Contained in this library were shelves of what you'd call “books”, and I'd forgive you for that. To me, they were life lines. As a kid who liked Jeopardy and elves in roughly equivalent measure, school was Lord of the Flies with a dress code. I needed an escape.
These books did the job, serving as portals to worlds where furry little men and their gardeners carried magic rings into a land of doom; where dinosaurs still lived, and had built a civilization that made ours seem barbaric by comparison; where ancient evils awoke after millenia of imprisonment, and good men had to take up arms against them.
There was one group of books that managed to duplicate the feeling of being kicked around at school, though - the Choose Your Own Adventure series.
|Choose Your Own Ruination was already taken.|
Most people my age remember them, even if they don't share my particular revulsion. For everybody else, the Choose Your Own Adventure books cast YOU and YOU ALONE as the protagonist. They did this by offering you a choice at the bottom of every page, a dilemma you'd resolve by turning to another.
For example, they'd lock you in a room with an angry pirate. If you tried to kick his feet out from under him and run out the door, you turned to page 92; if you tried to sneak out the window, you turned to page 17.
This is invariably when things went to hell, which contradicted my high expectations. Having been an avid reader since Mrs. Beulah Berry shamed me into learning my lphbet, I thought I had this pirate situation in the bag.
|This also helped to raise my confidence.|
"How many times have the heroes of the stories I've read dealt with angry pirates?" I asked myself.
"Like infinity!" I happily responded.
"And what did they do?" I quizzed myself.
"They didn't talk about their feelings," I said.
(Being able to carry on animated conversations with yourself is an essential for every lonely, picked upon child.)
Deciding to kick the pirate, I'd promptly end up eating cutlass on page 92. Turns out trying to act like a hero when the book casts you as the target demographic of "grade schooler" is ill advised. The problem was, this happened no matter what I did.
If I tried to act like a dashing hero, I bumbled like a kid; if I tried to sneak like the child I was, I got called a coward and punished anyway. The end result was that, like an underage Dr. Samuel Beckett, I quickly ran out of fingers trying to backtrack and put right what once went wrong. In book after book, the only adventure I reliably choose was my own messy death.
|Sam, Ziggy says you shoulda turned to page 33 instead of 34! Oh boy.|
Even when I grew frustrated, and tried reading the Choose Your Own Adventure book cover to cover - the Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me of the series - I still couldn't find an ending that didn't involve being eaten alive by moth people or teleported into deep space sans space suit.
Whatever the opposite of a messiah is, that's my function in Choose Your Own Adventure. From the moment my feet touch soil, my every action blights the world around me. If I bent over to pick up a penny, I turned to page 43 to find a woman giving birth to a baby with a dog's head that spoke only blasphemies.
It was my initial intention to write a parody Choose Your Own Adventure. The endings would be the worst things I could imagine, so over the top that they would make the originals seem polite in comparison.
|This seems like a good start.|
That's when I reread a few of the books, and realized that no matter what I did, there was no besting them.
The first book I read was Beyond Escape. It's the year 2051, and two future spies named Mimla and Matt have gone missing. That was common. You'd hang out with Steven and Anchagorax, or Tara and Sizlak, or Mimla and Matt. In the process of tracking down the future spies, I ended up in a helicopter that gets shot down by UFOs.
Beyond Escape notes that I died on page 108, and is careful to explain that I did so screaming for help, in pain and all alone:
When it came time for their hearing, they pointed to their history of trying to help children. The review board, probably thinking them changed men, ka-chunked a “reformed” on some paperwork and released them back into the wild.
The second book was Prisoner of the Ant People. I was a member of the Zondo Quest Group, fighting the Evil Power Master along with Flppto, a four eyed Martian. What pure whimsy! Surely nothing too awful could happen in such a book.
How about the destruction of the entire cosmos on page 56?
This also led me to theory two: Cormac McCarthy got his start as an author for the series, mentally preparing an audience that would later eat up his joyless, existential epics.
The third and final book was The Lost Jewels of Nafouti, originally titled The Lost Jewels of Nabooti. What was fine for children in 1982 would have caused a 2005 audience to choke to death on their giggles, which also might be what happens on page 123. Instead, I played it as safe as I could.
For this, I was rewarded with the most boring ending imaginable on page 40:
That's the happiest conclusion I've ever reached. I wasn't raped to death by a pterodactyl in a broom closet; my nervous system wasn't ripped still living from my body and forced to suffer the pain of death ten thousand times a second in the Agony Cradle; I simply had to do some paperwork and go home.
Theory three: At 15 – 40 endings per book, and over a hundred books published in a ten year span, they ran out of ideas. As a result, some adult nightmares – like dealing with bureaucracy – worked their way in. I wouldn't be surprised to find out one of the endings was your wife leaving you because you she doesn't think you have a grown up job.
Overall, I came away from the experience shocked that the old patterns hold, the ritual is the same - nearly twenty years of life experience on, I'm still eating cutlass.
|Cutlass: It's not just for breakfast anymore!|
If anything, I've gotten worse. I don't remember “universal extinction” being on the menu before. Regardless, Choose Your Own Adventure books were an indelible part of my childhood, like Lunchables, Batman, and my complete failure to learn how to swim. They're not a happy part, but they taught me about life.
Namely, that what's right in one circumstance might not be right in another; that sometimes life shits on you, and there's no reason why; and that though failure is always, always an option, there's nothing stopping you from throwing the stupid book across the room because you hate it forever.