Life’s Lottery, Kim Newman

Simon & Schuster UK, 1999, 488 pages, C$42.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-84016-2

You’re at a book sale. You see a new book by Kim Newman. You’re intrigued, because Newman has produced exceptional work before (the Anno Dracula trilogy, etc.) and you’re curious to see what else he’s written since then. Reading the book jacket copy, you’re even more intrigued, because the book seems to be a “choose your own adventure” type of novel. How quaint! Good chunks of your early teenhood were spent “playing” with such books. Before you moved on to other things. You wonder what a gifted writer would be able to do with that format. The book, a British first edition hardcover, is cheap; you buy it.

Months later, you fish the book out of your “to read” pile and dive in. From the onset, this is clearly not a juvenile piece of fiction. The first chapter is laced with allusions to free will, choice and constant death. You’re Keith Marion, a middle-class English boy. This book is your life. Your lives, rather. By the end of the second chapter, you’re already faced with a choice. A seemingly innocuous question which will determine your path through life. Answer one way, go to Chapter 2, and you may live to know romantic entanglements, success beyond measure and bizarre life replays. Answer another, go to chapter 3, and your life will be dedicated to revenge.

You answer and read about the consequences. But more choices are available to you. By now, you have remembered your teenhood “interactive novels” routine and started mapping your choices using pen and paper. Soon, you’re paging through the book forward and back, going from chapter to chapter to choose how the story will end. After a few chapters, you meet a painful death. You go back up a node in the tree of fate and try again. And so on. You die often, but just as often you’re left to contemplate unpleasant “and so on” lives of fixed patterns.

This may have started by reminding you of your teenage years, but Life’s Lottery is different. Unlike the simple mostly-linear branchings of those early novels, Life Lottery pulls no stops in presenting radically different lives for Keith Marion. Pretty soon, your first sheet of paper is full and you must use another one to chart the choices available to you. Your life (or is it Keith’s life?) can be a mystery, or a thriller, or a romantic drama, or science-fiction. Characters you think you know in one way can reappear in other lives in various roles, from friend to villain, wife to murderess.

You realize that Keith’s life may be open to choices, but your perception of the book is shaped by your own reading. You may read all possible permutations, but it’s still going to be affected by your first run-through. Some elements are explained here, but not there. Mary will always be a dangerous murderess first, because you first saw her as a danger, whereas another initial path may have made her seem more pleasant.

Without meaning to, you’re caught up in the book. You read it in two days, playing with the stories as much as Newman is playing with you. There are incredible tricks in the novel, from “replays” to parallel fates to false choices to delicious hints of deep-seated horror underlying the concept. You develop an understanding of the story that resembles a fractal, or a hologram; meta-personalities emerge.

The novel also starts working on you. Forces you to consider your life and the choice you’ve made. You think this is one of the best things you’ve read in a while. Certainly one of the most original books in your collection. You finish the book, but the book isn’t finished with you.

You go on-line and seek other reactions. You’re not alone. You learn that the book was never republished in America. You learn that the narrator of the novel is featured in another novel by Newman. You find that other readers were similarly affected by the book.

Something still nags at you. You pull together your complete map of the book and start striking numbers off a list of numbers from 1 to 300. Something is left; a hidden path inside Keith’s lives, an Easter egg. You read the sequence and discover a wonderful framing sequence that (somewhat) ties it together. You consider whether this harms or strengthens the novel, and come to love it without reservations. You wonder if you should include the chapters number sequence of this hidden scenario in your review.

You finally decide against it. Some choices should be left to others.

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