of nature. We are not a handful of chosen ones blessed with indefatigable muscle and indestructible cartilage. Nor do we have indomitable willpower that others lack. If anything sets us apart it is a kind of sensitivity. We can hear a faint chord vibrating on old and brittle strings. It begins to resonate through us when we rise predawn for a morning run. The sound builds the longer we stay at it. On a long run through the mountains our attention becomes focused, in tune, automatic. Each footfall and each breath synchronized with a primal tune. Ours is a re-creation of once necessary dispositions.
                                                  — Eric Grossman

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.

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