Choke: A Novel
Victor Mancini, a medical-school dropout, is an antihero for our deranged times. Needing to pay elder care for his mother, Victor has devised an ingenious scam: he pretends to choke on pieces of food while dining in upscale restaurants. He then allows himself to be “saved” by fellow patrons who, feeling responsible for Victor’s life, go on to send checks to support him. When he’s not pulling this stunt, Victor cruises sexual addiction recovery workshops for action, visits his addled mom, and spends his days working at a colonial theme park. His creator, Chuck Palahniuk, is the visionary we need and the satirist we deserve.
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Read the first two paragraphs of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye here: http://chabrieres.pagesperso-orange.fr/texts/salinger_catcher.html. How are the narrative voices in Choke and The Catcher In The Rye similar? How do they differ? What tones do these narrators set at the beginning of each novel?
Calling someone a "Benedict Arnold" means that you think he or she is a traitor. The term dates back to the American Revolutionary War. Benedict Arnold was a general who fought for the Americans. However, part way through the war he switched sides, and became a general for the British! This obviously did not sit well with the Americans, who considered Arnold a traitor. Benedict Arnold's name lives on in infamy to this day. (This annotation contains an image)
Based on this interaction, the reader can infer that the mother
Stool-pigeon is a negative term meant to describe an informant, a spy or a snitch. Someone who cooperates with the police (or works for them undercover) to expose criminal activity could be described as a stool-pigeon.
The narrator uses all kinds of negative language to describe the little boy: stupid, Benedict Arnold, loser, stool-pigeon, doofus, etc. How do these words contribute to the tone of the first chapter?
Believe it or not, this is not the first book to reference such a horrible act. In "The World According to Garp," by John Irving, there is a scene in which the protagonist's wife accidentally bites off her lover's penis when the car they are sitting in is rear-ended. (This annotation contains an image)
What do we learn about the narrator from this exchange with Nico?
This is a reference to the twelve-step system that is used to support addicts who want to quit their addiction. It is most famously used as a part of Alcoholics Anonymous, but many types of addict support groups use it too. The 12 steps include admitting that you are an addict, making a list of the people you have harmed, and making amends to those people.
The narrator's using the sex junkie "checklist" to get new ideas for how to act provocatively sets a tone rooted in
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual, or DSM, is a book used by psychologists to diagnose mental illnesses. Think of it as an encyclopedia of mental health problems. The narrator here is suggesting that sex addiction should be treated as a mental illness, like depression or schizophrenia.
The narrator has slowly revealed himself to the reader. In the first chapter, he narrated from the third person. In the second chapter, he narrated from the first person, but did not share his name. Now, we have Victor Mancini's name. How does this gradual revelation give the reader insight into Victor's character?
This sentence contains hyperbole. Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which something is exaggerated. In this sentence, the narrator's mother's head does not literally collapse around the drinking straw, but that exaggeration paints a vivid picture for the reader. To learn more about hyperbole, please watch the video below. (This annotation contains a video)
How does Denny deal with humiliation? Compare and contrast Denny and Victor's reactions to humiliation.
It is clear that the colonial governor "His Highness" really has it out for Denny. Chewing gum and watches clearly have no place in a colonial re-enactment, but objecting to Chap Stick seems a little extreme. Why do you think the governor is so hard on Denny?
Denny's sense of humor can best be described as
Special K is a street name for the drug ketamine. Ketamine is used as an anesthetic, which puts people or animals to sleep during an operation. When used recreationally, ketamine can produce hallucinations and feelings of euphoria, or extreme happiness.
In spite of everything Victor says, this image illustrates that his instincts toward Denny are often
Note that this scene parallels the scene in chapter one in which Victor's mother uses the headlights from the school bus to project Victor's shadows on the cliff. Be on the lookout for other repeated motifs in this novel! To learn more about motifs, please watch the video below. (This annotation contains a video)
A theme has emerged in this chapter. What is it, and how does Victor present it? Use textual evidence to support your response.
Notice that Victor continually shapes Fred Hastings's story until it pleases his mother. What do you think motivates him to do this?
Listen to a song based on Mary Schmich's graduation speech from 1997 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQlJ3vOp6nI. How do Victor and Mary's lists differ on the topic of self-care?
Victor is referring to perhaps having aluminum poisoning here. Though aluminum is not known for causing problems as serious as other metals (like mercury or lead), absorbing too much aluminum could cause many types of illnesses. Victor seems to be suggesting that maybe his mother's current state is the result of aluminum poisoning.
What kind of language does Victor use to illustrate his distress?
