Reviews: Arcadia by Iain Pears and Caroline Smaile’s 99 Reasons Why
Multiple choice reading for the digital generation: ebooks that facilitate structural experimentation
‘One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with,” Flann O’Brien declared in the opening of his 1939 classic At Swim-Two-Birds. “A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.” O’Brien was simultaneously abdicating and reinforcing authorial responsibility for the comic complexities of his rambling storyline.
The slippery structure of O’Brien’s masterpiece comes to mind when beginning Iain Pears’s latest fictional outing, Arcadia (Faber/Touchpress, iTunes, €3.99), a literary app written for digital devices. Unlike most interactive ebooks, which enhance the reading experience through multimedia immersion, Arcadia does not offer any extratextual elements. Instead, it allows the reader to engage with the multilayered narrative in whatever way they choose: essentially to create the structure of the book for themselves. The opening page offers readers a choice to follow one of 10 characters, whose stories overlap in various ways. The app allows you to keep track of which chapters, in whose lives, you have already read, by way of a map that doubles as a contents page. The characters include academic turned detective Henry Lytten; his student Jay; or Rosie or Angela, minor characters in Lytten’s story, but central players in their own complex lives.
As Pears explained in the Guardian newspaper, “Minor characters can become major ones at will, and central characters become bystanders.” The order of reading presents interesting variations on cause and effect. Who is really in control of the story? As it turns out, it’s you, the reader.
Pears is no novice when it comes to structural experimentation. He is best-known for the historical thriller An Instance of the Fingerpost, which tells the same story from four different points of view. His most recent historical mystery, Stone’s Fall, told three stories backwards.
In Arcadia, the writing is assured, and Pears quickly draws the reader in with short, episodic chapters that quickly invite you on to the next section: if anything, the 10 opening scenarios are each so compelling that it would be easy to read them as 10 linear stories, though boredom would surely settle in as you repeatedly approached areas where the story converges. Arcadia suffers slightly from some confusion in tone due to the competing worlds that Pears sets in motion: some of the storylines have a distinct historical bent, others a futuristic flavour, others again a mythical quality.
This criticism is not app-specific, however, and could similarly apply if you are reading a hardback copy of the book (£18.99). Yes, Faber has also published Arcadia in traditional format, though, as at runs to only 180,000 words, Pears has shaved 70,000 words from the text, and, of course, you are more inclined to read the text as presented.
Caroline Smaile’s 99 Reasons Why: Or How Not to Steal a Child in Multiples of Eleven (Harper Collins, £0.99) takes a different approach to Flann O’Brien’s dictum. Here, the reader is given responsibility for how the book ends. It is a contemporary take on the Choose Your Own Adventure model of children’s fiction that reached the peak of its popularity in the 1980s. Smaile wrote the book specifically as an ebook, however, to take advantage of digital books’ potential for narrative experimentation.
99 Reasons Why is narrated by 22-year-old Kate, a young woman with obvious learning difficulties, who lives on a council estate with her parents. She spends her days in her bedroom looking out the window and charting the activities of the pre-school across the road, taking notes for her uncle Phil, who may or not be a paedophile. The world is a disturbing one: eating disorders are status symbols, celebrities are worshipped for the style in which they wear their pubic hair, a young woman such as Kate can ask her mother to abduct a child for her and she will do it. Smaile convincingly evokes the voice of this damaged woman who thinks she is Princess Diana’s secret child, but it is a grim environment to be immersed in. Mercifully, the chapters are short and the reading of it swift.
The abduction and fate of the infant girl are the focus of the final authorial manipulation. Where a traditional edition would allow the reader to flip between endings or even cheat, by reading all 11 conclusions in a linear fashion, the e-book form allows Smaile to offer endings by way of permutation: at the end of the book’s 98 chapters, you are asked a series of multiple choice questions, the answers to which determine the story’s end. There are nine potential endings available through the e-book, with a further two available on Smaile’s website. The potential endings are quirkily titled like the individual chapters: “the reason why there could only ever be one ending”, “the reason why me life’s a fairytale and we all lived happily ever after”, “the reason why me life’s gone all Agatha Christie.” The way in which the endings are offered, however, kill the suspense and take the reader out of the story entirely; this is even more so if you choose the versions offered on her website.
The narrative device on which 99 Reasons Why depends comes across as little more than a gimmick. If readers could write their own ending, well that would make its digital agenda a little more convincing.