Choose Your Own Adventure

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

The Choose Your Own Adventure (or pick-a-path, as the books are generically known) association drives me crazy. Every time I tell someone that I am working on a hypertext that branches in many different directions, they say, “Oh, like those books where you turn to page 45 if you open the treasure chest.”

“Choose Your Own Adventure books,” I say.

“I used to love them!” says the person I am talking to. Or: “My brother used to love them!” Or: “I never really got into them, but… [perplexed] that’s neat.”

Then I have to explain that what I am doing is really not like that at all. The Choose Your Own Adventure books were an offshoot of the mass popularity of tabletop role-playing games in the late 1970s and early 1980s: paperbacks which made you the protagonist of some rickety story of pirate treasure, a haunted house, etc. Every page or two you would come to a fork in the narrative:

If you knock on the door of the abandoned house on Murder Hill, turn to page 71.

If you climb in through the window, turn to page 54.

If you go back to the village of Sleepytown, turn to page 96.

Some choices were better than others. Some got you killed; some ended the story prematurely. (Who ever went back to Sleepytown?) Inevitably you flipped back to see what would have happened if you had made the other choice. (What I liked to do, actually, was read the book as if it were a regular novel, from the first page to the last. Characters died and came back to life; the treasure was found before it was buried; the mayor of Sleepytown confessed his guilt then went up to Murder Hill, to wait for me in the basement of the abandoned house. The story was so much more interesting like that! You had the kaleidoscope thrill of knowing what was going to happen, but not what would happen next. Plus, you were in several worlds at once: things were true not in an either/or way, but in a both/and way. You were guilty and innocent, brave and timid, safe and in danger at the same time. Which, it seems to me, is a much better representation of what it is like to be alive than your traditional single-path story in which either/or logic usually prevails. I have never dropped a bomb on a child but I am a citizen of a nation that bombs children, among other horrors. I am safe, here in a small city on the East Coast of the United States, relatively far from the terrorist targets in New York and Washington, but I feel myself in constant peril. From one day to the next, the life I know may be torn apart: by an out-of-control car or a disease or a radioactive cloud, or, more gradually, but also more inevitably, by the changing climate and the growing human population which will make life a misery long before the planet’s resources are actually exhausted—unless we migrate into space, as Lucas hopes we will. I am an agoraphobic coward but every day I summon up the immense courage I need to walk twenty minutes to the copy shop where I work. How do I not live in several worlds?)

Anyway, I have to tell my interlocutor, although this Commentary has its forks and twisty little passages, along with its grand caverns, its walking cave and its belly crawls, it is not a pick-a-path, because the outcome of the story does not depend on what path you take. (At this point I wonder if it even depends on what path I take. I wonder in what sense, apart from the obvious one that I won’t live forever, the story will have an outcome at all.) By the time you read this, my life is what it is. I will knock on the door of the abandoned house whether you want me to or not; your only choice is whether or not to read the story of what happens afterward.

Why, you might be wondering, have I given you so little agency? Read, or don’t read: that’s about it. There is a practical reason, viz., that it would be an unbelievable amount of work to describe not only all the things that have happened to me, but also the things that might have happened if I had chosen differently—which is something I try very hard not to think about, most of the time. It also seems to me that the pick-a-path model offers only the barest illusion of free will. All the outcomes are written in advance; all the consequences have been determined before you act. Every time you knock on the door of the abandoned house, the hog-tied victim cries for help. The story always ends in Sleepytown.

Isn’t it possible, reader, that by giving you an immutable but relatively vast landscape (speleoscape?) to explore, I am offering you more freedom than you would have in a Choose Your Own Adventure-type book? Here at least you have the freedom to get lost in digression. There is a main trail, but you don’t have to stay on it; the moment you get bored of the Thebes story (perhaps this moment has already happened?) you can duck under the rail and crawl off down a side passage which leads to God knows what—a variety of things. What does this passage about the Choose Your Own Adventure books, e.g., have to do with my misadventures in Thebes, or my disastrous love affair with Yesim? Nothing! [falsely, hollowly] Nothing!

Time, caves, forking paths—those are my themes! Maybe I am not so far from the the Choose Your Own Adventure books after all.

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