“BEWARE and WARNING!” So heralds the front page of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, wildly popular in the 1980s and 1990s. “This book is different from other books,” the note threatens and promises. “You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story.” This premise enthralled me as a young reader. I sped through countless CYOA books, picking my narrative path in response to prompts like “If you agree to the operation, turn to page 57,” which led to a dramatically diverse array of awful deaths as well as a few happy endings.1
Despite their front-page emphasis on alterity, CYOA titles are a particularly generic form of genre fiction, so similar to each other that they feel relatively interchangeable. How fascinating, then, to see them serve as the inspiration for a daringly idiosyncratic young adult novel by Kristin Cashore, author of the critically acclaimed Graceling Realm series. Cashore’s more formally experimental new novel, Jane, Unlimited, not only queers the CYOA novel and other forms of genre fiction, it also unsettles the privileging of personal choice in many of these narratives.
In the acknowledgments for Jane, Cashore explains that she originally chose to compose it in the CYOA format, only to realize that it would work better as “a third-person POV story intended to be read from beginning to end.” The resulting text is a queer hybrid reminiscent of gothic novels such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca as well as CYOA books. Like Brontë’s Jane, Cashore’s is an orphan who arrives at a mysterious house full of secrets. Her parents died when she was a baby, and her guardian Aunt Magnolia—herself a queer figure, single and “eccentric”—has recently died on a photographic mission in Antarctica.
Grieving, aimless, and broke, Jane accepts an invitation from her pseudo-friend Kiran Thrash to stay at her wealthy family’s island mansion, Tu Reviens. While there, Jane finds herself attracted to both Kiran’s flirtatious brother, Ravi, and one of the house’s clever employees, Ivy Yellan. Eventually, she rejects the former and pursues the latter, thereby upsetting the heteronormative pull of classic gothic romances.
As enigmas and suspicions cloud around her, Jane reaches a crucial decision point, a moment at which she can imagine five different ways of proceeding. From there, the novel splits into five different pathways that result from Jane’s five different decisions. The book usefully plants information about the concept of the multiverse to ground its narrative gamble. As another character explains to Jane, “Every time something happens, everything else that could have happened in that moment also happens, causing new universes to break off from the old universe and come into being. So there are multiple versions of us, living different lives than the ones we live, across multiple universes.” Like in the CYOA books, some of Jane’s fates are more successful than others, but Jane’s romance with Ivy remains constant across universes.
One way that “Jane” queers Choose Your Own Adventure books is by destabilizing their confident picture of the power of personal choice.
The five pathways playfully invoke, and sometimes parody, five classic genres: detection, spy-thriller, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Much of genre fiction has traditionally relied on heterosexual romance and conventional gender roles. Wendy Pearson writes of science fiction, for example, that “although there have always been some sf stories which have touched on issues of sexuality in imaginative ways, often allegorically, these have until recently been vastly outweighed by the number of stories which take for granted the continued prevalence of heteronormative institutional practices—dating, marriage, the nuclear family and so on.”2 Very often, in genre fiction, a man solves the mystery, captures the criminal, explores the unknown, and, along the way, gets involved with and saves the day for a damsel in distress.
In Jane, Unlimited, Jane and Ivy quickly bond over their love of Doctor Who, the long-running science fiction television show centered on a body-regenerating Time Lord. Until very recently, the Doctor had always been played by a male actor, and in the show reboot that started in 2005, the primary companion to the male Doctor has usually been a woman. But when Jane asks Ivy who her favorite Doctor is, Ivy retorts that she likes the companions better: “The Doctor’s all tragic and broody and last of his kind, and I get the appeal of that, but I like Donna Noble and Rose Tyler. And Amy and Rory, and Clara Oswald, and Martha Jones. No one ever likes Martha Jones but I like Martha Jones. She’s an asskicker.” Her line neatly deflates the Byronic appeal of the Doctor and of Brontë heroes such as Rochester and Heathcliff while also paving the way for her and Jane’s quick-blossoming intimacy.
