Choose Your Own Autobiography (Neil Patrick Harris)

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 1.10.49 PM I’m not a big reader of celebrity memoirs, but this one came my way for Christmas: Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography takes the form of a choose your own adventure book, in which Neil’s life story, together with some made up incidents clearly recognizable as fantasy, are narrated as happening to “you”.

This sounds like a gimmick, since the set of people who know of Neil Patrick Harris because of Dr. Horrible or How I Met Your Mother likely has a good overlap with the set of people who retain warm fuzzy nostalgia feelings about Choose Your Own Adventure books. But it turns out that it’s formally interesting as a CYOA piece, too.

Off the top, the autobiography establishes its genre-savvy with a variety of standard CYOA Clever Tricks: not one but two pages you can only reach if you’ve been paging through the book on your own (one designed to be signed by NPH at a book event, should you happen to be at one), choices that send you to do things outside the realm of the book itself, a choice that sends you back to the very beginning and your own birth. There are nodes that you’re supposed to read before returning to whatever page you came from (like the sinister section 13 in Life’s Lottery). Other formal curiosities include a page formatted as a series of tweets, a couple of cocktail recipes (Neil apparently enjoys jalapeños in his beverages), a crossword puzzle, and instructions for card tricks. Sometimes these are offered as diversions or relief after a particularly stressful narrative passage.

But it’s also an interesting work at a macro scale. Here’s the chart:


Several things are notable about this. In Sam Ashwell’s CYOA structure terminology, it’s neither time cave (branching wildly without rejoining) nor gauntlet (mostly linear with occasional diversions). It doesn’t really have organized sub-nodes like the quest structure, nor is it geographically based.

Instead, it feels more like a structure expressing inevitability. Many paths through the narrative do lead to one of the two happy pink-marked endings, one of which is kind of a jokey celebration of NPH’s showbiz career, and the other of which is a more heartfelt expression of how happy he is to have found his partner and started a family. There are a handful of comedy sudden death endings (being eaten while passing through the jungle on the way to visit Steven Sondheim, which suggests Sondheim should consider a more accessible address). Several other bad endings lead to page 19, where it turns out that all of NPH’s life is just a daydream by a sadder, less fortunate man who works in a sandwich shop. But a lot of the “mistake” endings are pretty clearly flagged as such, or are the work of a moment to undo. It’s not challenging, as a player, to find your way to one of NPH’s happy outcomes. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that the book is mostly nonfiction, and is nonfictional in intent.

Reviews on goodreads suggest this format didn’t work for everyone:

It reads like Neil Patrick Harris wanted to write an autobiography, but was frightened of how vulnerable it would make him, so he hid behind two layers of comedy, one of which works really well and the other of which doesn’t work at all. It almost made it painful to read in a way, uncomfortable, like that through his avoidance to tell the story in a linear fashion and despite the overall positivity the words bring, I was witnessing some inner-turmoil that I shouldn’t be seeing and that still hasn’t been resolved. I am probably reading way too much into it, but I also can’t change the fact that that is how I felt reading this. I think this book is more emotional than people realize.

Maybe I’m a sucker, but I read the format quite differently. Here is a guy who had the good fortune to be born into a comfortably-off, loving family with no significant traumas, who had lots of talent combined with the opportunity to cultivate it throughout his life, who repeatedly came to the attention of people who could help his career along. Over the course of the autobiography we read about his successes on TV and Broadway, how he married the love of his life, and how he collected a range of celebrity buddies all happy to write messages about how great he is. Obviously a lot is down to his ability to work hard and cultivate relationships, but equally obviously not every hard-working, emotionally grounded person winds up with the same level of outcome. NPH also enjoyed a lot of luck and a lot of structural privilege.

So by the time I got to the part where “you” are vacationing at Elton John’s villa in Nice, I was aware that I would probably be starting to resent the author if it were a straight memoir; there’s only so much “and then we had champagne and caviar with Bono before riding along the corniche road in convertible Bentleys” that I can take. But the CYOA format did a lot to help break that up: to say, “look, I can’t believe I wound up here either! I’m not under the illusion I earned all this. Look, here are a bunch of places where it could have all gone differently.” Even if jokingly, it fills in the awareness of those alternate outcomes. Choose Your Own Autobiography is using the choice structure to acknowledge the function of fate and contingency — which is so often what happens when CYOA is put to thematic use, as witness both Life’s Lottery and if.

