To what extent in life do we choose our own adventures? And if we do choose, is the choice governed by something in our personalities or our backgrounds that we can’t control? Is it possible to go back and choose again?
When Samuel Andresen-Anderson was a child, he loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books. He liked working through every single option, trying to determine which way was best. But when he wrote his own, every path led to death. At least the deaths were gruesome enough to be entertaining.
And this book by Nathan Hill is about people who are stuck in the consequences of their own or other people’s choices. And, as a reader, what matters to me is less the destination of all their choices but how entertaining the journey is. And I found this journey plenty entertaining, entertaining enough to earn its 600-plus pages.
Samuel, a college professor and writer, is the central character in the book. He’s central in that all the characters touch him in some way. The book often leaves him for long periods to delve into others’ stories, most often Samuel’s mother. Faye left suddenly when Samuel was a kid, and he hasn’t heard from her since. And he wouldn’t have heard from her now if she hadn’t attacked a governor. Samuel’s publisher decides to seize the opportunity and have Samuel write a tell-all memoir in a scene that comically skewers modern media and publishing. (This book is often very funny, even if the comedy tends toward the obvious.)
So Samuel gets in touch with his mother and does some of his own research when she isn’t helpful. All of this to put together a picture of a past he knew nothing about. A past that points to Chicago during the 1968 riots.
Besides all that, Samuel is thinking over his own past, especially his friendship with a bully named Bishop Fall and his love her Bishop’s sister, Bethany. And he’s trying to sort out a controversy involving a student, Laura Pottsdam, who decided that it wasn’t fair that she isn’t allowed to cheat on her papers. In his confusion about life, Samuel reaches out to fellow guild members on World of Elfscape, the video game that’s been consuming his life when he should be writing a book. That leads to a tentative IRL acquaintanceship with Pwnage, an Elfscape virtuoso.
Yeah, it’s a lot of story. But it feels like a complete world, easy to get lost in, which is just what I want when reading a book of this length. It’s funny and unpredictable and, by the end, surprisingly moving.
Hill plays around a bit with form, presenting one section in the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure. But for the most part, the writing is straightforward, moving around in time, answering questions only to raise more. But always the story comes back to choices and why we make them and whether we can ever pull ourselves out of bad patterns. Those patterns are represented by a water spirit called a Nix that appears in the form of a horse, drawing children away from their homes on a journey that is at first exhilarating and ultimately deadly. The characters in the book have been lured along by various Nixes and the trick is to figure out how to jump off safely.