Think back to the worst relationship you were ever in. The one full of shouting matches and long separations; the one where you were taken advantage of over and over; the one you both clung to for far too long. Remember how it felt as though your fate had been taken completely out of your hands? That whatever decision you made, your story was hurtling unstoppably in one direction—toward disaster?
Only the very lucky or very chaste have never been trapped in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship, a love/hate affair in which each partner brings out the worst in the other. If you’re lucky, you survive and advance from those relationships to other, better partnerships—though you never quite forget how trapped you felt. And sometimes, when the rest of your life is feeling a bit rote and boring, you can almost fool yourself into thinking the excitement was worth it.
A unique short novel published recently by an anonymous author in Portland, Ore., captures that mixture of exhilaration and dread with an expertise drawn from hard experience. Titled Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life, it tells the story of your stormy four-year relationship with Anne, a hard-drinking cellist. Why “your” relationship? Because Love Is Not Constantly cleverly adopts the structure and second-person voice of Choose Your Own Adventure novels, those interactive kids’ books of the 1980s.
The CYOA books sold 250 million copies in their heyday, and even now many readers will find the familiar cover design of Love Is Not Constantly instantly evocative, right down to the perfect cover image of insectoid warriors and space explorers. (The illustrations throughout are by Sarah Miller.) Plenty of other books have appropriated the CYOA model, from contemporaneous kid-lit ripoffs to Escape From Fire Island!, a ribald zombie drag queen comedy. But Love Is Not Constantly undercuts the CYOA structure in a fascinating way: by making choice irrelevant.
The book opens with a familiar disclaimer:
But from there, the message gets weird:
These pages contain one adventure about the time you, a guy who does not care for drinking, dated an alcoholic. It is also about crashing on a planet of giant malevolent space ants. From time to time as you read along you will be asked to make a choice. Your choice will have no meaningful impact on anything that happens. So this will all make a lot more sense if you just read it from beginning to end.
Indeed, as you read the book, you’ll see that the choices you’re offered have little to do with the story of your relationship with Anne. Each entry is dated, so on April 22, 2005, the day you finally convince Anne to end a six-and-a-half-month drinking binge, you’re offered, at the bottom of the page, the following choices, both of which simply lead you to other days with Anne:
If you tell the other captives to follow you into the cave of Ant-Warrior nutrient pools, turn to August 18, 2006
If you would rather have them follow you into the hall of discarded carapaces, turn to December 8, 2005
The answer, of course, is that you should dump Anne before it’s too late. But the absurd options the book gives “you”— later “choices” include dueling with an Ant-Warrior, or attacking the Evil Power Master—simply highlight the completely screwed-up perspective of the co-dependent. When I was stuck in one of those terrible relationships, and friends told me it was time to break it off, I looked at them as if they were crazy—as if the options they were offering had so little to do with my actual situation they were functionally useless.
And in Love Is Not Constantly, the choices, such as they are, don’t lead anywhere. The CYOA books had multiple endings, some of them tragic but some of them happy, in which you won the Grand Prix or discovered the Lost City of Gold. In this book, you can stumble through time, moving from terrible day to terrible day, but there are no endings— or rather, you’re headed inexorably toward the only ending, the end of the book, the shitty way your relationship with Anne concludes. That’s it.