Later, when the house’s resident playboy, Ravi, asks Jane who her favorite Doctor is, she also declares her preference for the companions as a way of refusing his magnetic appeal. The master of the house, Kiran and Ravi’s father, Octavian, fits the “tragic and broody” mold Ivy mentions, floating through his house at night like a ghost, ignorant of the goings-on around him. In contrast, the women of the novel—Ivy, Kiran, Jane, Lucy—step assertively into the “asskicker” role. Even Octavian’s ex- and present wives turn out to be asskickers—though not necessarily in noble ways. Suffice it to say, this novel’s version of a Time Lord is definitely a woman.
In pathway after pathway, Jane chooses Ivy and dismisses Ravi. This recurrent insistence on the power of a female-female erotic bond undercuts the grand romantic finale of much genre fiction, not only through its queerness but also through its dependence on small words and gestures—a touch, a smile, an inside joke—and resistance to declarations and closure. Ivy immediately appreciates Jane’s handmade umbrellas, and when she tenderly traces the contours of one creation, “Jane can feel it, like a hum under her skin.”
Ivy, too, is artistic—a photographer and woodworker. Jane and Ivy’s touching-through-art also happens when Jane—in every pathway but one—notices and affectionately touches the delicate sea life carvings on her borrowed worktable, realizing that Ivy created “this strong, beautiful table” and its maritime decorations. Ivy and Jane don’t only touch through their art, but their ability to do so endows their art with queer potential.
As mentioned, Jane’s artistic medium is umbrellas, which she makes from scratch out of wood and fabric. Early on, she stubbornly insists to everyone that they are not art, “just a hobby.” She’s not ready yet to accept the position of artist. Her Künstlerroman (development of an artist) storyline may seem normative, as she repeatedly transitions from self-doubt to the realization that she has talent, vision, and originality. However, her artistic project queers the Künstlerroman genre, since the umbrellas themselves defy easy categorization.
Straddling the divide between objet d’art and practical item, these “odd” objects variously serve as dagger-like weapons, as protection from rain (and other elements), as gifts, as sellable commodities, and as products of Jane’s unconscious desires that connect her to the novel’s other female characters. Tellingly, Jane finds the materials for her first umbrella in her art teacher’s closet, and she initially treats her own interest in making them as a “weird” aspect of herself, something she might need to keep secret.
Nor are these the only ways in which Jane’s umbrellas radiate queerness. They sometimes appear in their closed, more phallic form, and other times in their opened, more womb-like shape. Moreover, they resist fixity in time as well as in space. In each pathway, Jane creates an umbrella uniquely suited to circumstances, meaning that similar scenes of umbrella construction result in end products of wildly various shapes, textures, and colors.
Meanwhile, time itself takes multiple forms in Jane, Unlimited: it is simultaneously a cyclical return, a sequential progression, intersecting lines, and an uneven palimpsest. We read Jane’s pathways successively, one after the other, but, presumably, they all happen simultaneously in the multiverse. There is a difference between the narrative (the order in which the reader learns of events) and the story (the order in which the events “really” happen). Most of the Janes don’t consciously know about the other pathways unfolding at that moment in different universes; they believe that they are living their one, single life. (Only one Jane meets an alternate dimension Jane.)
The reader, on the other hand, watches Jane advance within one pathway and then loop back to the decision point; from there, in effect rebooted, Jane moves forward in another pathway with no awareness of the scenario that we just read about. Eventually, all five Janes and all five pathways converge in the reader’s mind; we experience the multiverse in a way that Jane herself cannot consciously do.
This temporal complexity recalls queer theorists’ discussions of queer time. Although accounts of queer time differ, many theorists stress its nonlinear nature and resistance to conventional, heteronormative arcs of maturation, wherein children inevitably grow up into heterosexual, married adults intent on having children of their own. Cashore’s embrace of a multiverse resembles Carolyn Dinshaw’s imagining of “a history that is not straight,” which enables us “to apprehend … experiences not regulated by ‘clock’ time or by a conceptualization of the present as singular and fleeting; experiences not narrowed by the idea that time moves steadily forward, that it is scarce, that we live on only one temporal plane.”3
The novel’s recurrent insistence on the power of a female-female erotic bond undercuts the grand romantic finale of much genre fiction.
