Saturday, March 24, 2018

Thinking Out Loud on the Homefront: Choices and More Choices

The other day I finished a book and was inspired to write about it. Not long after that, I picked up another novel and it had the same effect. In other words, here is another review/what this book means to me column. Please remember, what follows is opinion...and keep in mind individual tastes are subjective.
After I read Matt Haig's How to Stop Time and was reminded of how life's little moments actually give us life, I dove into Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. The former came out earlier this year, while the latter was published in 2016 (and was also on one of my reading recommendation lists).

The plot for Dark Matter is simple yet unbelievably complex all at once. The overarching theme is a question: Are you happy with your life? Crouch takes the reader on a journey that follows Jason Dessen not down just one road not taken, but many. In fact, the dedication at the beginning of the book reads, "For anyone who has wondered what their life might look like at the end of the road not taken."
Now for those of you who are unaware because you weren't paying attention in high school English class, "The Road Not Taken" is one of the most well known poems by one of America's most well known poets, Robert Frost. I am sure many of you remember the beginning ("Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...") and some paraphrased version of the end ("I took the road less traveled...") but ultimately, the poem can be summed up in one word: choice. (The poem and an excellent breakdown of it can be found here:
The poem's premise is put on steroids in Dark Matter. Jason is the story's protagonist and for most of the book Crouch presents the action via a first-person narrative. One moment, Jason is leaving his house to go pick up dessert for his family, but the next moment he is being abducted by a masked man and then knocked out, waking up as himself but in a totally different reality. People know him, but he does not know them. At least, he does not know them like he did in his reality.
Eventually we learn - unsurprisingly - that Jason has been sent to what amounts to a different version of his life, and that there are infinite versions of his life based on the choices he has made or hasn't made. For instance, in Jason's base reality, he and his wife devoted themselves to each other and their child, making a fulfilling life for themselves based on living for each other. In another reality, Jason and his wife never actually married, choosing instead to focus on their careers to the point where each became significantly successful, but not together. While these are the two primary focuses of the journey Jason goes on, the stops along the way are thrilling and in several instances, terrifying. The possibilities are infinite, but we are told from the outset of Jason's journey that he has a finite number of chances to find his way back to the life from whence he came. The reader going on the journey can't help but wonder, "What would I do in these circumstances?"
Along the way, Jason begins to realize that his life is not just his life because of a single choice, but of a myriad of different choices. He tells the reader, "...maybe I can let go of the sting and resentment of the path not taken, because the path not taken isn't just the inverse of who I am. It's an infinitely branching system that represents all the permutations of my life between the extremes..."
During the dramatic, suspenseful climax to the story, another observation is made that once again hearkens back to the message of Frost's poem and the overall theme of the story. A significant character (left un-named here so as not to spoil anything) states, "Every moment, every breath, contains a choice. But life is imperfect. We make the wrong choices. So we end up living in a state of perpetual regret, and is there anything worse?"
The point I took from this part of the story, which also included another main character explaining how we must live with the choices we make, is that to expect perfection is to always be disappointed. To expect to always make the right choice is to never learn. After all, aren't we told throughout our lives that we make mistakes so that we can learn from them?
Choices make up every day of our lives. From something as benign as choosing a breakfast food to something as life-altering as proposing marriage or starting a family, there are choices being made every day. Dark Matter was a seriously thought-provoking science-fiction romp that has the potential to leave many readers wondering "what if?" while also taking stock of "what is?"
In my own life, there are a few questions that will never have answers. These are not regrets, however. This August will mark year 17 that my wife and I have been a couple, and this November marks 15 years of marriage. I would not trade those years for anything, for we have built a life together. There are professional goals I wish I'd have had the chance to accomplish while I was gainfully employed at various newspapers, but knowing I did the best I could during my time at each stop is satisfying enough. There is still plenty of time for other life goals to be accomplished, and the key now is to see them through.
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth..."

Dark Matter will make you think while taking you on a thrilling ride. It has made me think about what I want to do next, and what I can do better to be the best version of myself. Choices, choices, and more choices. We don't know what our respective futures hold, but we do have the ability to be bold and daring, to take risks, to play it safe, to go with a short term fix instead of playing the long game. In the end, we don't know the outcome of our choices in advance, but we should be prepared for the ride. And if we take a road less traveled? Well, who knows?

Howie Balaban is choosing to read more in 2018, and he hopes to start finding his own voice by actually writing something substantial at some point soon.