If someone is a Good Samaritan it means that he or she has helped out a stranger. In context, this makes sense, since Victor is baiting perfect strangers to come to his aid. The name "Good Samaritan" comes from the bible. In the gospels, Jesus tells the story of a man who is beaten, robbed and left to die on the side of the road. Many people pass by him, not wanting to get involved. Finally, a Samaritan (a person from Samaria, a region in ancient Palestine) comes across the dying man and helps him. (This annotation contains an image)
What theme does this comment touch on?
Think about what it means that Victor can not even bring himself to use the word "tears"! What does this say about his ability to be vulnerable, or emotionally open? How does Victor use humor to distract the reader from his feelings?
How does Victor describe how Eva ended up at St. Anthony's? What can you infer about how he feels about this?
Notice how impersonal this statement is. Victor does not say that the staff bathes patients, or that the give patients a shower, he says that they "hose you clean". Why would he describe it like that? Does this reflect his issues with vulnerability, or his opinion of the care his mother is getting?
What literary device does Victor use here?
Hyperthyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid (a gland in your neck that secretes hormones) is overactive. People with hyperthyroid are often very skinny and can have bulging eyes. This is what Victor refers to when he says Eva has "hyperthyroid eyes". (This annotation contains an image)
Summarize what the mother is doing in this scene, and how she re-establishes contact with Victor. What does this reveal about the mother's character?
This detail reveals that little Victor is still pretty innocent. While he does not actually help the woman by saying something to her, he is still young enough to want to make things right. Be on the lookout for when Victor changes from innocent to manipulative.
How does this scene showcase the power dynamic between Victor and his mother?
"The clap" is slang for gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted infection.
The fact that Victor thinks Dr. Marshall is "above getting boned" suggests that
Vultures are scavengers; they eat dead and decomposing organisms. What does it mean, symbolically, that vultures are circling above Denny? To learn more about symbolism, please watch the video below. (This annotation contains a video)
The Peter Principle is the idea that at some point, if you keep promoting people for their good work, you will eventually promote them to a position that they are not competent to do well. If applied to medicine, as Victor is doing, the idea is that if you keep saving a patient, eventually he or she is going to have a problem that you are not capable of solving, and the patient will die. To learn more about the Peter Principle, please see the video below. Have you ever witnessed the Peter Principle in action? (This annotation contains a video)
What does this sentence reveal about Victor's relationship with his mother?
What does this scene emphasize about Denny's character?
Victor has a sense that Denny's strange behavior is going to be a problem before it is clear that the woman at the front desk has called security on him. This shows that Victor is pretty intuitive, and that he can read other people's discomfort.
How would you describe Denny's "performance" as Victor? What can you infer about his desire to be doing this? What are his motivations to go through with it?
This sentence contains a simile. Similes are a type of figurative language that compare two things to each other. In this particular sentence, Victor's mother's arm is compared to a boiled turkey neck. What is the effect of this comparison? To learn more about similes, and another type of figurative language- metaphors, please watch the video below. (This annotation contains a video)
What kinds of words and imagery make this scene feel like a fantasy, as opposed to something from Victor's real life?
"The Blue Danube Waltz" was written in 1866 by Johann Strauss II, an Austrian composer. This song has been used and referenced countless times in popular culture. The music is used in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which you can watch in the video below. (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following statements show that Victor still follows this notion in the present?
It is unclear what type of drug Victor's mother is snorting here, but the activity being described in this scene is definitely some form of illegal drug use.
What is the main purpose of this chapter?
Until now it has been somewhat confusing and unclear as to who this "patient" is and where Victor and Denny are seeing her. Given the "pumping" and the red and black lighting, it is fairly safe to assume that this is a strip club, and the "patient" is a stripper.
Watch the trailer for the movie version of Choke here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMZ3Mi1vT-w. How is this scene portrayed in the book versus in the movie? How well do you think the movie captures the essence of the book in this particular instance? Use textual evidence to back up your claims.
Victor is referring to medical school here. There is a window of time during which you can be "readmitted" to school after you drop out. However, after a certain amount of time, your credit expires and you would have to start the process from the beginning again.
Victor's exaggeratedly pessimistic interpretations of people's health reflect his
Chapters 1-16 Quiz
Notice the different ways in which Victor refers to the main characters in this book. Denny is always just "Denny". Victor's mother is always referred to as "mom" in Victor's adult life, and "the Mommy" in flashbacks to Victor's childhood. Dr. Marshall is always "Paige Marshall". What is the effect of always using her full name?
What is Victor's motivation for "stalking" Paige Marshall?