Similarly, Jack Halberstam maps the queer “loopy narrative[s]” of several popular movies like Finding Nemo, identifying “queer time as somehow operating against the logics of succession, progress, development, and tradition proper to hetero-familial development.”4 The name of Jane, Unlimited’s peculiar mansion—Tu Reviens, French for “you return”—highlights the repetitive, regressive nature of the story.
Furthermore, each narrative path in Jane, Unlimited lacks a tidy conclusion. They end, instead, on a questioning note that is deepened by the reader’s knowledge of the failure inherent in each individual pathway. In any one universe, Jane misses clues, drops leads, or remains ignorant of crucial information that she sees, follows, and learns in other pathways. Even the last phrase of the novel—“leads her into another world”— teases either a continuation of the current pathway or another loop-and-reboot movement that would transport readers back to the decision point and to another narrative path.
The last pathway feels the most satisfying, particularly because of its constellation of queer relationships and its movement from center to periphery, a place that has “a high tolerance for oddness.” As Halberstam summarizes, “Alternative kinship has long been a cause célèbre among gay and lesbian groups and queer scholars.”5 In this final pathway, Jane creates an unexpected, nearly taboo, and defiantly not time-tested set of relationships while straddling two worlds. It can be tempting to view this last-presented storyline in the novel as the “right” one or as the one that Jane really chooses. And yet, the placement of this pathway at the end of the novel is just a ruse, since, to follow the book’s own logic, it is only one universe among many. If this series of events occurs, so does the one in which Jane suffers a painful, disturbing death.
As the series title signals, the Choose Your Own Adventure books glorify personal choice. Even though many decisions terminate in capture or death or failure, the pleasure of traveling through a CYOA paperback remains its clarity and safety. You know exactly when you must make a choice, thanks to usefully italicized prompts at the bottom of the page. You can always page back and try again if your prior decision conducted you to an unsatisfactory end. Or, you can flip through all the pages sequentially, find the triumphant ending, and work backwards from there. The books’ opening message offers a hopeful reminder of the reader’s ultimate power: “But, don’t despair. At any time, YOU can go back and make another choice, alter the path of your story, and change its result.” Reader, YOU have agency!
Another way that Jane, Unlimited queers the CYOA books is by destabilizing this confident picture of the power of personal choice. Readers are not invited to pick their own pathway through the novel, but to read all five plotlines straight through in the order that Cashore has selected. Nor can Jane “go back and make another choice”; she makes her decisions simultaneously. She does choose, but naively, not knowing that her decision creates a new universe. As Jane’s friend Kiran astutely grumbles, “People tell you that what happens to you is a direct result of the choices you make … but that’s not fair. Half the time, you don’t even realize that the choice you’re about to make is significant.”
Jane agrees with Kiran, but pensively adds, “Some things happen because we choose them.” This remark at once insists that personal choice matters to how our lives unfold and downgrades its scope, since it only extends to “some things.” Similarly, Cashore represents Jane’s fascination with umbrellas as both a personal decision and an inescapable destiny. Pondering the source of her passion, Jane questions, “Who can say how we choose our loves?” And yet, even the Jane who inhabits an umbrella-less universe winds up crafting umbrella-like lampshades, a plot point that suggests that all Janes are fated to produce “cloth shield[s] on a stick.”
Cashore’s willingness to raise but not resolve this question seems to me beautifully in line with the purposeful uncertainty built into the very concept of “queer”—which is, after all, an umbrella term that resists strict definition in order to make room for all kinds of nonnormative ways of being.
- R. A. Montgomery, Journey Under the Sea, revised edition (Chooseco, 2006), p. 42. ↩
- Wendy Pearson, “Science Fiction and Queer Theory,” in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 150. ↩
- Carolyn Dinshaw et al., “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 13, no. 2–3, 2007, p. 185. ↩
- Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press, 2011), pp. 59, 75. ↩
- Ibid., p. 72. ↩