“Manhood” Isn’t the Right Term, But It’s the First Term That Comes to Mind

“Here I am,” declares Victor Mancini, the protagonist and narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Choke, “The backbone of early Colonial America” (25). Victor portrays life as it surely must have been for the hardened men struggling to survive in America during the year 1734. It was a time when men were, as Robert Bly puts it, “Saturnian, old-man minded farmer[s], proud of his introversion, […] willing to sit through three services in an unheated church” (1). But something is amiss. The blacksmith is “ripped out of his mind on ecstasy” and the smell of marijuana is “coming off [the milkmaid] in a fog” (Palahniuk 26). Add to the drug culture that permeates this colony a debauched sexual atmosphere, where the milkmaid is famous for her “great hand jobs” and the king’s constable will let the curious “sniff his fingers”, and it is clear that these are not the stoic, Saturnian men that Bly reminisces for (Palahniuk 26).

Additionally, Victor is finding conversation with his mother increasingly difficult as she slowly dies at St. Anthony’s care facility, a care home for the mentally deficient. Victor’s mother, Ida Mancini, has difficulty recognizing her son and is unenthused when she does. Ida is far more willing to see her son as Fred Hastings, a court-appointed legal defender who, according to Ida’s delusional constructions of Fred, saves “money at City First Federal”, is the driver of a Chrysler, “never eats oysters”, and cleans his “gutters in October, then again in November” (Palahniuk 46).

Also on the ward, the elderly and female patients in St. Anthony see in Victor a specific and oppressive man from their past, be it their husbands, brothers, or neighbors. Victor assumes the role of each and every one of those men, to bring a sense of peace to these women, and becomes the embodiment of every abusive male; Victor shoulders the burden of the damage done by the patriarchal system that he represents yet had no active role in creating.

Victor has found that trying to adapt to these three narratives of contemporary manhood has proven fruitless. As the three masculine tropes indicate, the contemporary man must be stoic and hard-hearted, wealthy and successful, and, lastly, sensitive and apologetic to the harm done to women by the men of the past. These contradictory tropes have brought Victor to a full stop and, throughout Choke, we see Victor begin to stagnate, both metaphorically and literally.

Clearly, a commentary of what it means to be a young, middle-class and white man in contemporary society is at play in Palahniuk’s novel but Choke, however, suggests that Victor is not strictly a victim of circumstance. Both Victor and his close friend, Denny, find themselves stuck in this masculine identity conundrum at the start of the book but Choke is, more importantly, about how one like Denny is able to eventually free himself of the identity trap or, in other words, how Victor is not.

While resenting the labels and narratives that Victor feels have been imposed on him by women, he is unaware of the labels and limitations he places back onto the various women of society. In a way that reflects a widespread trend among young North American men, outlined in Michael Kimmel’s revealing book, Guyland, I hope to outline how Victor objectifies and diminishes the status of women.  In an age where men feel emasculated by women’s increased social power, Victor, like many young men, begins to resent women and turns toward women of perceived lower and sexual  status to vent his frustrations in the form of dehumanizing misrepresentations of consensual sex. I would also like to indicate how Victor is corrupting his own sexuality in ways outlined by both Chris Hedges and Kimmel. Lastly, I would like to discuss how Palahniuk seems to suggest that in order to be free oppressive labels and fully mature into a functional adult, be it man or otherwise, one must reject the notion of labeling wholly. Choke insinuates that as long as one is able to limit the social potential of anyone, they are doomed to be limited socially themselves.

It is telling that Victor identifies as a sex addict. To a certain extent, most young men today are, if not to the actual act of sex, than at least to images portraying sex (Kimmel 169). It is more telling that Victor prefers brief and nearly anonymous sex with female convicts given a release from prison just long enough to attend their sex addiction support meeting. “Part of meeting these jail girls,” Victor tells the reader, “Is it’s so sweet to look at your watch and know she’ll be behind bars in half an hour” (Palahniuk 16). These disposable women appear in Victor’s life only long enough to sate him sexually and then disappear again. This parallels North America’s current addiction to women as sexual objects, particularly in the world of pornography. In his book, Guyland, Kimmel writes, “Staring at naked women is one of Guyland’s greatest pleasures.

