if (Nicholas Bourbaki)

bourbaki“This author sent me a review copy of his CYOA novel.” I took the book out of its wrapper and held it up.

“Nicolas Bourbaki doesn’t exist,” my husband said. “He’s an invention.”

Someone had handwritten the enclosed note. I shrugged. “Maybe this guy really has that name.”

We were both wrong, as it happens; as this interview explains, Bourbaki-the-author assumed, with an extra h in the first name, a shadow of Nicolas Bourbaki the collective of pseudonymous mathematicians. His book, If, is a print choice-based novel — hefty, printed on thick paper, with “a novel” appearing multiple times on the cover as mark of both its multiplicity and its literary seriousness.

If sometimes embraces, sometimes rejects standard CYOA practice. It’s written in the second person, mostly, except when a first-person narrator crops up by surprise and many pages into the story: this first-person character is a bully, and for as long as we remember that he exists, the whole narration feels like a mean-spirited harangue against the protagonist. The main character also floats between characterization and Faceless Protagonism: he has a gender and passes through a specified series of ages, but some characteristics are intentionally withheld. On page 192, a character refers to him by name, though on page 194 we discover that this was a false identity anyway.

But having a name would probably pin the protagonist down in the wrong way. If belongs to that particular subgenre of IF whose overt hook is the opportunity to reach radically different life outcomes from the same starting point: works like Life’s Lottery, Pretty Little Mistakes (Sam Ashwell’s analysis), and Alter Ego (Jimmy Maher’s analysis).

*

Structure

If may be CYOA-like, but it is meant to be read rather than to be played. For one thing, I’d be hard pressed to identify any of its myriad endings as a win. For another, it is not primarily concerned with providing the reader with a sense of agency. The passages between choice points are often very long, and the protagonist does many significant things that the player is never invited to choose; in this respect it reminded me more of Pretty Little Mistakes than of most other CYOA.

Likewise, If expects to be read in the whole. If you think about it, this is an odd thing for a CYOA to expect, not just that you’ll try for all the endings or for a winning ending but that you’ll meticulously explore the whole choice structure. If you are going to read all the passages, then you will sooner or later wind up canceling out all of your choices.

But I’m confident that this is indeed the intent. A map of the story is printed in tiny numbers in the front of the book. This map is incomplete in a couple of ways, but it provides sufficient information to work as a guide. Structurally, If is a time cave, though an unevenly developed one: the map indicates that in any given choice pair, there is usually one choice that is going to lead to a shorter path, the other to a longer one.

Knowing this and having the map provided a non-random algorithm for reading. I worked always explored the shorter paths first. On those occasions when the paths were of equal length, I explored the one that appeared rightmost on the map. I wanted to make sure I saw everything. I also wanted to minimize the time from first seeing a particular node and revisiting it to take a different branch, which would make it easier to analyze the book’s structure and use of choices. I made almost no decisions of my own other than the initial algorithm-selection. I was never picking where to go next as any kind of act of individual expression, and I frequently had to work through a branch I found less compelling before returning for the preferred one. In retrospect, I am pleased with this way of reading this book.

When I talk about making almost no decisions using my algorithm, it is because there are just a few places where the map lies and the algorithm fails. There are a handful of nodes that go beyond pure divergent branching. There is an infinite loop. There is a section not reachable except by cheating. One node tells you to turn to any page you want; one ending explicitly sends you back to a particular point near (but not at) the beginning. In one node, you have two options that lead to the same numbered page, the only difference being what cast you choose to put on the jump — a reflective choice, in IF terminology. In another, you have a choice to help a friend or not: if you choose not to, you’ll later blame yourself for his death. The death is inevitable, but your choice about whether to help him will shade your attitude towards the event.

Bourbaki does not, however, use the more demanding gamebook methods. There are no Meanwhile-style puzzles based on remembering something from a past iteration. Knowledge of other paths affects your experience only in the purely readerly sense that it’s likely to change your interpretation of events. There are also no randomness, variables, stats, or inventory. Contrast this early divergence point in Life’s Lottery:

Find a pack of cards. Take a card at random. Replace, shuffle well, draw again. If you get the Queen of Spades twice in a row, you are born dead. Go to 0.

Choices in If are sometimes constrained in content or outcome by your situation, but If is not interested in simulating that randomness directly in your reading experience, or in modeling any of the systems it invokes.

*

Content

Alter Ego treats your life as the result of early-formed attitudes towards risk and discipline. Life’s Lottery presents life outcomes in terms of chance, especially the chance of how you fall within British systems of education and employment. Pretty Little Mistakes suggests that it’s all just chaotic. In If, the main issue is what not what you decide, but how you regard the whole possibility of decision-making.

Every choice you make. Every choice you make is like this. You do what you want. But somehow it is not what you want. If only you could come at it all from a different angle somehow. If only you could start over. — 104

Or:

In any case, you are content with the choices you have made—eminently content—so contented, in fact, that you would have no trouble satisfying the test laid out in Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence, in the sense that you would not change a single one of the choices you have made in life even if you learned that you would have to repeat your life an infinite number of times. — 121

Pages 122-124 contain a discussion of Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths, Choose Your Own Adventure books (coyly not actually named as such), and hypertext, making an argument about co-opted consent and the fact that presenting two to four choices generates an illusion of freedom but not its reality. Political, religious, and economic systems also get some exploration, primarily in terms of how they relate to choice-making by individuals and groups. Sometimes the protagonist winds up a libertarian, sometimes an anarchist, sometimes working seriously on a Democratic party campaign. There is one ending in which it’s implied he becomes a Republican, though this is itself embedded in a fantasy life imagined by one of the alternate-universe protagonist versions.