This is a reference to something Karl Marx wrote in 1843. Marx was not a fan of religion, and he famously pronounced: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." This last sentence is commonly misquoted as "religion is the opiate of the masses". In other words, religion acts like a drug (opium is a powerful painkiller and is an active ingredient in heroin) that is meant to numb the suffering of the people, but does not seek to solve the problems at hand. What does Victor's mother mean, then, when she says that parenthood is the opiate of the masses? (This annotation contains an image)
What can you infer is Dr. Marshall's reason for telling Victor this detail?
Victor is pretty far off on his mother's age. What does this reveal about him and the way he thinks?
Do you agree with Victor's position on the differences between men and women and the conclusions he draws from them? Why or why not?
Notice how Victor emphasizes certain aspects of the chickens's conditions by using short, choppy language. Using fragments like "without beaks," and "defective" gives these words extra impact, and helps create a strong mental image of just how bad off the chickens are.
What is the effect of Victor's repeated references to Dr. Marshall's skin and mouth?
This is not the first time that Victor has mentioned pyramid schemes. Pyramid schemes are business models in which people buy in to a money-making scheme, but they can only make money if they recruit new people to buy in. For a good explanation of what pyramid schemes are and why they do not work, please see the link below. Given what you now understand about pyramid schemes, why does Victor describe Social Security as one? (This annotation contains a link)
This chapter begins with a description of decrepit chickens and ends with one. What is the purpose of referencing chickens in each instance? Why are the deformed chickens a useful reference in both contexts?
This statement is an example of schadenfreude. Shadenfreude is the enjoyment of other people's failures or pain. It's a German phrase that literally means "harm-joy". Have you ever felt shadenfreude?
This is an exercise meant to relax the patient and lull him into a sleep-like state in which he is susceptible to hypnosis. Victor's mother is providing her clients with a form of hypnotherapy, and is not actually sleeping with them, as the beginning of this chapter so cleverly suggests.
What literary device is being used in this phrase?
This phrase is an example of figurative language. Each man does not literally drag his shadow to his session with Victor's mother. Rather, this phrase is meant to evoke the idea that these men carry some baggage and some guilt with them to their sessions. To learn more about figurative language, please see the video below. (This annotation contains a video)
What is the effect of these chunks of text in which Victor narrates what his mother says to hypnotize her clients?
This scene hits on a major theme of the novel. What is it?
Adding machines are predecessors to modern calculators. As their name suggests, they could only do addition. Adding machines were used until around the 1970's, when calculators phased them out. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the book's themes does this statement touch on?
It seems strange that the nurse would refer to Dr. Marshall by her first name when talking to a patient. Why do you think the nurse has done this? Is this detail significant, in your opinion?
How does this flashback relate to the scene that precedes it? Why has Victor inserted this memory here?
What does this chapter introduction reveal about Victor and his mother's relationship?
Digitalis is the scientific name for foxglove. Foxglove is known for having medicinal properties that have been used in drugs to treat heart problems. However, the plant also contains toxic chemicals which can cause serious health problems if ingested. For this reason, people with small children and outdoor pets are advised not to plant foxglove in their yards. (This annotation contains an image)
Notice that the phrase "according to Paige Marshall" is used twice in the first few sentences of this chapter. What does this repetition imply?
John Dillinger was a famous bank robber who was active during the Great Depression. He is notorious for having escaped from the police (and even from jail) many times, though the police eventually shot and killed him outside of a movie theater in 1934. There are many films based on Dillinger's crimes and exciting escapes, including "Public Enemies," starring Johnny Depp. (This annotation contains an image)
Victor has exhibited the characteristics of an anti-hero from the beginning of the book, but here he directly verbalizes just how well he fits that archetype. An anti-hero is a character that lacks the qualities usually associated with heroes: bravery, pride, resilience, morality, strength and positivity. Some famous anti-heroes from literature are Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In The Rye, Raskolnikov from Crime And Punishment and Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series. An archetype is a classic example of a given type of character. To that end, Victor Mancini is the archetypal anti-hero. To learn more about archetypes, please watch the video below. (This annotation contains a video)
Summarize Victor's response to what he learns about who he is. What do Victor's words and actions show the reader about his attitude towards himself?
Before Ms. Mancini revealed her "purpose," what did you think was Victor's motivation for telling this story? Now that you know that Victor's mom's purpose is "to give people glorious stories to tell" has your opinion changed? Why or why not? Use textual evidence to support your claims.
