When embarking on Greg Hickey’s novel, The Friar’s Lantern, you would be forgiven for thinking you are about to start on something like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, if you just go by the title and the teaser. But it is different from Eco’s novel in every way but one; the fact that Eco’s novel is an intellectual mystery that has famously challenged readers. Hickey’s novel is that too — an intellectual mystery which challenges the reader not only in its plot and themes, but also in its form. Not to be read lightly, the novel is a rather rare thing these days, a gamebook, the correct term for what most people call a choose-your-own-adventure (or CYOA) novel. And no, this is not a book for children.
About the genre
In a gamebook the reader participates in creating the story by making choices, usually through choosing different narrative branches along numbered paths. Gamebooks in turn influenced the creation of hypertext fiction, which is a genre of electronic literature, characterized by the use of linked hypertext that provide new contexts for reader interaction. These formats gained popularity along with the growth in ebook formats and the popularity of video gaming in which, after all, every player creates their own version of the story.
Is it good?
Given all of this, the only thing you have to ask yourself is — is it a success? Does it work, in other words, does it demonstrate more than technical competence, but also an intriguing premise? Yes, Hickey’s writing style is imaginative and fluid, both when describing the setting and the characters:
“The sign on the door reads “Lauterbur State University Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Research Laboratory.” The broken-down building skulks in the shadow of the university’s football stadium at the far north end of this once-prestigious institution whose name has fallen markedly since its late-Cold War Era heyday as a bastion of scientific and technological research.
To the east of these two structures, three cars populate a 10,000-space parking lot, little islands of painted steel in a stark, asphalt ocean grid-marked by mottled and faded white lines. The stadium, Ozymandian on the bitumen shore, is beset to the north by woodlands, and here the hard blacktop, the steel girders and thick slabs of concrete devolve into dirt and dead yellow leaves and broken branches overhung by untrimmed trees and dotted with tangled bushes.
The little laboratory remains as a mere afterthought, its wearied face shrouded by the sallow, emaciated branches of a willow tree, devoid of leaves even now in mid-May, the tree dead or dying as its limbs sag down in despair to scratch the top of the building.” (p. 9)
Yes, it reads smoothly and enjoyably, but he actually managed to get this mind-bogglingly difficult structure to work. In other words — the novel is not boring. Rather the opposite, puzzling, strange and intellectually engaging.
It is the opposite of a novel where the reader is engaging with one process or story arc and the author controls the level of suspense. What allows this kind of ergodic or non-linear, reader-controlled, narrative to work, is its contrast with normal literature in most aspects. Importantly, in normal literature, “the text does not resist the reader” — but in this, it does. And with that challenge, comes a degree of freedom for the reader who can choose what to read, or skip or tarry over. The reader chooses which door to open and go through.
Famous authors have published novels with nonlinear narratives (achieved by various means) for instance James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov’s, Italo Calvino, and Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams in their novel “S.” or Ship of Theseus. And you know how I feel about Ship of Theseus…
The plot — before being manipulated
In short: A first person narrator takes part in an experiment by a “Dr. Pavlov”, which is ostensibly about determining brain function through fMRI scans. Depending on his (or her) choices during and after this experiment, he could get $1-million or just $1000 — or both. At the same time, he serves on a jury in the murder trial of a doctor, “Dr. Solon”, who killed someone in cold blood. It’s about how your sub-conscious brain function overcomes your rational decision-making. It’s also about game-theory — how you reason and make choices to get the most beneficial outcome.
The narrator, “you”, has no name, only “JPQ47” as an online chat ID. Greg Hickey explains: “…you can read the protagonist as a male or female. I chose the chat name JQP47 to stand for “John/Jane Q. Public,” i.e. a common man or woman. The number 47 echoes that idea. I went to Pomona College, which has a mythology about 47 being the most common number.”
Form and function — a tenuously balanced combination
It struck me that, on top of being a gamebook, the novel contains at least three levels of embedded narrative: it’s not only about choices and game theory — it is itself a presentation of choices. Form matching function nicely.
The themes of the novel are choices and game theory; whether it’s possible to have your behaviour decided by a purely chemical brain function, automatically, rather than by conscious deliberation. And then, which option would get you the most positive outcome. Therefore,
- the narrator has to make various choices — that’s one story;
- in the courtroom there is a second layer of story of Dr. Solon and the murder, and
- overall, the reader has to make choices every few pages so they create their own stories.