And guys are staring – in real life, online, in magazines, on TV, in movies, and on DVDs – all the time. Pornography has been a massive industry for the decades in the Unites States but the recent numbers are startling. Today, with gross sales of all pornographic media ranging between $10 and $14 billion annually, the porn industry is bigger than the revenues of ABC, NBC, and CBS – combined. (Kimmel. Pg. 170)

And, in a reflection of the seemingly sexually inexhaustible women of the porn industry, who better for Victor to turn to than sex addicted convicts? But social critics like Chris Hedges have suggested that an addiction to pornography is not necessarily and addiction to the act of sex itself. “Pornography does not promote sex,” he tells us, “It promotes the solitary auto-arousal that precludes intimacy and love” (Hedges 57). In other words, pornography promotes masturbation. At the story’s onset, Denny too is a sex addict: he is a chronic masturbator. If Hedges argument is to be accepted, then Victor’s addiction, a chronic need to have sex with low status and disposable women, and Denny’s addiction, a need to masturbate constantly, are really two ways of looking at an identical affliction.

This constant exposure to pornographic women has, for Victor, critically corrupted his ability to foster healthy and mutually respectful sexual relationships. Dr. Paige Marshall, one of Choke’s central characters, is desirous of Victor but sex with Paige is, for Victor, an impossibility despite Victor’s admittance that he does “really want to fuck [her]” (Palahniuk 117). Hedges warns that an addiction to pornography, or simulated sex, can lead to a “crippled […] ability to be intimate” (57). Victor literally flees from Paige’s advances on the grounds that he “really wants to like [her] instead” (Palahniuk 166). As Hedges outlines, sex is becoming constructed more and more as a degrading act done to women by men in pornography being consumed by more young men than ever before (82). As a result, Victor’s sexuality is broken; to Victor, there are women that are to be respected and there are women that he can have sex with but the two cannot be encapsulated in a single female. “Maybe sex and affection aren’t mutually exclusive,” Paige offers Victor but all Victor can say in reply is, “Yes. Yes they are” (Palahniuk 166).

Victor claims that part of the reason why sex with Paige is so impossible is due to his resentment towards the higher status women in his life women. As a child, Victor was told by Ida, his mother, that, “I don’t want you to just accept the world as it’s given. I want you to invent it. I want you to have that skill,” and as a result Victor feels entitled to a world he commands (Palahniuk 284). Additionally, Paige reveals to Victor that he is the direct descendant of Jesus Christ and, as preposterous as the suggestion is, Victor accepts it unquestioningly as truth. Kimmel has commented on how young men have been made to feel special in their upbringing today resulting in their arrival into adulthood feeling entitled the success they perceive as their birthright (59). He also discusses the resulting frustration when the promise is not immediately realizable. The resulting aggravation is then linked to women who appear to be growing more successful and dominant in today’s workforce while men’s prominence seems to wane. Kimmel also indicates several reasons as to why this perception is based more on paranoia than fact (36). This theory of men’s loss of power is commented on enough within popular culture, however, to hold significant weight for today’s young men. As a result, young men begin to resent women. Higher status women are seen to have robbed the men of some promised inheritance and men take their power back on the low-status and invisible sexualized women of society.

By attaching either the label of “respectable” or “sexual” to women, we see another of Victor’s glaring contradictions when it comes to women’s rights. Victor, like many young and college educated men, will defend a woman’s right to a white-collar workforce (as much as it might frustrate them to see one more potential job “lost” to women). When Denny flippantly states, “He’s promised to make [Ida] young again [emphasis mine],” referring erroneously to Dr. Marshall, Victor immediately retorts with, “She. It’s Dr. Paige Marshall. She’s a woman” (Palahniuk 103). But, in a complete role reversal, it is Denny that admonishes Victor and forces him to see sexualized women in a humanized light. A stripper that Victor had only ever referred to as “patient” or her gaudy stage name, “Cherry Daiquiri”, is defended by Denny who tells Victor that, “Her real name is Beth,” on multiple occasions (Palahniuk 141). Victor has a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived threat to the working woman’s equality in an occupation that society has deemed acceptable but he is blind to the plight of the women working within the sex-trade, easily objectifying them as a “patient” or an “addict”.

While Denny certainly suffers from the same identity crisis that afflicts Victor, it is critical to understand that Denny is able shed the oppressive masculine tropes because he does not blame any one person or persons for forcing it upon him. Victor, on the other hand, holds women, mainly his mother, chiefly responsible for his situation: “I mean, how many times can everybody tell you that you’re the oppressive, prejudiced enemy before you give up and become the enemy. I mean, a male chauvinist pig isn’t born, he’s made, and more and more of them are being made by women” (Palahniuk 118). The level of self-awareness needed to take complete responsibility for one’s failings is what allows Denny to see all people, including women, on a completely individual basis. This is not to say that Denny does not also objectify women in a sexual manner. He does, after all, go to the strip club alongside Victor but Denny’s intentions appear remarkably different to Victor’s on two accounts. Firstly, Denny is beautifying the dancers in his sketchbook rather than diagnosing them with crippling ailments and commenting on the dancers’ imperfections, like cancerous moles and ingrown hairs, as Victor occupies himself in doing: “In Denny’s version, the cheesy thighs on some woman will look rock-solid [and] the bagged out eyes on some other woman will becomes clear and toned underneath” (Palahniuk 106).Secondly, Denny is able to, while objectifying sexually, also regard these women as relatable and respectable people. Denny’s sexuality is very much intact. Much to Victor’s horror, in the later chapters of Choke, Denny announces that he is dating Beth, known better to Victor as “Cherry Daiquiri”.

