By Chuck Palahniuk 2002
Victor Mancini, a destitute sex addict, fakes he's choking in expensive restaurants to find patrons to "save" him and then use their sympathy to get to help him fund his hospitalized mother's care.
In Choke, we follow Victor and his friend Denny through a few months of their lives including frequent flashbacks to Victor's childhood. As his mother was found to be unfit to raise him, Victor had grown up in different foster homes. His mother tried to kidnap him from his foster parents several times but every time they would be caught after a short period together, and he would be sent to the child welfare agency again.
The story opens with Victor going to a sex addiction clinic at a local church. Before the class, he has sex with fellow addict Nico in the church bathroom and this shows us his problem. We learn about his mother the next day when he visits her at nursery home. She is suffering from Alzheimer's and thinks her son is her lawyer. It is there we earn about Dr. Marshall who tells him, his mother needs a stomach tube to keep her alive which is quite expensive for Victor.
Victor left medical school to support his sick mother in a nursing home. To pay for a nursing home, he becomes a con artist by going to different expensive restaurants and causes himself to choke in the middle of his meal to trap a "good Samaritan" into saving his life. After this, he uses their sympathy to fund his mother's expenses. He keeps a detailed list of his patrons for the purpose of sending them letters frequently about fake bills that he cannot pay.
Victor also works at a theme park set in colonial times in which most of the staff are either drug addicts or fellow recovering sex addicts. He spends most of the time taking care of Denny who constantly being caught with items that are not related to the colonial age period. We learn that they met at a sex addiction support group and later they become friends and applied to the same job. Later, Denny is fired from the job and begins to build his "dream home" by collecting stones from around the city.
Through the flashbacks, we learn that when Victor was a child, his mother taught him about conspiracy theories and weird medical facts which confused and frightened him. Possibly, such lessons along with constant moving from home to home, made Victor unable to form stable relationships with women. This results in his sex addiction later in life in which he got sexual gratification from women only on a superficial level. Then the first fake choking scene happens after Victor and Denny visit a restaurant and he eats down his steak as quickly as possible to choke himself.
A brief list of the main characters in Choke and analyses of the importance of them in the story.
Victor is the main character and the narrator of the story. He has many phycological issues that seem to be rooted in his childhood. He lacks self-confidence as he shows us self-hatred when he reflects back to his childhood and calling his younger self an idiot. He is a sex and drug addict with commitment issues. From the very beginning, he tells us that the reader will not like his character by saying that "a stupid true-life story about nobody you'd want to meet." However, Palahniuk suggests that he is an attention seeker and not necessarily a bad person. It is during sexual exercises that a story of emotional abuse by his mentally sick mother reveals through the flashbacks. This comes from his childhood when he moved between the foster house and a mother that was either in prison or a mental asylum. The only time could spend time with his mother was when she kidnapped him on occasion. Victor as an insatiable sex addict sees his church therapy group as a place to pick up women. He is also blinded by a kind of idealism at the most unlikely moments such as fighting boredom by having sex in an airplane bathroom and ambitious enough to believe in his own divinity.
Ida is Victor's mother who is diagnosed with Alzheimer's at St. Anthony’s hospital. She got pitch-black hair in the past and spoke extremely fast. Victor’s mother used to keep a diary and Victor thinks there is some secret about him written in it, but the diary is written in Italian. She is a schizoid personality that finally declines to dementia. In the whole story, we see Victor tries to trick Ida into revealing the true identity of his father. Ida refers to Victor as Fred Hastings, a completely different person to whom his mother sees him. Thus, she expresses most of her personal thoughts to him. Throughout his visits, Victor is not too delighted to hear the things his mother says about him. For example, she says, "He’s dropped out of medical school and is making a big mess..."
Paige Marshall is a seductive doctor working in Ida's nursing home. At first, we see her as a sympathetic Dr. Paige who knows of a procedure that may bring Ida’s memory back. But it involves harvesting some of Victor’s stem cells by impregnating her. However, every time Victor tries to do so, he can’t do perform as he questions if he actually found true love for the first time in his life. We later learn that Paige is a patient in the hospital who wears a doctor's uniform and impersonates a real doctor. After Victor finds out she's been lying to him, she apologizes and admits to her lie but then she claims that she traveled back in time and that is why she is looking for someone to impregnate her so she can go back to the future and destroy the plague destroying her world.
Denny is Victor's best friend who met at the therapy group. He is also a sex and drug addict who is clumsy and Victor needs to constantly clean his mess in their job at the theater. Denny is later fired from the theme park because of his clumsiness and it is when we see him start collecting stones from around the city to build his "dream home". After a discussion between Victor and Denny about his erection issue with Paige, he realizes he loves Paige.
