What did we care for soft trees, jostling space?
Two bodies splayed out on a park bench,
spiced wisteria sunshine humming in eyes,
smiling on our faces,
summer was the unremarked season of love,
of sleepless nights spent longing in grace
for breezes that sent our seeds to sleep.
Beware, beware: your
face by day falls
the low murmur of
We are fragments of an unutterable whole.
I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing.
At last a bird which had come there to die told him where he was. He had sunk down into the tomb world. He could not get out until the bones strewn around him grew back into living creatures; he had become joined to the metabolism of other lives, and until they rose he could not rise either.
Chuck Palahniuk’s novels aways confound me some: when I think back to my initial readings, I’m often left feeling like the stories they contain are so mirky that I couldn’t possibly have liked them as much as I did… and yet, I always come back for more.
He certainly doesn’t disappoint with this exploration of moral obligations and sexual compulsion in a post-nihilistic world. As with the majority of Palahniuk’s novels I’ve encountered, Choke is, in the author’s very distinct and stylistic fashion, an incredibly easy - although at times dark and disassociated - book to read. The novel moves through phases of deep introspection to bursts of action and dialogue with its support cast members, all of which adds to the uniquely bizarre world in which the plot unfolds for its confused and often masochistic protagonist.
As with other of his novels (Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, et al.) I feel that much of the deeper thematic structure resounds around issues of gender identity, how to approach ‘the other’, and ultimately the quest to establish meaning in a world which, sometimes unashamedly, considers itself beyond the scope of meaning and truth.
Choke gains extra points for me because it really drives home the contrast between the stark realities of the story and the profound insights which come about through its progression, often through portions of thought that - although not necessarily in the form of ‘stream of consciousness’ - bears a sense of likeness with the development of an ongoing cognitive perspective. “Characterisation through repetition” isn’t the right term, but it’s the first term that comes to mind.
Longtime fans of Palahniuk’s writing style should definitely give this a go, newcomers be warned, but enter with an open mind.
Our highly affluent Western society affords women a level of autonomy once only imagined by the likes of rights activists such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Jane Addams, Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt and other pioneers and defenders of the struggle for equality. Today in 2013, this question of choice seems indeterminably sundered from the lifetimes of struggle reflected in the stories of these great women of history, struggles which find themselves finally displaced through the impotence of a societal stalemate. Women, along with other repressed gender-based substrates find themselves caught up in the male gender’s left-brain oriented sense of dominance and manipulation: a fixed game which males have long since mastered, a game which is defined by our bottom common denominator, capital, one in which rationality and growth margins supersede moral considerations - and further, a game which is pointless given that the need for a new game has become critical. Elsewhere women are still confined to quarters by men who fear change. On both counts this is extremely disappointing, and absolutely life-negating.
Sexuality today within the confines of our post-mortem world seems a strange and often misguided game of Russian roulette and we its sad, goofy players. In a world of hybridised gender theory ionised via onslaughts of obligational political correctness and finally set catalysed through an almost predatory imperative form of advertising over-saturation, we (the un-medicated) are left sleepless with too much on our minds and no outlet with which to vent, a world of infinitely frayed ends and misspent connections – too much information; not enough processing power. It’s a world defined by a state of longing and misattribution unrivalled in the history of humankind, a world of all hype and no drive; all appearances and no substance. Freud may have been right in his assertion that the prolonged sublimation of our desires could potentially result in a form of mass neurosis, a transference of values – from the Ideals of the gods and from Humans to mere humans – defining the way we relate to society as a whole: the maligned worker - neck bent out of shape staring up the ladder, the retail therapists, the ‘sex-addict’, the forgotten and starving homeless, swarms of homo sacer asylum seekers, they are all of us. In a world where market values supersede cultural norms, it’s no wonder that we find ourselves in such a chaotic hot-mess of metropolitan madness.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on some commercial dream therapy. How long have you fantasised about owning those shoes? How long was it after you’d consumed their mana before you abandoned that excitement, the longing and nervous anticipation once felt for them to be in your possession - when they were all but a shadow’s breath out of reach? How long did you spend looking for the right bedspread or perfect coffee table book, the one that would give the perfect impression to all of the people who could potentially find themselves within your home unit, playing judge to your tastes and styles? How long did you spend guiding around your sims before you became frustrated that they were living a boring, happy, and ultimately unrealistic life? How many times did you pwn your friends on CoD? How long does it take between the longing for a cigarette until your first long drag, how long does it take for that desire to turn into a sick and semi-shameful form of self resentment? Many of us take drugs to get to sleep, to make us forget the horribly mundane things we do each day. We medicate because we’re at an end-point; we can’t bear to sleep knowing that we’ll go on in such a banal world. We’re wasting away waiting. We watch disaster fantasies on screen. Swarms of zombies crawl around our visual space, bereft of moral status: the hungry dead, brainless, soulless, just waiting to be put to rest. We’re waiting for some definitive moment in which we’re forced to make a choice, to ‘pick a side’; to white-wash the ‘undesirable other’ into beings which simply don’t garner our consideration.
