How Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Continues to Show Up in Literary Fiction
David Schwartz on the Formal Experimentation of Carmen Maria Machado, Rick Moody, and Julio Cortázar
In an interview with The Paris Review, Joan Didion said, “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence.” Writing, then, is choosing from infinity. She went on: “And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.” Well, not always.
I was speaking with a student of mine at St. Albans, where I serve as the writer in residence, about gamebooks, or specifically the Choose Your Own Adventure series from Bantam Books. Originally published between 1979 and 1998, these books are iconic in design and experience: most pages leave the reader with decisions to make for the protagonist, choices which send both parties to designated parts of the text for new pathways of plot. This process repeats until it doesn’t. Of course, writers were exploring reader-interactivity far before the release of this series. But my student and I wondered why there wasn’t more of it today. Could this kind of participation be incompatible with literary fiction and nonfiction?
Inviting the reader to make decisions in a text inherently questions the sufficiency of traditional narrative, which is largely singular in that it unfolds page after page. (Though the reader technically has a choice between reading and putting the book down, the author’s job is to make the reader unaware he continues to choose the former.) But today, in a world where we skim and scroll through so much consciousness, where truth seems ever more relative, where algorithms synthesize data that are parts of ourselves but not all of ourselves, perhaps we’re more multiple than ever. And literature reflects us.
I recently watched Netflix’s Bandersnatch, an interactive film that uses viewer choice to cascade a litany of plots. Some decisions are less than spectacular—what will the protagonist eat for breakfast?—while others implicate the viewer: will she choose murder or sanity? The film is about an eponymous video game that is revolutionary for the two choices it periodically presents to its players. As we often see with material interrogative of genre, the form mirrors the content: it’s a movie about decision-making and therefore embodies decision-making. Eventually, it’s revealed that you are, in fact, a character in the film; the protagonist becomes aware that you are making choices for him, just as the author of a text is aware that you will imagine the choices of her protagonist.
For a book to become real is to read it. And so authors play with readership: in Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, you start with one of two storylines depending on the copy you buy. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise revises previous sections after you’ve read them. But what is the effect of breaking that most cardinal rule of a story unfolding word by word, page after page? We’ve seen this system shaken by footnotes, shifted by improv shows, or reformatted online, but what of books intended to be read out of order?
Rick Moody’s novel Hotels of North America is a compilation of hotel reviews written by the character Reginald Edward Morse on RateYourLodging.com. On one hand, these reviews create a narrative platform for the reader, one we’ve come to expect from more traditional stories. The reader learns of Reginald’s divorce, estranged daughter, girlfriend—whose name is K. or Snowy Owl depending on when she’s referenced. The posts are performatively insufficient, not dissimilar to David Foster Wallace’s invocation of the maximalist legal brief. The truncated and public form of hotel reviews exemplifies the sadness of a man with no one to tell his story and asks the reader to infer the fuller story, or read into the alternative tale, from absence, or excess: from stars or dates or locations as opposed to sentences alone. Moody here establishes this sense of more from without, from what’s not exactly there.
But a keen reader discovers an equally true but alternative reading to the original story: the reviews are all out of order. The reader reads of a stay in 2011 that was published in 2012 and then of a stay in 2002. Some of Morse’s final posts are from 1994 and 2010. Moody has constructed two stories: a pseudo-linear understanding of the text which is how many will read the story page-by-page, and then one in which a reader could attempt to rearrange the hotel reviews to not the date they were posted but the sequence in which they happened. There is then also the absence of this attempt, that by not rearranging the story, the reader and author and protagonist are agreeing about something regarding time, or loss, or narrative.
My student pointed me toward Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, which shared the National Book Award for translation. It provides two pathways for reading: a page-by-page version that finishes halfway through the text, and a hopscotching version that begins at Chapter 73. The book then jumps from the original narrative to previously unread chapters (termed by Cortázar the Expendable Chapters), with the exception of Chapter 55 which is left out. I read the book the second way the second time, and it felt similar to reading a sequel, revisiting known characters but with newfound insight.
The late Scott Simpkins in “‘The Infinite Game’: Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’” argues that the seeming multiplicity of Hopscotch is an illusion: Cortázar has loaded the deck in his favor; all the seeming choice is still just pre-planned text. Cortázar has instead anticipated the reader’s desire for control and offered an option to perform it. Unlike with a gamebook, a reader here has a different binary—read the book one way or the other.
But the protagonist Oliveira notes, “By literature, you understand, I mean everything that can be said or thought” (447). Perhaps through Cortázar’s inclusion of more, through the very idea of expansion, the artifice of reading can be more akin to Oliveira’s everything. For Didion, the last sentence “should open the piece up, … make you start reading from page one.” Cortázar’s strategy does this, though he redefines what page one is. He shows us there are at least two ways to read. And two is one more step toward everything.
Similar to how the characters and plot and stuff of life are unwieldy in Hopscotch, the experience of reading it is unwieldy as well. This invites an accidental multiplicity. Several times I forgot the chapter number to turn to and was caught in a limbo which I could choose or not choose to correct. Other times I continued reading past the chapter into the next one. This preempted a different liminality, unacknowledged in my first reading but technically incorrect in the second, causing me now to miss out on several other chapters I would have been circumnavigated to in between. Would I opt for the wormhole, only now discovering it existed in the first place?
Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, In the Dream House is a wormhole in and of itself. Introspective of the patterns of trauma caused by an abusive relationship, it explores variations of its theme to add up a comprehensive story. Each chapter name begins with Dream House as, a fill-in-the-blank that defines the pages that follow. With no index, these chapters are blinding while ultimately intersecting—“Dream House as Déjà Vu” repeats three times, the words changing slightly each instance towards a deeper darkness. As their titles imply, haven’t we’ve been here before? Yes and no.
Dream House—in addition to playing inside genre and other tropes of artmaking—has a 15-page section called “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure.®” As with Hopscotch, loops here are of interest: make a certain choice, and you find yourself reading the same page later. This is trauma. Recurrence. There are four unnavigable pages—discover them, and Machado embodies her abuser: “It is impossible to find your way here naturally … Does that make you feel good, that you cheated to get here?” (177) Or, she sympathizes as herself: “There’s no way to get here from the choices given. You flipped here because you got sick of the cycle … You’re smarter than me” (167). You soon realize getting out is Sisyphean because you’re not yet done with the book. This is trauma. Recurrence. Your choices then highlight the experience of not having a choice—you’re ultimately returned to a choiceless page-by-page experience again. Even wrong choices terminating with “END” tell you the page to exit to, which is to say continue from. Multiplicity here allows Machado to showcase abuse’s chilling singularity. This is trauma. Recurrence.
(It’s worth noting that readers agree to go page-by-page until instructed not to. This is a mutual arrangement with the writer, but there’s nothing forcing us to read in this way. We could go back to front, here and there. Yet we read in order for clarity’s sake. But what of that shame of flipping to the final page before you’ve finished?)
All books—fiction, memoir, poetry, what have you—are ways of seeing the truth in varying degrees. In “Dream House as Nightmare on Elm Street,” Machado entertains an alternative universe, one in which she is safe. But then she reroutes the reader to the main path, the real story. We want to know how it—the story we’ve been reading, the right one—ends. She anticipates this in a chapter called “Dream House as Ending,” where she asks the fundamental question of making gamebooks: when do you stop? If a story can be multiple by way of interactivity, then, like life, why would you ever choose to be done? Boredom? Satisfaction? Despair?
The hopscotched version of Hopscotch ends in a loop, the reader moving from Chapter 131 to Chapter 58 ad infinitum. In the original Bantam Books series, you encounter a kind of Game Over when you kill the second-person character or finish the plot, but you can always flip to the next page, correct your previous choice, begin again. One of the issues with reader participation is clearly the pure technical effort of inventing, anticipating, and orchestrating multiple pathways within a singular text. But perhaps the more existential problem is that it makes a book difficult to really end. The work exists to showcase there is no right choice; each has consequences. As in Bandersnatch, some are flashier, sadder. The experience is then about sampling them all. Of remaining within.
Stories are tools to shape life, providing structure from otherwise chaos. The difference between our lives and narrative is a beginning, middle, and end. I like to think books built for interactivity are less about the linearity of story and more about the power of the cyclical. They prime us to pay attention to interconnection, the possibilities that could be, should be, won’t be depending on factors pre-decided by the author and also chosen by the reader in the moment. Retrospection, too, can be narrative, a looking back at the aggregate. A realization of quantity, a comparison of quality. A gradient instead of a line.
Morelli, the author character in Hopscotch’s Expendable Chapters, writes over and over the end to his own book, “a single sentence: ‘Underneath it all he knew that one cannot go beyond because there isn’t any.’ A wall … of words that illustrate the meaning of the sentence, the collision with a wall behind which there is nothing. But towards the bottom and on the right, in one of the sentences the word any is missing. A sensitive eye can discover the hole among the bricks” (370). If writing is a consolidation of the infinite, then reading maybe is our search for the everything in anything. And so regardless of what’s been arranged for us, we choose to imagine it. Regardless of order, we turn to the next page. We are both compelled and compel ourselves to read, the result of which teaches us we will always find a way to make it through.