Choke was a delicious novel.

Art doesn’t have to be beautiful.

Now, if someone takes a sharpie and draws a straight line on a canvas and then vomits on it, so they can sell it for 10,000$ as “high art”, I will find that person and shoot them, because any shit head can do that.

But if you can make someone look twice at a piece of garbage on the ground, and to be able to appreciate that even the smallest things have beauty, than that is true art.

I will have much more admiration for the hero of Rebecca Harding Davis’s short story, Life in the Iron Mills; who builds a beautiful statue symbolizing human grief and hope, than some frat boy who’s daddy paid for him to sculpt penises out of clay (and secretly snickers every time someone spends 10,000$ on one).

But it brings up an interesting idea which is carried throughout the novel: are we born out of greatness, or do we make greatness within ourselves? Who are we without our heroics, our degrees, our super powers, our leather masks and capes? I mean, obviously this is not a new question, superheroes have been asking this question through hundreds of issues of comic books, and some of our greatest literary heroes have struggled with this notion, but rarely do you see a hero so fallen, so pathetic, who struggles with this idea. Victor; a self-described loser, sexual addict, and selfish insufferable failure, is one of the worst, and best, heroes that literature has ever seen. Obviously we can look at him as a person with no greatness inborn or instilled whatsoever, and in fact Victor (the main character) spends a lot of time decrying people who praise him as a hero or otherwise decent person in the novel. His greatness is not that he is the hero to others, but he is the person that people save; his super-power is the ability to transform other people into heroes by being the saved one.

“Martyrdom” may not be the right phrase, but it’s the first phrase that comes to mind.

But why does this make him any less great than the heroes that we all know and love? Why do we look at him with disgust and dismay? Because he embraces his faults, his follies, his problems? Because he reviled in his own filth? Because he admits he’s a sex addict? One can argue that it’s only human for people to have addictions, as Palahnuik says in the novel, “When you’re an addict, you can go without feeling anything except drunk or stoned or hungry. Still, when you compare this to other feelings, to sadness, anger, fear, worry, despair, and depression, well, an addiction no longer looks so bad. It looks like a very viable option.”

In fact, we can almost look at his care-free (relatively) life as desirable, even though he’s a scrappy, gross vagabond who can’t keep his dick in his pants. And almost a kind of savior, for saving those who can’t save themselves, by being pathetic. I mean, even Emerson wrote about Christ, saying “to be great is to be misunderstood.” And it would be an understatement to say that we don’t understand Victor.

Saved from the world by a delusional mother only to fall in love with a delusional woman, he is so afraid of being great that the only greatness he achieves is by making others feel like the hero: “You gain power by pretending to be weak. By contrast, you make people feel so strong. You save people by letting them save you. All you have to do is be fragile and grateful. So stay the underdog… You’re the proof of their courage. The proof they were a hero. Evidence of their success… You might be the one good deed, the deathbed memory that justifies their entire existence.”

But just as we asked ourselves in 1986 who watches the Watchmen, we have to ask Victor; who saves the savior? You are saving people, but who’s there to save you? Victor even tells us that his biggest desire, for once, is to be the hero to somebody, for someone to really need him as much as he needs them. Who is there left to save the lonely hero? His mother, who admits to stealing him out of a baby carriage in Ohio (or some other equally forgettable state), still manages to deflate his far-fetched hope that he was conceived out of the foreskin of Jesus Christ. The “Doctor” he falls in love with, finally, turns out to be a lunatic. And yet we still feel a sort of kinship, and feeling of love for him. Much in the same way that he makes heroes out of random people at restaurants, in a way he has made us feel like heroes because we pity him. And that takes a type of greatness that is innate.

But as he says, we shouldn’t read this book if we’re looking for answers, for salvation, for any type of hope:

If you think anything is going to save you…Please consider this your final warning.
In the way that art made by a man working in the coal mines, with cracked and bleeding hands, somehow means more than a masterpiece painted by a man who’s been trained by the masters, Victor’s pathetic plight and absolute refusal to believe he is good make us see him as a forgotten, but very much-needed hero. Despite his disgusting habits, horrific past, and superficial actions, we find ourselves very much in love with him.

I apologize for the slight lean towards stream-of-consciousness, as I remarked earlier (and then deleted), Choke is a simple novel with complex ideas, and it was hard for me to pick and choose so I decided instead to throw the whole thing at your brain.

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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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