In Choke, we see a vision of life and love and sex and mortality that is both brilliant and funny. This story deals with themes that are often perceived as taboo in our society. We can summarize the theme as:
The Influence of the Mother and childhood trauma
Mentioning the Oedipal complex a few times by Victor during the book and blaming his mother for every problem he has in his life is an excuse for his sex addiction, lack of trust because his mother did not trust anyone, only get along with eccentric people because his mother was eccentric, conning people because his mother showed him how to do it and dropping out of school because his mother was sick. In his mind, he thinks he cannot move on with his life until his mother tells him about his father.
Identity and society’s expectations
As always with all of Palahniuk’s characters, we see Choke's characters struggle with their own identities and are often insecure and unsure of themselves. As an example, we see Victor at one point in the novel that he thinks he may be the direct descendent of Jesus Christ. As he doesn't know who his father is so he begins to believe the tales that Paige tells him about being born from his mother’s egg and the ancient DNA of Jesus Christ. However, during all the identity crisis he's facing, he struggles with this fact because of his naturally sinful nature. Results in changing his perception from being evil to embrace his heritage. In the end, when Victor realizes he is not related to Jesus he learns that no one can decide for him whether he is good or evil and begins to find his own identity and make his own decisions. Palahniuk shows the common theme of feeling "choked" by society’s expectations that results in a loss of identity and direction. We can see it in Victor is affected by this strongly and constantly tries to conform to the thoughts of the outside world and he often asks Denny if he thinks Victor is a nice guy or not.
Sexuality and social norms
Victor is defined as a sex addict from the very beginning of the book. Using an autodiegetic narration, Victor accepts that his lifestyle is not acceptable by social norms of sexuality. Also, he mentions that the people who attend the therapy group would be considered sexual perverts by society.
Coping mechanisms and refusal of reality
An important characteristic of Victor in this story is what happened in childhood. These mostly traumatic events explain his behavior as an adult and show the damaging effect childhood traumas have on a person’s life. In this case, we observe Victor's use of coping mechanisms as a prominent theme in Choke. This can be the use of sex as a coping mechanism for him as it provides an outlet for his life frustrations.
The motifs of Choke can be Oedipus complex and addiction as a mean for Self-destruction. Oedipus complex, is a term used by Sigmund Freud in his theory of psychosexual stages of development to describe a child's feelings of desire for his or her opposite-sex parent and jealousy and anger toward his or her same-sex parent. This shows in the book when Victor explains his observation of his mother's several lovers and as a result of compulsive sex addiction as an anesthetic.
The symbols in the novel Choke can be rocks, medieval theme parks.
The symbol of rocks represents a source of strength for Victor's unstable friend Denny. After Denny is fired from the theme park we see that instead of having sex, he begins to collect rocks to build his future and 'his dream home'. This represents the endless possibilities that await him in an addiction-free future.
Contrary, for Victor the rocks are a symbol of the work being done by others to change their situation instead of just wasting time and ignoring the truth like what Victor does. We can see that when the rocks begin to fill his home, it becomes a nuisance to him, but once they are taken away he misses them and it shows he misses the feeling of having a full home or life. This is symbolic of his main resistance to commitments and stable life.
Medieval theme park
Victor’s life chaos is partly shown in the dead-end job he was working at a medieval theme park. The theme park that was full of drug addicts pretending to be members of a feudal society represents Victor's denial in life. Similar to the addicts at the theme park who are hiding their addiction behind their job's mask, he tries to hide being a good person at heart by performing wild sexual adventures and fantasies. The theme park is also a form of escape and avoiding reality for him.
What I think
The main character of Choke struggles with confronting his past and sexual addiction. As usual, Palahniuk takes a minimalistic approach to writing Choke. The nonsensical anecdotes that are often disturbing and hilarious can be seen all over this book. This novel transgressive genre is clear in the existentialistic belief in existence as an individual responsible for their own actions and free will. This novel is criticized for being nihilistic which is no wonder for a non-transgressive critic. For sure, Choke is not for the faint of heart or those with a weak stomach. This book is not written to please as Palahniuk's goal is always to shock, and he does so perfectly. As we read in the first pages of Choke that the narrator clearly explains “what happens here is first going to piss you off. After that it just gets worse and worse”. In my idea, the main character of Choke, Victor, somehow is a more polished version of Holden Caulfield in Catcher and the Rye by J.D. Salinger. It might be because they are both cynical characters also, in both novels there are transgressive approaches to sex. So, I do agree with the critics of the both movie and the book to say Choke is an emotional Constipation that is not written for everyone.
Palahniuk joined sexaholics for six months anonymously for the sake of research. In an interview he mentions that "I went to the Wednesday night group and a Friday night group, and mostly because I wanted to see the structure of the groups, how they were conducted, and what the atmosphere was like, and also to be able to describe the people as human beings, rather than as the dirty jokes that they are in our culture, you know? Nymphomaniacs and dirty old men; I wanted them to be people and not just these stereotypes..."