Work camps, or labor camps, are like prisons where are forced to do physical labor. Probably the most famous labor camps were the concentration camps run by the Nazis (pictured below). That said, there have been work camps in China, Japan, The United States and Cuba (among others), and there are labor camps today in North Korea. What does Victor's mother mean when she says that the world has been turned into "a clean, safe work camp"? (This annotation contains an image)
This is a reference to Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis. Among other things, Freud believed that there is meaning in our dreams and our unconscious and subconscious minds. (This annotation contains an image)
What literary device is being employed here?
What does this detail reveal about Victor's character?
This scene is going to get extremely ironic. Situational irony occurs when the outcome of an event contradicts what one would have expected to happen. A classic example of situational irony occurs in "The Gift of the Magi," in which a man saves all of his money to buy his wife a comb for Christmas, but it turns out that his wife has cut off and sold all of her hair so that she could buy him a present. Be alert to ironic situations in the coming pages. To learn more about irony, please watch the video below. (This annotation contains a video)
Phenylethylamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with adrenaline rushes. It is also found in foods like chocolate, where it serves as a mood regulator (who doesn't feel happy when eating chocolate!). Why would an addict crave such a chemical?
In what way(s) is this scene ironic?
Note the overt sexism of this statement, and the irony. The same could be true of Victor (he is pathetic, he can not stop having meaningless sex) yet he chooses to use this as an opportunity to make a sweeping generalization about female sexaholics. How does this affect your view of Victor?
Look at Felice Ficherelli's "The Rape of Lucretia" here: http://www.wikigallery.org/paintings/219001-219500/219287/painting1.jpg. How is rape depicted in this painting, as opposed to in Choke? In what ways are these portrayals similar? How are they different?
Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted disease. Victor's inclusion of chlamydia on this list of illnesses that school children bring in and spread at his work is an example of Victor's penchant for hyperbole and dark humor.
What can we infer from Victor's inability to remember the name of a woman he just slept with?
Flotsam and jetsam are terms for things that have been thrown into the ocean. Flotsam refers to objects that have ended up in the ocean by accident (like in a shipwreck), while jetsam describes things that have voluntarily been put in the ocean (both for good and for bad). Figuratively, "flotsam and jetsam" means "odds and ends" or "bits and pieces". So, in context, Victor is using random bits and pieces from his medical school experience to make up stories for the school kids.
What is the effect of the repetition of the phrase "ask your teacher" in this chapter?
It sounds like Denny is hoarding rocks. Hoarding means collecting and accumulating things, especially when goods are in short supply. Extreme hoarding, as depicted below, is believed to be connected to mental illness. It is thought to be a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Do you think that Denny's rock collecting is healthy or not? (This annotation contains an image)
In what ways is Victor and Denny's relationship like that of a parent and child? Use evidence from the text to back up your claims.
Notice the contrasts within this scene, both mood-wise and visually. The serious, grave nature of Denny's banishment is contrasted by the tourists, who are being entertained. Visually, the tourists's popcorn and candy clashes wildly with the 18th century town and all of the actors in their old fashioned costumes.
How are Denny and Ms. Mancini's goals in life similar?
Note that zoos are places where living things are held captive, ostensibly "for their own good". Throughout this chapter, see if you can find parallels between the zoo and St. Anthony's.
In what ways is Victor's life similar to that of the animals in the zoo?
Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, is a psychedelic drug that produces visions, out of body experiences and synesthesia. Why would Victor's mother give this drug to the monkeys?
The appendix is a structure in the intestines that no longer has any purpose. Describing men as a "sexual appendix" is a figurative way of saying that, apart from making babies, men are of no value to women. That's Victor's view anyway. Do you agree? (This annotation contains an image)
What is the tone of Victor's rant about women? Is he completely serious? How serious is he? Cite the text in your response.
Chapters 17-32 Quiz
Note the similarities between this interaction and that of Victor and Denny in chapter 26. What recurring theme is at play here?
All of these phrases are references to the G-spot, which is an erogenous zone in the vagina.
Anaïs Nin was a French author of Spanish and Cuban descent. She is most famous for her diaries, in which she wrote unflinchingly about her life, including about her sexual relationships with men and women. (This annotation contains an image)
What evidence is there that Victor is not being entirely truthful about not caring about anything?
Denny is a foil for Victor's character. A foil is a character whose words, deeds or personality contrast with the protagonist's. The purpose of foils is to highlight the protagonist's qualities that contrast with the foil's. In this scene, we see that Denny, through hard work, has put himself on a better life path. This serves to underscore Victor's own failings to do so. Denny takes a laid back approach to building, which emphasizes how high strung Victor is in comparison.