Moreover, by positioning everything as being about “you”, it helps rub away at least some of the sense that he’s bragging. It’s all a rhetorical sleight of hand, sure, but it felt less like it was trying to hide some deep trauma and more like it was in service of the reader’s enjoyment.

Indeed, a lot of the other structural features seemed to be designed to help the reader curate their experience of the book. As I mentioned, there are “take a break” bits where you can choose to go read about a cocktail or do a puzzle before coming back to the story, but there are also quite a few loops in the structure where two nodes point to one another, and several long leaps backwards in the book from quite late on. The effect is to let you follow any of several themes (NPH’s stage and screen career, his relationships and discovery of his sexuality, his interest in magic performance) according to your own interest. A few times the book teases the reader with the fact that you can’t choose to make NPH be straight, but much of the rest is about giving you access to the parts of his story that most interest you.

There’s one bit I haven’t quite understood: if you look closely at the above chart, you’ll see there’s a node 38 — I’ve colored it light blue to make it stand out — which has no inputs, but which does have outputs, and isn’t one of the two pages that explicitly say “you can only get here if you cheat.” I’m not sure what’s going on here. Maybe I mapped wrong (though I went through twice looking for how to get to 38, it’s conceivable that I still screwed up). Maybe it’s a bug (though that would surprise me). Or maybe you get there by solving a puzzle somewhere along the line that I just didn’t solve. I’m not sure. But leaving this book with a little bit of mystery seems about right.

10 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Autobiography (Neil Patrick Harris)”

  1. Some really good thoughts about this! I loved the autobiography because I love NPH, but I was initially a bit hesitant about the CYOA format. I really hate that whole subgenre of “mixed fiction and nonfiction so you think you’re learning something but you don’t know if it’s true or not,” and I assumed this would be like that – but it’s not, because it’s really, really obvious what the made-up parts are. And I think you have an excellent point about him not having those deep, secret traumas we’ve come to expect from an autobiography – for the most part, he’s done so amazingly well because he had privilege, he had the talent and personality to take advantage of it, and he had the support system to help him through his darker spells. I would have expected an autobiography to make more of the early acting stuff, with the drugs and sleeping around and whatnot, as a “…and then I had a revelation and gave it all up!” thing, but I’m glad this book doesn’t do that. It’s not about trying to come across as having overcome great odds, it’s about being friendly and goofy and forthright in a way NPH has managed to keep as his image for years.

    It was a really good book and you had some excellent points about it.

  2. I see from the Amazon link you included that there’s also an audio version, “adapted […] so you’ll hear all of the same fun and humor from the printed version but you don’t have to make any decisions or jump around—just kick back, relax and listen.” Which makes me wonder how they went about linearizing the text, although I’m not sure I wonder enough to actually buy the audiobook.

  3. I’ve been thinking there need to be another category or three introduced to that systemisation.

    I think this is a bird’s nest: lots of branching and rejoining, but not a whole lot of bottlenecks, and not strongly broken up into obvious major branches. Possibly the plot is loosely governed by time (is the autobiography more or less chronological? you didn’t mention) but only in the general sense needed to make the rejoinings make sense, not in terms of mandatory plot events. The other example I can think of is What if… All The Boys Wanted You, which has pretty strong chronological arrangement but not very much causal consistency.

    I’m not sure how much this is a meaningful category, or just the paleontologist’s sin of throwing everything that doesn’t quite fit in into one genus and slapping a name on it.

    1. It is indeed mostly chronological, though there are several points where you can be sent back to an earlier point in his life (often because you’re jumping threads to read about a different topic, occasionally for a do-over; in one case you’re invited to just reread the section you’re on because it is so awesome).

  4. Emily, what tool did you use to map it?

    PS I’m sure these reviews are a lot of work, but I always enjoy them. Surprisingly always. Thanks!

  5. I think there’s selection bias in biography, in a way. People who have biographies dramatic enough to write are the ones we’ve seen. People who have generally happy lives don’t know what to say.

    (As a kid I hated autobiographical assignments. I would make stuff up.)

  6. Yes, I have been stuck on the page 38 conundrum as well! Maybe you just need to “cheat”, as he says, to get to it?

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