Choosing your own erotic destiny, or trying to.
A few nights ago, I was in a world-class sushi restaurant, holding a radish shaped like a rose and contemplating my next move. Koji, the head chef, had carved the radish-rose for me moments ago, after a game of strip poker that ended with him fucking me in the dining room. Earlier that night, I’d adjourned to a lavish hotel suite to suck tequila from a rock star’s navel; a renowned fashion photographer had taken pictures of my genitals and gone down on me in his darkroom, where I’d blurted without thinking, “God, I’m so wet!”; and I’d indulged in a little tasteful S&M with my friend’s older boss, spanking his firm, muscled, George Clooney-ish buttocks with a schoolteacher’s ruler.
Now I felt trapped, denatured, and sort of bored.
A Girl Walks into a Bar is a new choose-your-own-adventure-style erotic novel in which “YOU make the decisions.” YOU, in this case, was me—I was calling the shots in this vale of thrills. I’d picked up Girl in pursuit of cheap gender-bending laughs, but I also had what you might charitably call an anthropological curiosity. In the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey, I wanted to see: What did a mainstream erotic novel look like?
Written by three South African women under the pseudonym Helena S. Paige, A Girl Walks into a Bar markets itself as an empowerment agent. “YOUR FANTASY, YOUR RULES. YOU DECIDE HOW THE NIGHT WILL END,” its cover says. (Another new novel with a similar conceit, Follow Your Fantasy, suggests, “Even if you choose submission, the control is still all yours.”) But by promising refuge for the powerless, the publishers reveal something much sadder—the subtext of these proclamations is that control, especially for women, is simply too hard to come by in the real world. One might as well get one’s kicks elsewhere. When you print “YOU DECIDE HOW THE NIGHT WILL END” on the front of a work of fiction, you imply that women are not often afforded the pleasure of doing so.
Unfortunately, they’re not afforded that pleasure here, either. On the face of it, the choose-your-own-adventure format seems like an ideal vehicle for erotica—it frees you from the shackles of linear storytelling, allowing you to choose the road less traveled, the orifice less penetrated, whatever—but in practice, it’s more claustrophobic than a conventional erotic novel would be. Someone else has invented all the prompts. What you can’t do becomes just as central to the experience as what you can; you’re more aware of the narrative cage when its nuts and bolts are exposed.
And so the book, nominally a tribute to free will, ends up enforcing a kind of erotic determinism. The fantasy isn’t yours at all—from page one, you’re predestined to act within its narrow parameters. The first choice you’re given, for instance: What kind of underwear do you want to put on before you go out on the town? You can choose a purple lacy G-string, “granny panties,” control-top underwear, or nothing at all. No matter what, though, you’ll end up in the purple G-string; pick any of the others and you’re greeted with a page of awkward exposition, the upshot of which is, you didn’t really want that, anyway.
Well, of course you didn’t. The authors will need to mention your underwear in later chapters, and they can’t produce four panty-dependent iterations of the same scene. Which makes you wonder: why bother to provide the illusion of a choice you intend to deny?
When it comes to the lovemaking itself, things are even more vexed. Tired mores come into play. In one scenario, Charlie, the drummer for “the Space Cowboys”—you’re spared, mercifully, the option of perusing their discography—invites you into his shower, which offers an enchanting view of the skyline. He asks you, gently, to pee on him. Not only are you denied the choice to say yes—you’re not permitted to decline gracefully. “You thought that was something people only did if they’d been stung by jellyfish.” Your only recourse is to sneak out, “laughing hysterically as you picture Charlie turning into a prune in the shower.”
That is not my fantasy.
Likewise, when Miles, he of the Clooney-ish bod, asks you to insert a ridged dildo in him, your assent leads only to a rebuke from the authors: “Noooooooooooooooooooo! Are you out of your mind? No way are you doing that!”
The last thing Girl really wants is for you to let your imagination run wild. The book presents itself as transgressive, but it delights in telling you how far you should want to go. Even among consenting adults, it suggests, there are certain thresholds one must not cross. And it’s not just your sexual palate that’s vanilla: Given the chance to try tuna eyeballs, a Japanese delicacy, your only response is, “That’s just too disgusting for words!”
* * *
The Choose Your Own Adventure concept was invented by Edward Packard; when he was telling his daughters a bedtime story, he found himself low on ideas, and asked them what should happen next. He wrote the first book in the series, The Cave of Time, published in 1979; the novels went on to sell more than 250 million copies, launching a long fascination with interactive entertainment: interactive movies, interactive video games, and plenty of interactive erotica.
The choose-your-own conceit is intuitive for kids, who have a nascent, flexible sense of themselves, and for whom the power to decide, even between simple binaries, can yield a deep satisfaction. And it has an understandable appeal for adults, who may yearn to escape, particularly sexually, from the people they’ve become. But it also reminds me of why the second-person perspective is such a literary gambit: its persistent you is unusually invasive. And if you don’t like who you are, it can come to feel like a bad body swap.
In A Girl Walks Into a Bar, my persona frustrated and disquieted me. I was not the kind of woman I wanted to be. I was materialistic: “You’re sure one of these is worth the GDP of a small country.” “You tap glasses and take a sip. It’s good. Tastes expensive.” “You’ve always wanted a chandelier in your bathroom.” And I’d cultivated no interests or skills; I’d learned them all from men. Though I could identify, and drive, a sleek, limited-edition sports car, “you only recognize it because one of your exes … subjected you to thousands of hours of sports-car porn.”
And then there was my taste in partners. My new you, my me, lusted only for trysts with wealthy, banal, hyperbolically successful, presumably white men. (The novel grants you the chance for a lesbian tryst, but the whole affair is pretty vanilla, and peppered with self-congratulation: “You have to admit that you’re fascinated. And her boobs are absolutely luscious.”)
I was plunged into an oubliette of rock-hard cocks, rippling abs, and oceanic orgasms. My night came to seem like one protracted counterfactual. It was everything I never would’ve done; it was everything I did. You’ve decided to take a shower with a rock star. You’ve decided to share a taxi with the sexy older guy. You decide to go with the bodyguard on his mysterious errand.
For readers of any age, gender, or sexual orientation, A Girl Walks into a Bar is a master class in one of life’s hardest lessons: no matter how many options you think you have, total control is always beyond your grasp. There are limits to who you can be. You may never pee on anyone. You may never eat the eyeballs or fuck an interesting person. You will always be constrained by life’s purple G-string.
But for Girl’s perceived readership, I admit, that might be the point: to uphold convention, to flirt with the unknown while still clinging to all that’s safe and solid. The original Choose Your Own Adventure novel boasted more than forty endings; this book has only two. In the first, you go home, make some popcorn—“the buttered kind, you’ve earned it”—and watch Bridget Jones’s Diary in your pajamas. In the second, you tuck yourself into bed with a vibrator. That’s your binary. You can watch TV or you can masturbate. Either decision yields the same final sentences: “Life is good. In fact, it doesn’t get better than this.” Let’s hope it does.