In each instance, it’s about subconscious compulsion versus rationality.
“So it’s possible to present a subject with a scenario that causes a particular brain response unbeknownst to the subject, and for that response to generate a decision a week later that differs from the decision the subject predicted he would make. Is that correct?” (p. 119)
Why tackle this type of novel? Greg Hickey says:
“The reason I chose to write the novel as a gamebook is because I thought that the structure would be an ideal fit for a novel about choice. Actually, I decided it would be fun to write a gamebook first, and then figured choice would be a perfect theme for that form. Was it more difficult to write a gamebook rather than a straightforward novel? Yes. Drawing out a story tree did help.”
The embedded narratives
The more interesting part of the novel for me was the court case where the witnesses and experts testify in the murder trial of the doctor because that’s where the “mystery” comes into it. I had to do some thinking about whether I actually believe the finding that certain of our actions are subconsciously (not consciously) predetermined and uncontrollable. And particularly how long this period of subconscious control or influence lasts.
Greg Hickey explains that the court case raises “…a two-part question: 1) what do you think about how we make decisions? and 2) how does the decision process influence moral judgments?”
The reader’s choices
Below is Hickey’s story tree for the novel (called a plot tree by author Josiah Bancroft who also uses it to construct his novels), the map of the events that unfold depending on which choice you make, usually one of 2 – “if you think so-and-so, go to page x, if you think so-and-so and so, go to page z”. I momentarily thought that if I included his story tree in this post, it would spoil the ending for the reader. But then I remembered that for every reader the ending would be different, since their paths to get to the ending would be different.
Every time I did this, I got a worrying F.O.M.O sensation and I admit that the first time I got to the end, I paged back and did some random browsing. There were, indeed, incidents and conversations that I had not read, due to my choices. So I actually have a number of other versions of this novel to work through, choosing different doors to open this time.
The meaning of the title
I puzzled for a while over the title, which, considering the subject, seemed a bit incongruous. But Hickey says he meant the “the friar’s lantern” as a synonym for ignis fatuus, jack-o’-lantern or will-o’-the-wisp, a ghostly light seen by travellers over swamps and marshes at night. “Folklore warns travellers to beware this light, since following it could lead them away from the safe path and onto unstable ground. Likewise, the title cautions readers of The Friar’s Lantern to find stable footing as they move through the novel’s different paths, especially when it comes to the possible illusion that you can freely choose.”
This is the first time I have read a novel — a gamebook — where the onus of making meaning out of the novel shifts so greatly to the side of the reader (notwithstanding the huge amount of work on the part of the author). It is a demonstration of the principle that a relationship exists not so much between writers and their readers, as between readers and the writers’ texts:
“The reader, when making sense of a literary text, becomes the co-creator of it because the text consists of the subject, and the words – and their meaning; thus: 1) content, 2) form and 3) interpretation by the reader. And that is a serious responsibility. The reader reads and in doing so attributes his own meaning to a text, and also the meaning that can be derived from the context of the text. There is no one accepted meaning, and no one universally accepted take or judgment of a text, but many different individual meanings.” (Marina le Roux, literary critic)
This happens in all works of fiction, but more than ever in a gamebook. If you, dearest reader, want to be free to choose your plots, twists and endings, if you want to get busy with a book rather than letting it drift over you and sink into your mind — read this. It’s like a gym workout for your brain.
About Greg Hickey
Greg Hickey has been an author since 2008. He lives in Chicago, USA, with his wife, Lindsay. He was a Forensic Scientist with the Illinois State Police for seven years. He has a BA in Philosophy from Pomona College (“…which has a mythology about 47 being the most common number.”) He has an MS in Forensic Science, from the University of Illinois at Chicago. That explains quite a lot about the mystery novels that he writes. He wrote the early drafts of his first screenplay Vita during his last two years of college. Vita went on to win an Honorable Mention award in the 2010 Los Angeles Movie Awards script competition and was named a finalist in the 2011 Sacramento International Film Festival.
His first novel, Our Dried Voices was published in 2014 and was a finalist for the Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Science Fiction Book of the Year.
“Today, I still love sharing stories while staying busy with the other facets of my life. I am a forensic scientist by day and endurance athlete and author by nights, lunches, weekends and any other spare moments. After my post-college travels, I am back in my hometown of Chicago with my wife, Lindsay.” – Greg Hickey on greghickeywrites.com