Beside Myself, an interactive novel by Jeff Gomez (Apple - November, 2012)
What if each time you opened or shut a door on a life choice, an alternate self made the opposite choice, and lived that different version of your life in parallel to you? This is the question at the heart of Jeff Gomez’s cleverly engineered ‘interactive novel’, in which form perfectly matches narrative content.
Gomez has designed his novel for the iPad. This does not mean that, occasionally, a nice image pops up, or that there is a flash of music every so often (although there is that too). It means that the novel becomes a world to explore; where reading the novel from beginning to end is only one option in that exploration. There are various ways to interact with this novel: rearrange the narrative segments so that you can create a whole new story sequence; choose your own narrator; read all three narrators at the same time in a split screen; take the same tests and quizzes that the characters do; and even email the characters. I don’t know if the characters email back. I was too much of a coward to test that one. Not because I am a luddite—but because the plot of the book, in which strange emails are exchanged with a mysterious character, makes one suspicious.
And it is that fusion between the plot of the book and its form which makes Beside Myself more than just a pretty toy. The story is about a Jeff Gomez who has made various life choices and discovers that different versions of himself have continued along the roads he didn’t take, meaning that he now exists in multiple versions. Two of these other multiple versions are also narrators. The reader must choose between those narrators, and which narrative events will take prominence. The notion of the multiple personality and life choice in the story is therefore captured in the form in which Gomez chooses to tell it, reinforcing the narrative.
Pleasingly, the novel is not all special effects. The story itself is a thoughtful, and often gripping, account of the human choices that face many of us: whether to have children; whether to stay in a loveless marriage; whether to sacrifice urban glitz for suburban space. In the novel, each of the Gomezes follows a different route, and the results are interesting. Add to that the odd conspiracy theory, the risk of identity theft, marital intrigue, and lots of fun Raymond Chandler references, and you have a solid novel.
But then take away from a novel its solidity, or its structure, and what are you left with? For a purist, the idea that chapters in a novel can be reordered might suggest that the structure is not sound, as each ought to be a progression from the previous one. The point of this particular novel is, of course, that you can vary the structure and see if it still works. This is as interesting a test of a reader as it is of a writer. I started off reading the novel straight through, then read it with various segments in different orders, or with a different ending. I found that however many ways I read it, I was still trying to put it back into the same order as the original, trying to work out how the order had been before. The original and therefore ‘best’ plot progression was imprinted in my head, and everything I read subsequently was informed by it. I also found myself very confused about who was who – you have to concentrate when there are three characters (or character fragments) called Jeff, all narrating in the first person. Even more confusing when the author is also Jeff Gomez and is cameoing as a version of himself. It’s possible the confusion is an intentional additional element of the novel: where the subject matter is identity confusion and investigation of the self, why should the reader not also share the protagonists’ confusion?
The ‘real life’ Jeff Gomez has tried to move on perceptions of digital novels from thinking of them as just ‘toys.’ There is certainly an element of game-play and puzzle about Beside Myself, and I confess I did think of it initially as a book-lover’s toy, with form being more intriguing than narrative. However, with Goldsmiths just having announced a new award for ‘innovative fiction’ which explores new possibilities for the novel form, approaches like Gomez’s must soon become more prized. As this happens, they will no doubt mature. Certain elements that felt gimmicky, or not fully explored, here (such as the ‘add on’ alternate endings which weren’t developed through the piece as a whole) will in time mature.
For now, whether toy or novel, Beside Myself is certainly worth a download.
More information about Beside Myself is available on the website and it can be purchased from the Apple App Store.