It’s not just the dream of the 90s that’s alive in Portland. The best of the 80s is also getting a revamp. Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure novels that were hugely popular in that decade? One anonymous, highly inventive Portland local (of course, he’s also a zinester) has produced a memoir that also pays homage to the much-loved kids adventure genre.
Back when I was at primary school our library couldn’t keep up with the demand for CYOA novels. To get your hands on a copy you had sign up on a reserve list weeks in advance. In the meantime, the best you could do was supplement your fix with the methadone that was the Path-a-Path series. For the first time, it was the nerdy kids who bullied the slow readers, because they were hogging the scarce supply.
This new book, titled Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life, takes a slightly different approach to the usual CYOA tales of Ant-Alien overlords and cave-dwelling wizards. This story details ‘your’ tumultuous four years spent with Anne, an alcoholic cellist with a manic, destructive streak. In design, the book resembles the classic CYOA paperback, right down to the in-text illustrations and the font and layout of the ‘choices’ readers find at the bottom of the page. It all makes for an interesting contrast, best summarised in the publisher’s jacket copy:
You are an ace starfighter pilot in the Galactic Space Force. Shot down over a mysterious planet, you have been taken captive by a race of giant, superintelligent ants. However, the story is actually about your relationship with a young woman named Anne, and your struggles to cope with her alcoholism. Only with the right choices will you be able to save your relationship and discover the secret of the Ant-Warriors!
The true twist of the story is that all the choices are completely meaningless. Unlike the real CYOA novels, where readers jumped from page to page on the basis of their narrative decisions, this book runs consecutively and with each entry dated, much like a journal. So, for instance, on April 22, 2005, the day Anne ends a six-and-a-half-month drinking binge, you’re offered the following choices at the bottom of the page, both of which simply lead you to other terrible days with Anne:
If you tell the other captives to follow you into the cave of Ant-Warrior nutrient pools, turn to August 18, 2006
If you would rather have them follow you into the hall of discarded carapaces, turn to December 8, 2005
The plots involving ants and Anne never intersect. Indeed, the ants only ever raise their ugly heads at the bottom of the pages, where you’re offered yet another meaningless ‘choice’. The point, of course, is that life with Anne is a series of neverending unhappy events, and no matter what you choose you’re doomed to find yourself in yet another disaster scenario. The solution is to dump Anne before it’s too late, but that choice never comes up (at least not in a place where you have any control over it). All the choices, such as they are, don’t lead anywhere.
In their heyday, the CYOA novels were seen predominantly as a form of entertainment for children. Nonetheless, ‘game-books’ have a pretty interesting history and have been used by literary experimenters and educators alike. Reflecting on the success of the original CYOA series, one of the writers responsible for the creation of the concept, R.A. Montgomery, told US Publishers Weekly back in 2007 that the concept is based on
the paradigm of interactiveness that involves behavioral stimulation, problem solving and game theory. The reader plays a key role, doing the critical thinking and decision making that lead to different endings. Almost everyone who reads these books goes back to the beginning after reaching an ending, wondering what would have happened differently if they had made other decisions. It’s a very powerful tool for teaching as well as entertaining.
In Love is Not Constantly Wondering, that point is driven home by the fact that no choice you make has any impact on what happens, highlighting the misguided perspective of a codependent relationship. The book’s clever interplay between narrative events and textual format demonstrates how debilitating it can be to accept disempowerment.
Although there is something fun and nostalgic about the CYOA aesthetic as recaptured by Love is Not Constantly Wondering, it serves a serious function: the dissonance between the ‘choices’ and the narrative serve as a reminder that being in a destructive relationship is ultimately an irrational abandonment of agency. The point is to reclaim power irrespective of the consequences. The only ‘escape’ (whether it’s from Ant-Aliens or Anne-the-Alcoholic-Cellist) involves making a tough choice that has no guaranteed happy endings.
Caroline Hamilton is a Killings columnist, and a research fellow at the University of Melbourne investigating the future of publishing, writing and reading. She has also written a book about the publishing success of Dave Eggers, One Man Zeitgeist.