Think back to the worst relationship you were ever in. The one full of shouting matches and long separations; the one where you were taken advantage of over and over; the one you both clung to for far too long. Remember how it felt as though your fate had been taken completely out of your hands? That whatever decision you made, your story was hurtling unstoppably in one direction—toward disaster?
Only the very lucky or very chaste have never been trapped in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship, a love/hate affair in which each partner brings out the worst in the other. If you’re lucky, you survive and advance from those relationships to other, better partnerships—though you never quite forget how trapped you felt. And sometimes, when the rest of your life is feeling a bit rote and boring, you can almost fool yourself into thinking the excitement was worth it.
A unique short novel published recently by an anonymous author in Portland, Ore., captures that mixture of exhilaration and dread with an expertise drawn from hard experience. Titled Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life, it tells the story of your stormy four-year relationship with Anne, a hard-drinking cellist. Why “your” relationship? Because Love Is Not Constantly cleverly adopts the structure and second-person voice of Choose Your Own Adventure novels, those interactive kids’ books of the 1980s.
The CYOA books sold 250 million copies in their heyday, and even now many readers will find the familiar cover design of Love Is Not Constantly instantly evocative, right down to the perfect cover image of insectoid warriors and space explorers. (The illustrations throughout are by Sarah Miller.) Plenty of other books have appropriated the CYOA model, from contemporaneous kid-lit ripoffs to Escape From Fire Island!, a ribald zombie drag queen comedy. But Love Is Not Constantly undercuts the CYOA structure in a fascinating way: by making choice irrelevant.
The book opens with a familiar disclaimer:
But from there, the message gets weird:
These pages contain one adventure about the time you, a guy who does not care for drinking, dated an alcoholic. It is also about crashing on a planet of giant malevolent space ants. From time to time as you read along you will be asked to make a choice. Your choice will have no meaningful impact on anything that happens. So this will all make a lot more sense if you just read it from beginning to end.
Indeed, as you read the book, you’ll see that the choices you’re offered have little to do with the story of your relationship with Anne. Each entry is dated, so on April 22, 2005, the day you finally convince Anne to end a six-and-a-half-month drinking binge, you’re offered, at the bottom of the page, the following choices, both of which simply lead you to other days with Anne:
If you tell the other captives to follow you into the cave of Ant-Warrior nutrient pools, turn to August 18, 2006
If you would rather have them follow you into the hall of discarded carapaces, turn to December 8, 2005
The answer, of course, is that you should dump Anne before it’s too late. But the absurd options the book gives “you”— later “choices” include dueling with an Ant-Warrior, or attacking the Evil Power Master—simply highlight the completely screwed-up perspective of the co-dependent. When I was stuck in one of those terrible relationships, and friends told me it was time to break it off, I looked at them as if they were crazy—as if the options they were offering had so little to do with my actual situation they were functionally useless.
And in Love Is Not Constantly, the choices, such as they are, don’t lead anywhere. The CYOA books had multiple endings, some of them tragic but some of them happy, in which you won the Grand Prix or discovered the Lost City of Gold. In this book, you can stumble through time, moving from terrible day to terrible day, but there are no endings— or rather, you’re headed inexorably toward the only ending, the end of the book, the shitty way your relationship with Anne concludes. That’s it.
A clever structure, no matter how potent its metaphor, wouldn’t make for a satisfying reading experience if the book’s story wasn’t itself compelling. Luckily, the ennervating romance of “you” and Anne is depicted with rigorous realism. Anne is a kind of manic pixie nightmare girl, a free spirit who stays up late to watch meteor showers, tries to sneak backstage at a Flaming Lips concert, and fascinates you by talking like “an unholy amalgam of Tori Amos and Muhammad Ali.” But from the beginning the warning signs are there. On your 24th birthday, Anne—then your girlfriend of three months—shows up at the bar drunk and disorderly. “You always knew,” the narrator muses, “there would be consequences to dating someone who considers Courtney Love to be her role model”:
In theory it seemed great. All excitement and adventure and fuck yous. Which, some of the time, it is. But you think about tonight, and how embarrassed you feel to have this happen in front of your friends. And all you can see is a future of her showing up trashed for your daughter’s sweet sixteen party and musical collaborations with Billy Corgan and probably a lot of somehow even worse things that you can’t even imagine.
Other times, though, you worry that you’re not keeping up your side of the relationship, and sometimes you don’t. You make foolish decisions; you’re careless with birth control and cavalier about the consequences. But sometimes you simply fall into the trap of faulting yourself for someone else’s terrible behavior: “The truth is you are cold and unemotional and distant when Anne needs to be close to you,” you think a year into the relationship. “Maybe if you were willing to open your heart a little she wouldn’t need to drink so much in the first place.”
You will stay with Anne for years, through a cross-country move, an unwanted pregnancy, court appearances, any number of awful fights, and a hair-raising scene of near-asphyxiation. Never will you make the choice that you should have made from Day 1. Since I found the book in the Zines section of a bookstore in Portland, I’ve been haunted by an early scene in which you and Anne try and save money by sleeping in Anne’s car. You have no blankets and no pillows, it’s freezing outside, and you are up the whole night shivering. You watch Anne curled up in the back seat, asleep, her breath visible in the sodium lights of the Dunkin Donuts parking lot. “You are very cold,” you think, “and this feels like an adventure.”
Love Is Not Constantly is credited simply to “the author,” but was written, it turns out, by Zach, a 33-year-old in Portland who works as a sleep-disorder researcher. (“I’m the guy who covers people with wires and watches them sleep. It’s a great job because it gives me plenty of time to read. Although I am perpetually tired.”) On the phone, Zach is soft-spoken and upfront about the fact that nearly everything in the book comes from his real, catastrophic relationship with a real Anne. He told me he’d rather I didn’t use his full name. “Part of it is I don’t want my family to know that I wrote this, or really, anything,” he says. “My parents are awesome, but there are just certain aspects of my life, like almost all of it, that I would rather they not be involved in.” He also doesn’t want people trying to track down Anne or her family.
Zach wrote the book for two audiences. There were friends who knew him while he was dating Anne. “A lot of them were thinking the whole time, What the fuck is Zach doing?” He wanted to show them the good times along with the bad—the excitement that went hand in hand with the mess. As for friends who never knew Anne, he found it useful to “tell everyone at once why I don’t really enjoy drinking.” He wrote it in the CYOA style, he said, in part to explore the helplessness he felt in those days, but also because he doesn’t consider himself a particularly good writer, so he wanted a format that would allow him to tell the story in short, easy-to-manage chunks.
Zach published the book last fall and has sold 750 copies; a friend’s small press is handling the third printing. Now he’s working on a zine series called “A Field Guide to the Aliens of Star Trek: The Next Generation,” written in the voice of a sci-fi-obsessed middle-schooler. “I’m really interested in autobifictionalography,” he said. “That’s what Lynda Barry writes. Everything in there is true, but not necessarily factual.”
Zach may not feel confident about his talent, but Love Is Not Constantly is a small masterpiece of twentysomething romantic trauma – a book with real clarity of vision that reads, at times, like a horror story. Its formal inventiveness, its anonymous author, and its cheeky packaging all make for a richer reading experience. “I don’t want to just write a book,” Zach told me. “I want people to pick it up and say, What the fuck is this?”
See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.