A Choose Your Own Adventure Book With No Happy Endings

Reading between the lines.
May 5 2012 12:25 AM

You Are Very Cold, and This Feels Like an Adventure

A hair-raising self-published novel of an epically bad love affair.

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A clever structure, no matter how potent its metaphor, wouldn’t make for a satisfying reading experience if the book’s story wasn’t itself compelling. Luckily, the ennervating romance of “you” and Anne is depicted with rigorous realism. Anne is a kind of manic pixie nightmare girl, a free spirit who stays up late to watch meteor showers, tries to sneak backstage at a Flaming Lips concert, and fascinates you by talking like “an unholy amalgam of Tori Amos and Muhammad Ali.” But from the beginning the warning signs are there. On your 24th birthday, Anne—then your girlfriend of three months—shows up at the bar drunk and disorderly. “You always knew,” the narrator muses, “there would be consequences to dating someone who considers Courtney Love to be her role model”:

In theory it seemed great. All excitement and adventure and fuck yous. Which, some of the time, it is. But you think about tonight, and how embarrassed you feel to have this happen in front of your friends. And all you can see is a future of her showing up trashed for your daughter’s sweet sixteen party and musical collaborations with Billy Corgan and probably a lot of somehow even worse things that you can’t even imagine.

Other times, though, you worry that you’re not keeping up your side of the relationship, and sometimes you don’t. You make foolish decisions; you’re careless with birth control and cavalier about the consequences. But sometimes you simply fall into the trap of faulting yourself for someone else’s terrible behavior: “The truth is you are cold and unemotional and distant when Anne needs to be close to you,” you think a year into the relationship. “Maybe if you were willing to open your heart a little she wouldn’t need to drink so much in the first place.”

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You will stay with Anne for years, through a cross-country move, an unwanted pregnancy, court appearances, any number of awful fights, and a hair-raising scene of near-asphyxiation. Never will you make the choice that you should have made from Day 1. Since I found the book in the Zines section of a bookstore in Portland, I’ve been haunted by an early scene in which you and Anne try and save money by sleeping in Anne’s car. You have no blankets and no pillows, it’s freezing outside, and you are up the whole night shivering. You watch Anne curled up in the back seat, asleep, her breath visible in the sodium lights of the Dunkin Donuts parking lot. “You are very cold,” you think, “and this feels like an adventure.”

Love Is Not Constantly is credited simply to “the author,” but was written, it turns out, by Zach, a 33-year-old in Portland who works as a sleep-disorder researcher. (“I’m the guy who covers people with wires and watches them sleep. It’s a great job because it gives me plenty of time to read. Although I am perpetually tired.”) On the phone, Zach is soft-spoken and upfront about the fact that nearly everything in the book comes from his real, catastrophic relationship with a real Anne. He told me he’d rather I didn’t use his full name. “Part of it is I don’t want my family to know that I wrote this, or really, anything,” he says. “My parents are awesome, but there are just certain aspects of my life, like almost all of it, that I would rather they not be involved in.” He also doesn’t want people trying to track down Anne or her family.

Zach wrote the book for two audiences. There were friends who knew him while he was dating Anne. “A lot of them were thinking the whole time, What the fuck is Zach doing?” He wanted to show them the good times along with the bad—the excitement that went hand in hand with the mess. As for friends who never knew Anne, he found it useful to “tell everyone at once why I don’t really enjoy drinking.” He wrote it in the CYOA style, he said, in part to explore the helplessness he felt in those days, but also because he doesn’t consider himself a particularly good writer, so he wanted a format that would allow him to tell the story in short, easy-to-manage chunks.

Zach published the book last fall and has sold 750 copies; a friend’s small press is handling the third printing. Now he’s working on a zine series called “A Field Guide to the Aliens of Star Trek: The Next Generation,” written in the voice of a sci-fi-obsessed middle-schooler. “I’m really interested in autobifictionalography,” he said. “That’s what Lynda Barry writes. Everything in there is true, but not necessarily factual.”

Zach may not feel confident about his talent, but Love Is Not Constantly is a small masterpiece of twentysomething romantic trauma – a book with real clarity of vision that reads, at times, like a horror story. Its formal inventiveness, its anonymous author, and its cheeky packaging all make for a richer reading experience. “I don’t want to just write a book,” Zach told me. “I want people to pick it up and say, What the fuck is this?

See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.

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