Monday, December 22, 2014

If: a novel

The author supplied a review copy of this book.

The best that can come of ambitious literature adopting the forms of popular fiction is work that combines the sheer narrative appeal of the latter with the subtle thoughtfulness of the former. Such a novel is If, by a writer working under the playful pseudonym Nicholas Bourbaki. The horizons of American fiction these days are so narrow that the phrase "experimental novel" doesn't mean much, but the format of If is certainly unusual: it's one of those choose-your-own-fate books, where you're given options at the foot of a page and turn to a different section based on what choice you make. But you, the second-person protagonist, aren't facing robots in a futuristic wasteland or escaping from a haunted amusement park: you're just growing up, in middle-class northern California around the end of the twentieth century. Your decisions are about sex and love, education and employment. Some are large, some are small, but they all have unexpected, and unintended, consequences.

This sounds like a gimmick, but it's actually essential to one of the novel's thematic concerns: what the author described in a recent interview as "how contingent our lives are, but also how some parts of our identities are stubbornly resistant to change." And If succeeds in no small part because the protagonist does indeed have a consistent identity despite his wildly varying choices. "You" might wind up a homeless drug addict, a pillar of the community, or something even stranger, but certain traits will endure: insecurity, passion for grand ideologies, perhaps an over-reliance on mild-altering substances. There's something tragically likable about you, even though you can be a real jerk a lot of the time. You want, like everybody else, to be happy, and you associate happiness with freedom. But pursuing freedom tends to leave you unhappy.

And make no mistake, "you" will be unhappy for much of this book. Most pick-a-path titles have obvious good and bad endings; If doesn't break down that easily, but let's just say there aren't many turns of the page that will give "you" a deep sense of personal fulfillment. In that sense, If is rather a bleak meditation on the consequences of the unstructured pursuit of happiness. But it's subtle about that. A lesser writer would make much of the fact that doing the right thing can lead to a bad ending; Bourbaki takes that for granted, and has a less mechanistic sense than many writers of the way we are and aren't shaped by our decisions. The way the protagonist's life evolves acknowledges the seeming randomness of existence without denying the possibility that art can still illuminate meaning in that chaos.

This makes the book sound like heavy going, and for readers expecting the adult equivalent of Prisoner of the Ant People I expect it will be. Some of the protagonist's fates slip from straightforwardly realist contemporary fiction into more stylized and unsettling forms; he's artful about unleashing it, but Bourbaki has a real gift for intense, psychologically suggestive experimental prose. And yet for readers accustomed to long sentences, prose poetry, and highly fractured stream of consciousness, this novel will be the farthest thing from difficult: it will be a genuine page-turner. I myself picked it up to skim the first few pages, and wound up reading long into the night, impelled by the same curiosity about the consequences of a choice that draws children to the famous gamebooks, and by the psychological acuity of Bourbaki's characterization. The next day I couldn't wait to go on my lunch break and continue following the protagonist's forking paths. If is a novel that manages to be experimental yet accessible, compelling yet quietly intricate, and it deserves to be read by a much wider audience.

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