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Beside Myself

iPad app ebook
Features: Interactive novel that lets you choose how you experience the story
Production credits: Jeff Gomez
Launch date: 8th November 2012

Beside Myself is a lot like Sliding Doors. You know, that film with the young pre-Chris Martin Gwyneth Paltrow. Only here, instead of two parallel Gwyneth lives we get three Jeffs (as in writer Jeff Gomez, get it?). And instead of playing out these “what if” scenarios with the director taking the lead, here, sometimes you (as in the reader) get to take the lead. Or, that’s the idea anyway.

The three Jeffs are introduced (if you choose the “I want to read the story straight through option”, I’ll get to that in a minute) nonchalantly, in that dry New York, you’re not sure if this is meant to be funny, but you end up laughing anyway kind of humour, with lines like “I saw myself” and “the other Jeff”, or my personal favourite: “This is New York. You can have as many versions of yourself as you want.”

But that’s just scratching the surface, here’s the real catch. This isn’t just an interactive novel that takes you through different “what if” scenarios. Jeff Gomez likes to play with format. His first novel, Our Noise, was first self-published in the mid-nineties as a series of zines and only later picked up by a publisher and put back together and released as a novel. Here, Gomez has moved from his zines to the iPad, but the sentiment, still seems to come from the same place: how can you tell this story in a different way? How can you make this a different kind of reading experience? What can you do that’s more than “just” reading a novel from one cover to the next?

Here’s how he does it. You get asked a set of options: “I want to choose my own order” or “I want to choose my own narrator” or “I want to read the story straight through”. And that’s nice. It’s nice because you, as the reader, feel in control. You feel like you are helping to shape the story, you are somehow playing a part in these narrators’ different fates. And I like that.

What’s exciting about any kind of reading experience that plays with form (that could be BS Johnson’s book in a box, The Unfortunates, or more recently, Chris Ware’s Building Stories) is when you, as the reader, feel like you’re in the driver’s seat. It’s very likely you’re not, but when you’re made to feel like you are, it’s a great feeling and makes good on the old adage that every piece of writing has two authors: the first being the author and the other, the reader.

But then I came up against something that took away that great feeling. For some reason, Gomez and his team chose not to leave the instruction there. Instead, you are also told that you need to “one finger swipe” to move left to right up and down” or a very detailed “reading options” that gives you a run-down of every interactive possibility (leaving me feeling like I had just seen the curtain pull to show the “real” Wizard of Oz) or a blue-ish vertical bar shows up on the screen as a design nod to tell you to swipe right (forgetting that any iPad user will know this swiping from years of moving through their camera rolls).

A lot of the intuitive interaction turns into something that feels very controlled or, perhaps more to the point, it starts to get in the way of that nice feeling I talked about earlier. It starts to feel like you are met with more instruction than you are allowed to experience these multiple narratives, these different worlds, but instead you’re left distracted by what you can or cannot do or should be doing or where your fingers could be swiping. You can see that I clearly fall into the camp of design where less is more, I’m the one that revels in the genius that Apple don’t give me a user manual for my new i-Device.

So while I relish in any literature that plays with form, and this certainly does that, and I adore it when that literature plays with form using new technologies (because there are so many possibilities for what can be done here), I’m afraid in order to tick all my boxes, I’m after a design that lets the reader feel like they’re really in control, and lets them enjoy that feeling rather than have too much over-explaining, over-instructing drown out that magic along the way.

Anna Gerber is the co-founder of Visual Editions

Jeff Gomez

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