The book’s genre varies as well. In the protagonist’s adolescent misery there are Lord of the Flies moments of vicious group bullying. His college career sometimes bleakly echoes The Secret History: there are even characters named Charles and Francis, and a few Secret-History-esque incidents, but without either the terror or the joy of the original. In adulthood, most passages concern realistic depictions of various places, jobs, social milieux. I am usually fond of writing that describes in detail an experience I’ve never had or a place I’ve never been. I have the sense that Bourbaki shares that taste, though occasionally in If it felt like these sequences were being offered as virtuosic performances, rather than because the situation or culture described was in itself significant to the story.

Then again, sometimes the book lets go of realism entirely. During a passage where the protagonist has hooked up with a woman who at all times carries a pet monkey on her back:

“You know, there’s more than one kind of realism,” the professor tells you in his office, when you go for advice. He slowly opens and closes a tin of coughdrops, never removing one. “The fact is, a lot of extraordinary fucking things happen in reality. Some of them are so extraordinary that they would be fucking unbelievable if they happened in a realistic story.” –227

In other places If falls through into parable. Hell is realized as an endless loop of choice, an infinity of freedom in which you’re asked over and over what you want, but never given it. The Garden of Eden appears in several forms, including on one occasion inside a hedge maze in a North Oxford garden, once in a free-floating section not linked to any of the rest of the book.

Though I feel reasonably persuaded that Nicholas Bourbaki is in fact one person, the book is designed to suggest something that his pseudonym also suggests: multiple authors, multiple styles, multiple selves.

Across its assorted sections, If concerns types of constraint that make certain outcomes inevitable: alcoholism, drug abuse, mental and physical illness, poverty, religious faith, an obsession with convention, being caught up in historical necessity. But — in contrast with a lot of recent Twine work on similar subjects — it’s exploring constraint as an intellectual problem, rather than as an emotional reality. The paths almost always end in the protagonist’s mental if not physical destruction, final chapters dissolving into sentence fragments or glossolalia.

*

Synthesis

For all the variety of the protagonist’s adventures — and they are very diverse — after a certain point I felt I was reading the same thing over and over again, in different formats. Almost as soon as I began to think this, the protagonist also began to complain about how tiresome it is to visit multiple European cities:

“The first three cities,” you continue, “were necessary to become familiar with the structure of the experience. To learn which aspects were lasting and important and which were superficial and changing…

It would not be fair to say that in If the structure is everything and the content nothing. However, I sometimes felt that Bourbaki didn’t want to leave the job of interpreting either aspect up to the reader, and this makes the whole project a bit more ponderous than it strictly needed to be. If is very much the sort of book in which most of the dialogue consists of the characters debating the author’s themes. A few times I was reminded of Harry Potter explaining Bayesian inference to other Hogwarts students: didactic, exasperated, and much more detailed than the fictional situation requires. As Bourbaki admits in his interview, one passage is essentially a critical essay on the rest of the book.

If tells a rather closed and lonely story. Much of the time the protagonist is wholly occupied with his own inner struggles. He resents his parents and acquaintances for not understanding what is in his mind even as he makes no attempt to understand them. He refers to his parents by their first names throughout, minimizing the relationship he has to them, mentioning them mostly when they either enable or deny his agency. Other characters enter and leave the narrative, rarely lasting for more than a few pages, perhaps recurring in a one-line mention in another plot line. In some paths, the college-era character Francis is a close friend of the protagonist, and at one point he even very briefly becomes a viewpoint character, but in no storyline do we really get to know him.

The player can’t really steer this aspect of the protagonist’s personality, either. On the rare occasions when the protagonist acts on someone else’s behalf, it typically doesn’t turn out that well, or create any intimacy with the other person. Though we’re sometimes called on to make a decision about a romantic approach or a sexual exploit, it is not principally a story about relationships. At one early branch, in fact, we have the choice to try to kiss another character or wait for a better time, and the outcome of these choices is exactly reversed from what it’s advertised as being. In another context I might suspect this of being a bug. Here it feels like one more comment on the failure of agency.

If is a portrait of someone whose solipsistic obsessions lead him to undervalue everyone around him. This tendency is at its most extreme when he gets embroiled in pickup-artist culture, but these character traits are always present to some degree. As an academic, he is enraged at the stupidity of students and colleagues while presenting arguments that are often themselves quite fatuous. As a tourist visiting a monk, he asks long-winded questions but becomes furious when another postulant also does so. When he discovers new places and experiences, his reaction is often disgust, or contempt.

His profound selfishness is no less than the author expects of him:

The meaning of the world is simply whatever meaning one chooses for it and for oneself. One’s choice of purpose in life is a way to realize and express one’s identity, which is also a matter of choice…

Those who live at the vanguard of the new epoch are free to choose—but choice has led them to choose, moment by moment, a life that they never would have chosen. Their ultimate commitment, if one can call it that, is to be sated in each moment. Presented with a choice between this atrophied life and a life defined by a commitment to some source of greater meaning, they might have chosen the latter, even at the cost of less momentary pleasure and greater sacrifice, even pain. But they were never presented with this choice.

You were never presented with this choice.

Except that I feel I was. The map presented this choice. The map afforded the opportunity to read If with commitment, for meaning, despite the loss of momentary pleasure.

6 thoughts on “if (Nicholas Bourbaki)

  1. Interesting read!

    (Where you quote “meaning on chooses”, I suspect the original has “meaning one chooses”.)

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