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Choose Your Own Messy Demise

by Mike Sugarbaker

(originally appeared online in Tales from the Dork Side)

I realized this past weekend that my personal sense of death derives in large part from my childhood experience with Choose Your Own Adventure books.

I know we're in danger of marching heedlessly into a Quentin Tarantino monologue here. Stay with me for a sec.

I'm assuming, perhaps wrongly, that a lot of people read Choose Your Own Adventure books the same way I did: you start at the beginning the way you're supposed to, to get the setup and background info and get your bearings. Then, as you get a ways into the story you are driven, by some aspect of the child's primal sense for fairness as well as the mounting tension of the story, to start cheating. When presented with some sneaky proposition like "If you walk towards the cliff, turn to page 67; if you don't, turn to page 8" (the further a branch sends you into the woolly unseparated discontinuous back pages, the greater the risk of death or embarrassment), you stick a finger into the book at the old place, and you check out one of the branches for safety.

The process gets complex fairly quickly. You check out one branch for safety and it seems innocuous; the probably-male second-person hero walks toward the cliff to find a path leading downward, say. Another choice is presented, and you have to check that out, all the while keeping tabs on your point of origin. You soon find that you have four fingers stuck in different parts of the book.

The point of this is, you're iterating through plot branches at random like a little baby WebCrawler and running up against endings (some of them ridiculously close to the beginning of things, as few as three or four choices away; the poor souls who always hit these first!). The endings you don't like, and usually even the endings you do like, you disregard. The book claims that you chose them, that's your adventure, that's your story, that weird ending where you wind up in an alternate universe or with some cruel irrelevancy or impoverished-Rod Serling twist. But you see that the ending is inadequate, so you mentally throw it off and keep turning the pages.

This turns the humble CYOA tome (where is Edward Packard now?) into a never-ending story of sorts. When you stop respecting the authority of the endings, you just keep cycling around, exploring different branches of the story in a totally non-linear way, usually discovering two or three mutually exclusive plots. The story, already taken a half step beyond conventional linear fiction, takes another step into spatiality. The story becomes a world in which you move about at will.

Sometime in my central adolescence, during my second MTV phase, I read an interview with Roland Gift of the Fine Young Cannibals in Rolling Stone (gods, we've surpassed Tarantino and headed straight for Totally 80's, The Movie) in which he said something that's stuck with me. I remember it this way: "Since I became a man, I've become much more (something something, addressing some earlier question; interviewer responds quizzically) Yes, I became a man fairly recently; I think up until last year sometime, I was still verging on boy." The next part I may be remembering from somewhere else, anyway it's a common thought: "You're still an adolescent until you really realize that you're going to die."

I have no idea that I'm going to die, and it's the fault of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Any death I imagine for myself has the feel of an accident, a detour from the natural order of things, an aberration. Every death that seems plausible has a "what if" clause attached to it: what if I had gone on living, what great things would I have done. I can only see my life as a place that goes on forever, not as a finite story with a beginning, a middle, and an inevitable end.

So I feel impaired by this; I want to grow up. None of my friends seem to explicitly share the desire to grow up, although they're probably all more mature than I am. They just have hangups about the phrase "grown up," I suppose. I don't believe, as Douglas Coupland does, that you default your personality when you buy a house. But anyway, talking about concepts of death with your friends is a sure way to kill a party. (Unless you can tie it in with Choose Your Own Adventure books somehow.)

What takes a little more getting used to is the idea that maybe you don't have to integrate the knowledge of your death to be fully human; maybe it's a relief not to have to turn your life into a story all the time. Maybe staying in the endless loop of the present is the best way to be human after all.

© copyright 1998 Mike Sugarbaker

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