My thoughts on Jason Shiga's Meanwhile

For reasons that hopefully become clear soon, I recently got interested in choose your own path style books. After some searching I found a few modern specimens that seemed interesting. Those were Scott King's The Eye of Hastur, a joyful self published horror comedy with a Lovecraftian setting and Jason Shinga's Meanwhile. For now I spent more time with the later one.

A choose your path graphical novel

Different from your gamebooks or yore, Meanwhile is a graphical novel. This essentially boils down to the book being a big flowchart with comic panels as the nodes. Page changes are achieved via an index card like system. This system makes backtracking a bit tricky, but since starting from the beginning is quite quick this is seldom a problem. A lot of the artistry of the book lies in the layout of the pages. Jason is well aware that the reader will skim parts of the page that are not along their current path and the pages are filled with hints and red herrings.

A not-not meta-meta story

It's probably no big surprise that the nature of choice is a central motive of the story. The graphical format is often used to great effect in this regard. I was especially delighted by the simulation of a random coin toss. The book also manages to avoid the biggest cliches of the subject. Never is the reader addressed and no big "Choice is just an illusion am-I-right?" lesson is given. The foreword mentions that the problem of optimaly placing the panels on the page s is NP hard and the actual story is not less technical.

Reading Meanwhile is somewhat similar to playing an exploration video game. As one restarts and backtracks one discovers new aspects of the story which often change the meaning of earlier passes. During this one forms an understanding of the overall story until one reaches a point that is clearly an end. This is where, at least for me, the book fell a bit onto its nose. While I have an understanding of what is going on, I'm not sure if this makes actual causal sense, or is something that only works because of the multiple passes through the story. Detangling everything would probably be a bit of extra work.

What surprised me, however, was how absurd and dark the story becomes. This was the first time I read anything by Jason Shiga. I now read his earlier work Fleep and parts of Daemon and I'm no longer surprised. All of those comics have a small concepts in their core and take it as far as possible, without taking human suffering too serious.

Overall, I really enjoyed Meanwhile. The choose your own path element is neither a gimmick, nor the only compelling aspect. Unfortunately, the world of choos your own path books not intended for children seems to be a small one. Unfortunately, because Meanwhile certainly didn't finish exploring the possibility of this medium.

If you have any comments I would be happy to either get them via email to 'gemini@otrn.org' or read about them on your gemlog.

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