Thursday, February 24, 2011

Choose Your Own Swedish Adventure

Remember those awesome "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that were super popular in the '80s? I basically cut my literary teeth devouring those books. From solving mysteries to traversing fantastical worlds to winning the all-city basketball championship, those suckers were a thrill a minute.

For some reason I couldn't quite put my finger on, those books have been on my mind lately. I knew it wasn't just childhood nostalgia, but I couldn't understand why I kept thinking about those books. (By the way, do kids these day still read these books? Apparently they're still being published!) Yesterday, though, I had a revelation: Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, which I'm about 200 pages from finishing, is about the closest thing I've ever read to those books, only the "choosing" is being done by a dead Swede.

Of course, I know that sounds preposterous. There's no choice for the reader in these books. Everything's locked in. The writer's already made every choice, and those decisions are the same on the day Stieg keeled over as they will be 300 years from now. So how could Lisbeth and Mikael's thrilling saga be even remotely similar to Choose Your Own Adventure?

It's because the choices the characters make throughout these novels are often questionable at best, which means they're highly unpredictable. It almost feels like there's a goblin in the next room throwing a dart at a "plot" board to determine which choice a character will make — choosing the adventure for me. As one example from Dragon Tattoo, when Mikael is out running and suddenly finds himself getting shot at, I felt like the novel should've stopped and Stieg should've inserted something like: What should Mikael do now? A) Sensibly retreat back to Stockholm to finish his research. B) Stay put in his remote, rural cabin knowing full well someone's hell bent on knockin' him off. (I honestly thought he was gonna choose A.)

After all, if I remember correctly, weren't the choices in the Choose Your Own Adventure novels similar in scope to that? One was the safe one, but that one often got you in trouble, too. And one was the ballsy one, but it often played out in an unexpectedly safe way...or you died. You just never knew! It was great — and I get the same feeling with these Millennium Trilogy novels. They're masterfully plotted and pretty unpredictable on a choice-by-choice basis. (I won't beat the dead horse of the false drama in The Girl Who Played With Fire again.)

Stephen King says that he never knows how a book will end when he starts, he just writes characters and lets them do what they want. Stieg's books have this feeling as well, but he's juggling several more flaming sticks at once than King ever does (this is especially the case in Hornet's Nest, as more and more characters are introduced, yielding at least a half a dozen concurrent plot lines). And so you know the plotting isn't haphazard — it's all been carefully planned. It's just has the feeling of chaos, or arbitrariness. And it's quite entertaining!

I'm not saying the logic of this comparison is airtight. All I'm saying is I'm happy that I finally figured out why I've had those CYOA books on my mind for the last month. You buying this at all?  I'm interested to hear your take!

(Almost scary coincidence: As this post was knockin' around my mind yesterday, I came across a review of debut novelist Hannah Pittard's The Fates Will Find Their Way, in which the reviewer describes the book as a "a sort of morbid 'choose your own adventure' story." Frightening. Fate?)


  1. These books are unpredictable wild rides, and two tons of fun for me when I was racing through them on audio. Hell it rendered me either unable to walk while listening, or walking so fast I pulled muscles.

    And yes speaking of Fates, I believe this may be The Book To Read. It sits on my Kindle waiting for an open moment.

  2. You are UTTERLY RIGHT. At almost every point, you could have should Lisbeth i) tell the police what she knows ii) continue to maintain a stubborn silence?
    In fact, you are so right, I feel like someone should draw the books out in a decision tree.

  3. Heh heh, I mentioned Choose Your Own Adventure books in my post on Monday. In relation to Great Expectations . . .

  4. This is pretty funny. Maybe what you are seeing is that the two leads here always do the dangerous thing (M for idealistic reasons, L for psychological ones).

    Also, the chapters in these books tend to end with a cliffhanger of some kind, which has that same feeling of indeterminacy that you got reading the CYOA books as a kid.

    Do you remember those white library bindings on those things? Damn hard to hold open with 8 year old hands I remember.

  5. @Sandy - Ha - I imagine it would be tough to concentrate on much else while you were listening to them. Did you walk into any stationary objects?

    @Lyndsey - Now you're talking! A decision tree is a great idea - not sure I have that much ambitious, but I would applaud someone else's effort if s/he took it on.

    @Kathy - Yikes - there must be something in the ether this week! I also had no idea there are two endings to Great Expectations. Hmmm...

    @Ape - Yeah, that's a good point about the chapter-ending cliffhangers. Sometimes, though, they do make the safe choice - at least for awhile. Like in Played With Fire, we don't hear a peep from Lisbeth for like two weeks while she's hiding out in her apartment. And then she chooses to get a move on. You know, I must've been a spoiled kid - I don't think I ever got them from the library, but they were always around, so my parents must've kept me well supplied at a not insignificant cost.

  6. Collective consciousness, seriously. Because I've had the CYOA books on my mind and not because I've read any recently or anything like them or because I've read about them in posts. I just thought of them and have been thinking about them. My God, the nostalgia that brings! WOW.

  7. Have you tried Henning Mankell? He's my favorite Swedish mystery writer: