Choke Box by Christina Milletti
University of Massachusetts Press, 2019
How dangerous is a butter knife? In Christina Milletti’s Choke Box: a Fem-Noir, the answer is very. In the novel’s early pages, a butter knife lodges itself in the thigh of Jane Tamlin’s ten-year-old son, setting off a series of events that lead to her family’s unraveling. Narrating from inside the walls of the Buffalo Psychiatric Institute, Jane understands that, “at any time, a utensil may become a weapon.” In Choke Box, winner of the University of Massachusetts Press’s Juniper Prize for Fiction, common household objects can prove deadly, and horror abounds beneath the seemingly placid surface of suburban domesticity.
Before her commitment, Jane lived in an old farmhouse in a suburb of Buffalo with her son Bobby, her baby daughter, and her husband Edward, a lawyer who recently took a leave of absence from his job so that he could lock himself away in his home office to write a memoir. Jane’s identity centers on caring for her children; at the time of the butter knife incident, she hasn’t slept for longer than a two-hour stretch since the baby’s birth. Jane has no memory of how the butter knife ended up in Bobby’s leg, a fact that the members of the board at the Psychiatric Institute have a hard time believing. But we soon learn that this is not the event that led to Jane’s commitment; her husband has vanished under mysterious circumstances, and Jane is suspected to have played a role in his disappearance. Choke Box: a Fem-Noir is many things, including, as its subtitle suggests, a film noir mystery with a feminist twist. The all-male members of the board may have cast Jane as a femme fatale, but her own narrative, what she calls “a counter-memoir” to her husband’s, alleges her innocence.
I come to this book as the mother of a toddler, having spent most of the last two years caring for my daughter, and I have to admit that I found a lot to identify with in Jane’s deep ambivalence toward motherhood. Milletti takes several risks here, the greatest of which is probably her willingness to speak unpleasant truths about the most hallowed of human relationships. Jane loves her children, but she still mourns for her old self, still resents the hours of domestic drudgery, and is willing to put it bluntly:
All mothers travel with the same baggage — the corpse of the woman we once were. Some of us can no longer remember her fully. Others can’t put her from our minds. But it’s memory, in the end, that drives mothers to madness — to kill their children — which is not unlike saying, to kill themselves.
Like much of the writing in Choke Box, the simple language of this passage packs densely layered ideas, each em dash and period preparing us for the next leap in logic. We move from the metaphorical “corpse” of the past self to the possibility of actual infanticide, and back again to the realization that the child has become so essential to the mother’s being that killing one involves killing the other. In that last turn, we understand that mother and child are so linked that literal and metaphorical death collapse into each other. Even at the sentence level, we have the enactment of the inescapable paradox of motherhood.
The book’s cover art gives us an actual corpse, a close-up of a nineteenth-century anatomical drawing in which a larynx protrudes from a dissected human throat. It looks like an image out of Aliens, or some other horror film; this is the “choke box” of the book’s title. Jane informs us that the unique properties of the human throat that make speech possible are also what make it possible for us to choke on our food. Language can be dangerous, even deadly. Milletti also finds plenty of opportunities to remind us how often the roles enforced on women function to suppress our voices: “Ghostwriter. Housewife. Mother. I’ve been trained to silence myself in countless ways.” In a work so invested in motherhood, it’s fitting that the novel’s title refers back to every parent of a young child’s worst fear, the mundane but terrifying daily worry of choking.
The novel itself functions as a kind of “box,” allowing its author ample room to play with genre and form. Jane’s account is interspersed with notes from her “library encounter times” at the Institute, where she researches the “choke box” and the history of famous chokers, from Attila the Hun to Mama Cass. At its most experimental moments, Jane’s narrative is interrupted by charts containing quotations from the works of other women writers, organized into examples of “memoir” and “counter-memoir.” “Sometimes one meets a woman who is a beast turning human,” reads a line in the memoir column, juxtaposed with the counter-memoir example, “You want to see all of a woman, as much as possible. You don’t see that for you it’s impossible.” Flipping to the back of the book, we learn that the first quotation is from Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, the second from Marguerite Duras’s The Malady of Death. I read the quotations in the charts through several times, realizing that they rub up against each other in different ways depending on whether they are read vertically or horizontally, forming a kind of tenuous narrative of perception and misperception. I enjoyed recognizing some familiar authors and learning about new ones, and the list at the end of the book forms its own compendium of experimental writers from Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein to Octavia Butler and Kathy Acker. Yet these charts feel on the whole less purposeful than the “library encounter notes,” perhaps because the notes succeed in providing a meta-commentary that could believably come from Jane, while the charts feel more like authorial imposition.
In spite of its erudition, this novel offers many pleasures, including the appropriately noir turns of its plot. One of the driving tensions is the reader’s increasing uncertainty about how much we can trust Jane, who is a quintessentially unreliable narrator. She also may not pass some readers’ criterion of being a “likeable” character — but she is consistently complex and provocative, and so is this wonderful novel.