"And So On"
- The Narrator
I have no idea how I found this book. Seriously. I mean, I've always been a fan of Kim Newman, as he seems to be one of the few (very few) people to criticize horror movies and not have his head wedged firmly in a rather unpleasant orifice. He also did vampires in a very chilling, blackly comic style with his Anno Dracula novels, which essentially tell of a world where vampires rule everything and humans (both sides being a mixture of fictional, historical, and classic characters) either live as the oppressed masses, or are put into prison camps. I've also been a huge fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books, having played them throughout my childhood and even into high school. So I suppose it was only a matter of time, but somehow, this one just fell into my lap and I immediately ordered it off of Amazon. It took me a little while to find it, because I don't think it was released over here (could be wrong about that one) and it's definitely out of print. What pisses me off about that is that there's an incredible market for adult Choose Your Own Adventures in the US, where we kind of look on that sort of thing with rose-colored nostalgia, and a bunch of publishers said "mmmnope, this'll never sell."
So yes. Life's Lottery is a Choose Your Own Adventure book for adults, divided into three hundred separate sections. In it, you drop into the head of one Keith Marion. Keith is a fairly average person. He does have a love of pirates and gets better grades in school, but other than that, he's fairly normal. You play through his life several times, making choices each time, always the same way-- in The Man From UNCLE, a classic spy series, does he prefer Ilya Kuryakin, or Napoleon Solo? It's this choice that spins off wildly, from kidnapping schemes to becoming a punk rock record producer, to fighting a large variety of enemies, from body snatchers to things that are better left unsaid and discovered.
Except...except there are things that keep popping up. Little, offhand things. Who is Derek Leech, for instance, and why does it seem like he owns everything? What's with section number eight and why is it so ominous? And what's with all the spiders? And then there are the sections you can't get to when "playing" the book "properly". Like the section where two doctors talk about Keith having some kind of syndrome (Note: This isn't a spoiler, this is something you can discover fairly early on...in fact, the book tells you the section is there).
Life's Lottery is exactly as it appears to be, but on another level, it's not. What it is and what you discover will be entirely up to you...if you decide to read the book beginning to end, you'll have just as interesting time, though the narrator seems to chide you for taking that path...he chides you for a lot of things, actually, as if he has a vested interest in keeping you playing the book a certain way. And, since the narrator is the one relaying all the events to you, everything kind of takes on a nice, chummy flavor. After all, it's in the narrator's best interest to keep you playing. He's got his own reasons and means for doing so, and occasionally will direct you away from areas he'd rather you not be. The narrative voice is really what carries the piece, as it kind of has to. Keith doesn't say very much, aside from those times where you have to choose something for him to say, and the other characters, while well fleshed out (after all, they stay with you from childhood to adulthood), tend to be shadowy-- they're merely other people in Keith's life. Some of them will stay, others will not.
The other thing that makes the novel really good is the sense that there is always something more to discover. I've "played" through it several times, once reading the alternate sections, and it's the sense of discovery. You play through it once, you get one possible set of paths. That's fine. You play through again, you get different paths, and different branches. After all, there are three hundred sections, each with their own endings. Only two, however, let you "win". The others say things like "And So On", or my favorite, the one that signals every death you may encounter: "Go to 0." On the way to any number of these paths, the realities of Derek Leech, the mysterious spiders, and even the possibility that you may be playing these lives out simultaneously, with different names taking the place of different versions of you.
I will say this book is not for everyone. Some sequences drag just a little, and others tend to leave you in weird places. You may find the book's secrets distracting, or stupid, and wonder "why did I get through all those pages just to have a reveal like that?" It's experimental to a certain degree, in that every story in it is part of a larger story that you can either take or leave, depending on your view, so if you don't enjoy experimental books, or books that don't have a purely narrative thread, I wouldn't completely recommend it. It's also not very substantial at first glance. Keith isn't exactly a main character that pops off the page, as you're supposed to fill in the blanks. The stories are nice, but feel a little on the light side sometimes, too.
But in the end, the book is a whole load of fun. Unlike many books of its kind, it is one you can come back to again and again...maybe you'll discover something different as you read and re-read it, maybe you'll just enjoy it for being a Choose Your Own Adventure book that takes a decidedly odd direction with its concept. Either way, you should find a way to get it and read it, because I guarantee you will never find any other book like it on earth. It's imaginative, inventive, and yes, a little twisted and macabre, and the ride is well worth it.
And So On.
Next Week: A return to the wild world of Steampunk with George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan.