On the launch of The ManyEnding Story, Robert Burns Fellow Kathryn van Beek reflects on what compelled her to put a new spin on a format most of us haven’t read since we were kids.
During the pandemic you look around and notice that your life is less under your control than all those American podcasts about grit and resilience have led you to believe. Things have taken a turn for the worse, but you’re pretty sure you didn’t personally do anything to bring about the global spread of a novel virus, make your geriatric cat incontinent, or start the restructure that’s turned your workplace into what feels like an elimination-based reality TV show.
At the same time, you’re studying towards a doctorate in creative writing and learning about ergodic literature: interactive narratives that involve the reader. You write the words “multiple narratives, footnotes, gamebook, concrete poetry, unconventional typesetting” and “secret path adventure” on your notepad.
You remember the pick-a-path books you read as a kid, where even the best choices could have you falling into quicksand or getting eaten by a snake – outcomes that now seem all-too-relatable. You return to your notepad and underline the words “secret path adventure”. Your fingers twitch. You want to write one of your own.
A) Write your own secret path adventure? Go to Part One.
B) Put your notepad away and return to your textbooks? You’ll never finish this thesis if you keep getting distracted. Go to Part Two.
C) Put away your notepad AND your textbooks? You really need to focus on getting a new job. Go to Part Three.
D) Decide it wouldn’t hurt to read some ergodic literature – just for fun? Go to Part Seven.
You write a nihilistic secret path short story about the Canterbury panther in which every outcome is terrible. You follow this up with another nihilistic secret path short story about a woman choosing between two romantic partners. There’s only one fairytale ending, but there’s no way to get to it (ha!). “No Happy Ending” is published in takahē magazine, but you’re not ready to let it go. It strikes you that the secret path format is perfect for exploring the tensions that face your 30-ish protagonist: the sometimes-conflicting desires and expectations around finding a partner, developing a career, owning a home, having children, and finding creative satisfaction.
A) Follow your curiosity, à la Elizabeth Gilbert? You want to see where this secret path adventure story could go. Go to Part Four.
B) Forget about your silly little story? You’ve had your fun – time to finish that doctorate. Go to Part Two.
C) Forget about your silly little story? You’ve had your fun – time to apply for a new job. Go to Part Three.
D) Procrastinate by reading some ergodic literature? Go to Part Seven.
You resolve to finish your doctorate – but as you work on your thesis, you can’t help dipping into your secret path manuscript. As interesting as it is to learn about creative activism and ecofeminism, sometimes it’s just fun to kill off a character by having them choke on a cheese roll as they flee a malevolent goose. Go to Part Four.
You jump out of the restructure and into a new job. Working during the pandemic isn’t super fun, so in the evenings you dive back into your secret path adventure story. You kill off your character by attacking them with a pack of labradoodles. And an incel. And a shark. The deaths are fun to write, and so are the romantic endings. You’re stuck in a pandemic bubble, but your character visits Rarotonga, Toronto, and the alpine town of Annecy in France. Go to Part Four.
You flesh the narrative out into a novella with 25 potential endings and call it The ManyEnding Story. It’s shortlisted for the Laura Solomon Prize. You shop it around a couple of publishers, but unsurprisingly no one’s too keen to publish a secret path adventure story for grown-ups.
A) Forget about it? You’ve had your fun. Go to Part Five.
B) Decide to publish the story online? Go to Part Six.
C) Pick up your lovely old cat and give her a cuddle? Go to Part Nine.
D) Decide to write an essay about huia instead? Go to Part Ten.
You give up on The ManyEnding Story, but then something unexpected happens. In a twist that could come straight from a secret path adventure, you learn you’ll be the 2023 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. When you begin the fellowship, you tell a lecturer about your story and his eyes light up. Ergodic literature is his jam – and he knows a student who could help you put it online using a programme called Twine. You take a look at Twine. You’re pretty sure you could figure it out yourself – it would just take a couple of weeks of swearing and crying.
A) Meet the student who could help you put The ManyEnding Story online? Go to Part Six.
B) Decide to put The ManyEnding Story online yourself? That’s a terrible idea. Go to Part Six.
You rewrite the story and work with a sensitivity reader to help ensure an ADHD storyline isn’t way off base. You collaborate with a photographer who takes dreamy photos of the Ōtepoti locations that feature in the story. (Neither of you are great drivers and a significant chunk of the photoshoot is spent backing down a steep dirt road in Pūrākaunui that turned out to be a private driveway.) And you work with Jacob, the master’s student who migrates everything into Twine. And then – it’s done!
A) Make the story free to play and share it via The Spinoff? Go to Part Eleven.
B) Write an essay about huia for The Spinoff instead? Go to Part Ten.
C) Procrastinate by reading some ergodic literature? Go to Part Seven.
It’s dark. Rooms get bigger, and then they get smaller. You walk down a corridor and come to a dead end. You turn back, only to find the corridor has transformed
what feels like
The air is stale and clammy. You hear chains being dragged across a stone floor, and feel cold breath on the back of your neck. You don’t know if you’ve been in the house of leaves for minutes or days, but one thing’s certain – you’re never going to get out.
You pick up your cat and kiss her. Instantly she is cured of her ailments and gains an additional five lives. You embark on a new career as an animal healer. You and your cat live happily ever after.
Your essay is bublished on The Spinoff! Go to Part Nine.
The ManyEnding Story goes viral and is turned into a movie, a TV series, a graphic novel, a computer game and an amusement park. With more money than you know what to do with, you buy an island – the South Island. You secede from the North Island, establish a universal basic income, and become the beloved queen of Mainlandia. But, over time, the power goes to your head. You develop some weird habits. You bathe only in the tears of rugby players, and insist upon being carried around on a palanquin. Public sentiment turns against you. Held aloft in the air, you have no protection when the assassin strikes. As the arrow enters your breast and blood drains from your body, you wish you’d simply donated your billions to Forest and Bird.
The ManyEnding Story by Kathryn van Beek is online here.