How has Denny's life changed since we last saw him? Discuss both tangible and symbolic changes in your response.
The Oedipal Complex is a notion first described by Sigmund Freud (whom we discussed in chapter 26). It refers to the ancient Greek mythological character Oedipus, who was tragically fated to kill his father and marry his mother. The Oedipal Complex is used to describe a person's unconscious desire for his mother and resentment or feelings of competition with his father. How does this relate to Victor?
How does the author make this scene come to life? Discuss the author's use of language and literary devices.
Imagine you just found out that you are the child of Jesus Christ or someone of equal historical significance. What would you be feeling? Is Victor's displeasure and dread justified? Why or why not?
Which of the following do we learn about Victor in this chapter?
Victor is using a lot of medical terms to describe ways of removing things that have become lodged in the rectum. Catheters are tubes that can be inserted into the body and kept there by inflating a small balloon attached to the main tubes. An enema is a procedure in which liquids are pumped into the colon and rectum. These liquids build up pressure, which forces the intestines to contract, expelling any waste that might be trapped above the liquids. What does it suggest about Victor that during all of this discomfort he still uses medical terms and thinks of clinical solutions to his problem?
What similarities do Jesus and Victor share?
This sentence is an example of a double entendre. A double entendre is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase has dual meanings, and is meant to be interpreted both ways. In this case, Victor is "full of shit" in that he does not know what he is talking about, but also in a literal sense. Can you think of a double entendre? To learn more about double entendres, please watch the video below. (This annotation contains a video)
What does Denny's lack of a direct response to Victor's question imply?
The Kama Sutra is an ancient Hindu manual that gives advice on major life events such as finding a wife and building sexual attraction. It is most commonly known for its descriptions of various sexual positions.
Which of the following is specific to Choke and NOT a universal experience?
In this context, the word "diaphragm" refers to a contraceptive device. Diaphragms are flexible domes that can be inserted into the vagina before sex to prevent sperm from reaching the ovaries. Diaphragms do not mitigate against the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but they are fairly good at preventing pregnancy.
Does it fit with Victor's personality and character that he did not lose his virginity until he was in medical school? Why or why not?
Bile is a substance that is produced in the liver and secreted by the gallbladder. It acts as an emulsifier, meaning that it helps to break fats into small enough pieces that they can be absorbed by the body.
This conversation touches on a familiar motif. What is it?
The phrase "small potatoes" is an idiom. Idioms are expressions whose meanings are not meant to be taken literally. If something is described as being "small potatoes" it means that in the scheme of things, it is not really that big of a deal. Another example of an idiom is the saying "that was a piece of cake," which means that something was easy.
Listen to Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster Stronger" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThFnvjYYtFw. How do the sentiments expressed in this song and by Ms. Mancini relate? How do they differ?
To describe something as "tantric" means that it relates to Vajrayana Buddhist thought. Tantric meditation is one of three was to achieve nirvana. In this particular case, Victor is probably making a reference to tantric sex, which is a kind of "sacred sexuality". In Western pop culture, tantric sex is mostly known for including practices which allow sex to take place over a very long period of time. In this sense, one can see why Victor describes Denny's building project as "Tantric Architecture".
What is the mood at the end of this chapter?
What evidence does the reader have that Ms. Mancini may be telling the truth here?
This is a reference to Lazarus, a character in the bible who comes back to life after dying (with some help from Jesus). Why is Lazarus an appropriate figure to cite in the context of this scene?
In what ways does the setting of this scene (in Colonial Dunsboro) contribute to the mood?
This is a reference to Miranda Rights or the Miranda Warning. The police are required by law to recite the Miranda Warning to anybody that they are arresting. You've probably heard these very words in movies or on cop shows on TV! (This annotation contains an image)
Notice that this story has come full circle. The book begins with the image of Ms. Mancini spray-painting Victor's outline on the face of a cliff. Now, Victor is drawing Paige Marshall's outline on a hospital wall. What is the significance of this repetition? What similarities and differences do you see between these two events?
Think about what would go on your own fourth step list. Now think about all of the things Victor has done over the course of the book that are likely to be on his. Do you think that writing a list of past wrongs is useful in making change in one's life? Why or why not?
What does the last line of this chapter suggest?
In your opinion, does Victor in some way fulfill his mother's wish? Why or why not?
What does Victor's repeated use of this very phrase suggest?
Describing a situation as a "powder keg" is a figurative way of saying that it is potentially explosive. Why is Victor's current situation so precarious?
In what ways does this scene reference and make parallels to an earlier period in history? What is the effect of these parallels?
Chapters 33-49 Quiz