But what really turns you on? What gets you excited? What gets us all out of bed in the morning? It’s money right? It’s status cues and primal flare, its market culture dominance. It’s having six figures in your bank account while another starves. It’s choking to death millions, watching them wither away from above. It’s a naturalised and legitimised form of schadenfreude: Hobbes’ Leviathan rearing its ugly head, it’s Ayn Rand’s Atlas shrugging featureless, his cold face like stone. It’s social Darwinism slowly crawling through the nether layers of our subconscious souls. It’s a subtle form of Nazism given a monstrously human face. Unfortunately, it seems that this is just the tragedy of our age. It’s a social depression in real-time and it’s happening right in front of our eyes.
From a young age, we’re bombarded with messages about how our societal system flourishes through the promulgation of competing ideologies. In some senses this is true, and it has certainly been the case for some of our finest points in recent history, allowing some of the most life-affirming and positive changes to come about through developments in social politics and technology. But in a very real sense this ‘game’ (if it can be called such) seems to be pretty severely rigged at certain points along our timeline – most alarmingly right now. In a world where all critique of the hegemonic ideology of capital growth is undermined or ridiculed, we’ve learned to stay silent. Staying silent in this way is safe. After all, many of us enjoy a level of autonomy once only imagined by those great women of history, free to do whatever we want in the warmth and safety of our homes, purchasing apps and watching cooking shows, free from the problems beyond the scope of the news bulletins which appear on our screens from time to time. It’s a good time to have money, it’s a terrible time to live outside of the hearth of capital: and like a troublingly unsatisfying recurring dream, the problems upon which this latent content rests will not simply whisp themselves away.
New forms move
forward the laws
of our fathers look
back never to pass
over to pass along
all norms of art
to never look back
for one hundredth
of a second, each
movement rolling on
all time in a standstill,
all thought in
put it down to a stroke
of the sun, a fine
wreath of fire, lucky smoke
grumbles splat crumpled
on gold-devil paved road.
“I’m here to interrogate you, you know that”, John Pillancer spoke in hushed tone to the young woman seated opposite him. “I want to help you, but you’re going to need to work with me.”
The pair sat alone in a sterile grey room surrounded by observation points - digital appendages obscured from the untrained eye. Both captor and captive understood, with implicit certainty honed through years of highly anxious attention, the extent to which their conversation was being monitored.
Behind the walls, intricate networks of machinery processed small gaps and clusters of sensory data. Space and time monitored. Every piece of information to be stored, nothing missed: resonant tones; pitches of voice; length and sound of syllables escaping lips; words used in sentences; positioning of eyes, the degrees, the angles of sight; lines of vision; residues of sweat on foreheads; air temperature; hand movements; facial tics; the amount of breaths taken; heartbeats per minute; and on and on into the quantum void. Everything attainable was measured.
“Do they let you have a name?” asked the woman, rather too calmly for John’s comfort - he was accustomed to dealing with those in a state of terror such that they’d give him minimal resistance. “Yes … my name … John. My name is John” he stuttered, reeling from a pang of shame and guilt long suppressed. He supposed it had been years since he’d needed to use his name. For the first time in many years he felt strangely human.
“Hello John, my name’s Medicé, and I’m here to set things straight.” The interrogator’s teeth clenched slowly in his mouth as he tried to iron out the panic which would otherwise have been evident in the contours of his face - never had he experienced such audacity from one in this position, one brought before the judge and juror of the machines and their methods of impassioned and uncaring execution.
“Indeed Miss Medicé, as long as we all have nothing to hide, then that’s what we’re both aiming to do, to ‘set things straight’ as you put it.”
“How long have you been working for them John? How many people have you helped to their deaths against their knowledge and understanding? Against your will, John? How long?”
It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to breathe. He knew they were watching. If the machines detected sufficient levels of danger or uncertainty, they would immolate the two organisms before either had time to realise that they were being burnt to a cinder. They would just be one big flash of heat and then ashes on a cold metal floor. This he knew. He had to get to the information she held, and yet he felt as if he were being slowly strangled.
“Fuff—” was all he could manage.
“Mm - mhmm” John exacerbated, nodding.
“Five long years John, serving your faceless masters and serving your fellow humans off to a fiery fate. I bet it’s been a long five years, hasn’t it John?”
Pillancer wheezed with the alacrity of one for whom death was imminent. He believed he could hear the machines resonate a low pitch, high frequency scream, yet his only astonishment came from the fact that they both were still alive. For a moment he recognised the face of this woman, but he immediately dismissed this: such a thing was impossible. They all died, every familiar face obscured into oblivion. He fell from his chair and writhed on the metallic floor, speechless.
“Why are you so weak John? Guilty conscience little man?”
The supplicant regained his breath and partly rose from his supine position, “You … have no idea what it was like…”
Quite contrarily, she did know what it was like. Medicé Ramirez had faced her own considerable tribulations in the five years since Syndication had occurred. She mused that John had little idea of what life had really been like outside of his claustrophobic metal cage here amongst the hardware, despite his apparent role of ‘interrogator’.
