You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Choke is by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. It is the story of Victor Mancini, a young man whose mother is dying in an institution. To support her, he has dropped out of medical school, started work as an extra at a colonial theme park, and conned people into "saving" him (and sending him money) when he fakes choking at restaurants. He tells in flashbacks how his mother would pull him out of school and take him on wild adventures, only to be caught and thrown in jail until she gets out and finds him again.

Victor is a sex addict. He goes to a location where there is a sex addict support group, but only to pick up women who are sex addicts. They have sex in the bathroom or other places nearby. He likes the women who get out of jail to go to the support group, because when they are done they go back to jail and he doesn't have to deal with them anymore. He also likes the attention he gets from the people who "save" him in restaurants, so it's not just about the money. He says he gives his saviors the benefit of feeling important, but really it's about the attention he gets from them, to take the place of the love that he doesn't get from his mother.

At the nursing home, Victor meets Dr. Paige Marshall, who says she can help his mother if he has sex with her. For some reason, he can't bring himself to do it, even when she throws herself at him. His mother is delusional, and usually won't speak to him if he greets her ad himself. So he has taken to greeting her as one of her defense lawyers, and they talk about Victor like he isn't there. It's a sort of therapy or role-playing for the son who wants to understand his mother and himself. He plays therapist to his mother while getting his own catharsis from talking about himself. Dr. Marshall offers to translate his mother's diary, written in Italian, for him.

The colonial theme park is full of more misfits that Victor can relate to. Many are often drunk or high. They have to stay "in character", and are punished with the stocks if they come to work with earrings in or wearing sneakers. Victor supports his best friend when he continually ends up in the stocks, wiping his nose for him and keeping kids from throwing things at him.

In many ways this is a novel about identity, about a young boy in a man's body trying to grow up after having an aborted childhood. He assumes a different identity for his mother. For the other mentally ill women in the nursing him, he assumes different identities for them: their ex-husband, an abusive brother, the man who killed their dog. For one sex addicted woman, he plays as a rapist for her. For his job, he becomes a colonial misfit instead of a twenty-first century misfit. His childhood was robbed by his mother, who drove him around to different places, filling his mind with useless facts about secret codes in public announcements. He's not even living his own life, but living exclusively for his mother, despite not being able to have a real relationship with her.

The core of the plot is Victor's dealing with his mother's growing dementia (she cannot swallow food, so needs a feeding tube) and coming to grips with his own obsessions. In an interesting metaphor, Victor's best friend develops an obsession with collecting rocks. It's a completely useless activity that turns into something that can take over his life, Victor's life, and Victor's home. When Victor's kicks his friend out, the ends up taking his rocks and making a house out of them. It's a nifty transformation of turning a useless or harmful obsession into something constructive. Like the rocks, Victor collects useless sexual experiences. Like the rock house, he must come to build something meaningful from his obsessions.

In the end, there are surprises revealed about Victor, his mother, and Dr. Marshall. Victor ends up with at his best friend's rock house with dozens of other people who had seen Victor on the TV news and recognized him as the man they had saved. Everything starts to unravel, and Victor has to make a decision about his future, in effect rebuild himself from the pieces.

The novel is at times hilarious and at times depressing. The author has a cynical, dark view. He makes the fake rape scene turn out hilarious. The dialog and narrative are dark, incisive, and witty. The sex scenes are very explicit and often downright dirty. I enjoyed watching the characters interact. It's a story of how a troubled man wakes up, stops being an obsessive nuisance, and makes a decision to have a different life. Even though it was a little hard to get into at first, it ends up a pretty good novel, worthy of an A-.


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