Denny’s relationship with Beth begins a cascading series of downfalls which ultimately forces Victor to abandon his system of objectively categorizing women starting with a key moment in which Victor becomes the sexualized “other”. After inserting a string of anal beads into Victor rectum, Tanya, a convicted felon and sex addict, yanks the string out with enough force to leave two of the ten beads lodged in Victor’s system. In this moment, Victor experiences firsthand what it is to be the “pornographic woman” after the sexual act. “The cruelty [of pornography] takes a toll on the bodies, as well as the emotions, of porn actresses,” says Hedges, “Many suffer severe repeated vaginal and anal tears that require surgery” (61). Tanya, assuming the role generally reserved for the men and all too eager to leave the scene, offers that Victor “stop by an emergency room” as her only means of support (Palahniuk 216). What Victor is left with is a by-product of the violent and degrading sex he took part in reflecting the pain, humiliation, and sexually transmitted infections visited upon so many pornographic actresses in the sex trade. The debilitating blockage represents another possible by-product to Victor: “‘Morning sickness’ isn’t the term, but it’s the first term that comes to mind” (Palahniuk 230).

Perhaps the growing bulge that has been linked to a developing fetus by Victor has afforded him some compassion towards his mother and, in a long-overdue act of nurturing, Victor brings heaps of chocolate pudding for his mother to help her regain her strength. Unfortunately, in his manic and feverish state, Victor accidently asphyxiates his mother but not before she can confess that “[she] stole him out of a stroller in Waterloo, Iowa” (Palahniuk 269). Additionally, during the struggle, Dr. Paige Marshall arrives to intervene only to have her ward admittance bracelet fall from under her lab coat to her wrist, revealing her to be a ward mate and not a doctor after all.

Importantly, Victor learns that he has no mother. This revelation forces Victor to realize that he has no birthright and therefore has no right to any entitlement whatsoever. In regards to his relationship with women, Victor is suddenly and permanently fixed among those women whom society sees as invisible and disposable; he is suddenly acutely aware that he has no status. In this moment, Victor joins Denny in the realization that no one, other than himself, was ever been responsible for his success and happiness.

Also, Dr. Paige Marshall is marked as a delusional inmate in St. Anthony’s care facility. Denny’s relationship with Beth had already begun to trouble Victor’s system of categorizing women in the way that Beth was elevated from sexualized “other” by Denny’s respect into the realm of the relatable and respectable woman. Now, Paige has dropped from un-sexually respectable to occupy a similar territory as the inmates Victor had turned to for sexual gratification. Essentially, the women of Victor’s life have become far too complicated to be neatly stacked into one of two categories and Victor is forced to recognize the shades of grey that make up each and every person but more to the point in this case, women.

That Victor’s harsh lesson in personal entitlement and the destruction of his categorizing system of women happen simultaneously in Choke is no accident on Palahniuk’s part. Making the most of a metaphor made literal, Palahniuk demonstrates that only after Victor acknowledge that he is “full of [his] own shit” can he be free to truly mature into a more functional form of manhood (280). The beads that have been blocking Victor’s bowel for days are explosively forced free after his revelation; in police custody, Victor attempts to asphyxiate himself on a ketchup bottle cap forcing the officer on duty to perform the Heimlich maneuver with a rather messy outcome.

There is clearly a message intended for society’s young men in Palahniuk’s Choke but it certainly does not hold these men in any special light. Victor harbors many of the anxieties that afflict many young men, according to Kimmel, so in that sense Victor is quite sympathetic. In another sense however, Victor is detestable in the way that he casts the blame of his own personal failings unto those around him. The message that Victor, and the reader, are to take away from Choke is that the labels and constructs we use against those around us allow ourselves to be trapped in the same system. By acknowledging that “we spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are,” Victor is finally freed to abandon the system of oppression he forced onto women and seeing the system of oppression forced on him simultaneously vanish (Palahniuk 292). Once these oppressive scripts are dropped, then “what we build could be anything” (Palahniuk 293).

Work Cited:

Bly, Robert. Iron John; a Book About Men. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, USA. 2004. Print.

Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion; The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Knopf Canada, Toronto, ON. 2009. Print.

Kimmel, Michael S. Guyland. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY. 2008. Print.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Choke. Anchor Books. New York, NY. 2001. Print.

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