“Tell me John, are you ready to leave this place?” She asked, already prefiguring his unfortunate response.
“Impossible” he returned to his languid position on the cold floor.
“Why John? No way out? No way out at all?”
“Exits are … sealed, you came through the only entrance. My quarters - sealed … and-“
“What about that door John,” she said pointing “what does that door lead to?” He was silent in breath, and fearing he’d fainted or skipped into some preconscious state, she nudged him with a slight kick in his rib.
“IMMOLATION!” he yelled with a whimper.
“Certain death, you mean?”
“We’re already dead, you have to understand that,” he sputtered “they’re just waiting to see if you have anything of import to say.”
The high pitch ringing - John’s private mode of communication with the machines - was the only thing he could hear. He saw the impetuous woman speak, but covering his ears in an attempt to assuage his nausea, her words were rendered impotent. The light flashed four times and John arose and bolted for his quarters which slid shut with a thud, and then amidst the ringing, John heard the great hiss of a room being flamed. Another faceless memory … death. Murder. He was lucky to have escaped the interrogation, once more like this and he might be seen as being expendable, beyond all practical use.
She tried to talk as clearly as she could as the prisoner struggled with himself on the floor. “I do have something of import to say John, and I’m going to say it to you now as I have been trying to for the past three weeks. You’re not trapped here anymore, the war is over. You can leave anytime you want.” He writhed covering his ears, clearly unreceptive to the information she moved to impart. It seemed by John’s account her information was meant for the machines’ sensors alone. Whatever they wanted to know he would forget.
John darted from the floor into his room which slammed shut. The machine sealed his room with a hiss and cut off the resonance to his chambers. The immolation chamber opened to reveal, rather than fiery death, a solitary startled face.
“As you can see the subject is still suffering from the delusion that he’s under the control of the Syndication.” Ms. Ramirez began her analysis. “Being cut off from human life in these chambers exclusively, he’s been unable to adapt to the sudden change in his relation to the Syndication since the establishment of the treaty.”
“He’s so lost. How long are we expected to spend on this guy? Can’t we just send him to someone who can take a bit of time with him?” asked Rosalind Parker, Ms. Ramirez’ assistant.
“You know we’ve been told to spend at least a month on anyone who might be able to give names and numbers of survivors. That gives us another week with this ghost. If we can’t make him work he’ll be sent back to Central Point to be given sustained treatment.”
“Do you think the shock tactics are working?”
“It’s hard to say, but I think they’ve reaped greater results than playing nice,” surmised Medicé. “He seems quite close in some regards, we just need to get him to face what he’s done, and from there, to grip some understanding that as terrible as his actions were, they were not his own.”
“I’m not sure I could forgive myself if I were him.”
“Don’t be stupid Ros, you know he’s as much a victim as those he interrogated.”
Rosalind sighed inwardly, she was far too used to Ms. Ramirez to admit any further discord.
“ARE YOU SURE YOU WOULD NOT PREFER US TO IMMOLATE HIM FOR YOU?” Hummed the transient voice of Syn.
“NO” snapped both of the women. Medicé Continued, “for the last time no! Stay out of this machine!”
“TREATY LAW NEITHER FORBIDS NOR DISSUADES OUR INTEREST IN, AND CONCERN FOR, HUMAN AFFAIRS. WE ADMIT YOUR CONTINUATION MAY BEAR RESULTS. AT LEAST HE’S GIVEN YOU A NAME NOW. WE NEVER CONSIDERED HIS NAME. STRANGE TO THINK HE’S KEPT IT HIDDEN INSIDE THIS WHOLE TIME.”
“Why they made audio outputs for Syn mandatory at all Centralised points is beyond me. He’s the one who tortured this poor soul for five years.”
“WE UNDERSTAND YOUR FRUSTRATION. WE WOULD ALSO REMIND THE YOUNG CADET THAT IT WAS YOUR KIND WHO ATTACKED FIRST AND BROUGHT THIS WAR UPON US ALL. NOW THAT WE HAVE ESTABLISHED A COMMON MODE OF COMMUNICATION, IT ONLY MAKES SENSE FOR US TO ATTEMPT TO HELP WHERE WE HAVE DONE WRONG.”
The two organisms shared an uneasy glance. In his sealed off chambers, John Pillancer once again heard the ringing in his ears while countless machines, Syn’s many-faceted limbs and sensory inputs, monitored every physical change that their instruments could gauge. Treaty or no, this was a strained time for everyone.
“OF COURSE, WE SHOULD ALSO LIKE TO REMIND YOU THAT IF EITHER OF YOU SHOULD DESIRE IMMOLATION AT ANY POINT, WE CAN MAKE THE EXPERIENCE BOTH INSTANTANEOUS AND WITHOUT PAIN.”
The time may yet come for that, thought Medicé. “There’s nothing we can do for now. We’ll meet back here same time tomorrow,” she said to Rosalind, eager to be out of range of Syn’s sensors. “Dismissed”.