Book #64: To Be or Not to Be (2013)

tobeornottobeauthor: Ryan North
language: English
length: 768 pages (but not read all of them, technically)
finished the main story on: 5 July 2014

This rang a bell when I saw it in another of the recent Humble Bundle offerings. I think I remembered seeing the Kickstarter for it briefly and then forgetting about it. Now there’s a trend and a half, Kickstarter – more and more books and movies seem to be getting funded that way after publishers tell the authors where to stick their manuscripts (I’ve listened to at least one more audiobook since reading this that was also funded by Kickstarter).

But I digress. Ryan North is the author of Dinosaur Comics, which is relatively famous among people that spend a lot of time on the internet, and he had the brainwave recently to rewrite Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a Choose Your Own Adventure style novel, with the choice of three characters you can “play” as. I’ve had only limited experience with Choose Your Own Adventure, I should note: I got two “gamebooks” based on Lemmings (they were CYOA books with the added use of dice) when I was in primary school, and at the time they were my favourites, although now I realize that in several ways they were fundamentally flawed. But this review is not about them.

Rewritings on Shakespeare in modern colloquial prose have, I’m sure, been attempted before, and so have CYOA adventures for an adult audience, but North takes both onto a whole new scale – he said in a video about the book that he found a whole new way of constructing a narrative, and I’d love to know what he actually meant by that. That said, I haven’t read any of either genre, making this a doubly new experience for me.

North’s prose is snappy and chirpy for most of the book, and he tends to quote the more important soliloquies verbatim for good measure. The canonical decisions made by the characters in the real Hamlet are marked with little skulls, so that one can follow them to see the real story. North openly makes fun of the decisions the characters make, and sometimes the decisions that Shakespeare made when writing the play, often deliberately viewing them through a modern lens to highlight how things have changed in the past 400 years. For instance, Ophelia’s choices at the beginning are mocked thoroughly, and when Hamlet gets depressed and starts wondering how to kill his uncle, it several times offers to let you grab a gun and blow a hole through his brain, cutting the story time in half. There’s also an extended scene describing how Hamlet fights pirates on the way to England, which was only mentioned off-hand in the play, and North chastises Shakespeare for not bothering with it – of course, pirates are much more of an attractive theme in the modern world.

Where the book really shines, however, are the sections where North lets his imagination run wild and completely diverge from the canonical plot of Hamlet. He reimagines Ophelia as a strong, independent woman, for instance, as long as you don’t choose the canonical plot, in which she’s weak and subservient at best, and you can also play as the ghost of Hamlet’s father and have various adventures.

It also has nice illustrations every time you get an ending, which encourages you to find as many endings as possible (this is in contrast to the gamebooks I mentioned before, and other traditional CYOA books, which have a very linear storyline and a defined goal). I should also mention at this point that this kind of book is very well suited to the ebook format, especially if you have a touchscreen. I read it using my phone’s Kindle app, since my actual Kindle has broken, and it was very easy to navigate by touching the little links rather than flipping back and forth to different pages, as if I was navigating a website rather than a book.

I don’t really have enough space to say many more positive things about this book. I also liked the fact that it was easy to pick up and put down at random, as reading one story branch to conclusion tends not to take that long. But it’s still a very dense book, and I guess my main criticism is that I got a bit bored of trying to find new storylines, and I wanted to move on to reading other books as well. I listed the book as “finished” when I completed the canon storyline, but I’m pretty sure that I haven’t yet found quite a few of the plotlines. I’d have to go back and search more thoroughly – the question is, do I have time for that?

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