In the battered-fish air of Brighton, a young girl returns home to a family she barely knows. The lowliest of the Frowns, Wanda lives with them practically as a lodger and fears more than anything the encroaching sense that she is the mere congealing of their thoughts and behaviour. As she fears her distant and frosty mother, she feels she is powerless to stop from becoming a copy.
But a peculiar incident at the end of the garden awakens her to the forking paths of her life and the moments of choice which lie at their crooks. Wanda can become a being of her own making, with these paths, if only she is brave enough to pick one.
A few years ago I set to wondering what the ‘infinite book’ described in Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ might look like if it were made, a journey which is changeable and which engages the reader through that power to change, and within which it’s even possible to become lost. These days such a story could be imagined in various technological ways, for instance through hypertext, but I thought it would be all the more magical if an approximation of this idea could be made in just pages and words – Borges’s ‘labyrinth of symbols’. His character Dr Albert says in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’:
In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the impossible-to-disentangle Ts’ui Pen, the character chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates, thereby, ‘several futures’, several times, which themselves proliferate and fork.
The obvious model is the gamebook – those generally goblin-filled ‘choose your own adventure’ novels popular in the ’80s where the reader is presented with opportunities to go to certain pages according to the choice he or she would make. But I wanted my story to work differently in two ways: firstly I didn’t want the act of choosing to in turn deny the unchosen parts of the story to the reader, where he or she might finish it without having read huge swathes of the text (and I wanted to do this without simply presenting different orderings of the same material, which would make the choices seem arbitrary); secondly I didn’t want the mechanics of all this to distract from the story itself.
The first of these initially seemed impossible, but Dr Albert was again useful:
Once in a while, the paths of the labyrinth converge: for example, you come to this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another my friend.
The key is context. The meaning of a piece of text is derived as much from the context one has when reading it as from the words themselves. I thought that it must therefore be possible for a piece of text, if written in a very particular way, to lend itself to certain different meanings. The context of a section of text is set through the preceding section, so if the sections can be reordered and the context switched then that would draw different meanings out of the same words. One book becomes many books. In practice this emerges less in long passages where every word is some kind of pun and more in scattered signs which entrench the reality of a particular reading, phrases which the reader may not think twice about having come from one chapter but which will ring with meaning if coming from a different chapter. It can be visualised of as a sort of literary duckrabbit.
For the challenge of avoiding the ‘If you would like to slay the Bubonic Faery Queen, turn to page 52’ convention, each of the novel’s chapters is allocated to a symbol, and this symbol appears alongside certain possibilities. Each chapter is a day in length and the possibilities which arise in the ‘decision moments’ concern what Wanda might do tomorrow, in the next chapter. From the end of each chapter it is possible to go to one of three others, including simply the following chapter. A structure was designed which would prevent the reader from finding herself presented only with three options to which she has already been, and I then reorganised this visually into the image on the right. I wanted it to look like a labyrinth. This image appears at one point in the novel and, depending on the reader’s/Wanda’s choices leading up to it, emerges as either a pendant, a painting, or a tattoo.
But all of this only matters in the context of a story which is itself about choice and whether or not it is truly possible. We can’t help but wonder if we are nothing more than the product of the history of where we are from, and more often we can’t help but wonder if we are turning into our parents. What is choice when our desires have been handed to us by those who went before. This is one of the oldest questions, both in the sense of our theological history (‘How can free will be reconciled with predestination?’), philosophical history (‘Are we free actors or predetermined?’), and in the idea of the family (‘Did I just make exactly the joke my dad would have made?’).
The Tumbler is not truly infinite, of course. The number of permutations will be very large but not endless, and in this sense the limitations of the labyrinth, it could be argued, mirror the limitations of the ‘choice’ we exercise in our lives. The labyrinth is a very ancient metaphor for life itself.
The Tumbler is a novel about choice and whether we can transcend our very human doubts over its possibility.
The hills rear for a final downward sweep as buildings now cling to their curves, chattering up in terraced rows, watered at the roots by newsagents, pubs, the minor hubs of this brick and chip-fat sprawl. The road shrinks to the aching single file of town traffic, stop-go-stopping along a veinal drag to the centre. Smells clamour into the coach, the spitting grease-trough tangs of takeaways, the musty hops of discarded means-to-an-end beer cans, the nicotine fogs outside the snooker hall, the betting shop, The Crown and Anchor, The Hare and Hounds, The Druids Arms, The Hobgoblin, The King and Queen.
With another wheeze of the brakes, the coach halts for Wanda to observe a pensioner in a multicoloured tracksuit urinate against a wheelie bin. He stands on its far side looking straight ahead, eyes languid, utterly calm, as though he is a nylon buffalo and the coach’s broad flank is the day, his whole life, perhaps, passing untouchably before him. As dark pools well out from either side of the bin and passersby track perfect semicircles around him, Wanda is enveloped in his gaze and wants to move deeper into it. But the coach rolls on.