Choose Your Own Adventure: Mystery of the Maya (1981/2005)

Andrew Finegold
August 9, 2023

Written in the second person, with a narrative that regularly bifurcates as it presents the reader-protagonist with options of how to proceed, the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) series of books gives literary form to the late capitalist condition of the ostensibly empowered individual subject who is in actuality caught up in an overdetermined system. In navigating the choices presented to her, the reader is explicitly situated as the agent driving the story as it progresses. However, there is something inverted about this illusion of agency. This mirrors the prevailing ideology of consumer society, which presents individuals with clearly branded options with which it asks them to identify, such that to make a choice—to buy a product, to vote for a candidate, etc.—is to make a statement about one’s tastes or values, but in a way that can only react to provided options rather than to actually forge new ones. In CYOA books, however, choices are almost always given in relation to a state of uncertainty—about the trustworthiness or intentions of another character, for example—and are thus an exercise in risk taking rather than an expression of one’s own character. Indeed, your thoughts, feelings, motivations (i.e. those of the protagonist, given in the second person) are often explicitly provided as you are told why you made a decision after having made it. The upshot of this format is that, due to the external ambiguities and unknowns that accompany each fork in the path, stories unfold in ways that allow for drastically different, often mutually incompatible alternative realities. Epistemological uncertainty opens out onto ontological plurality. Such is the case with Mystery of the Maya by R. A. Montgomery, released in 1981 as the 11th book in the original series published by Bantam Books, and revised and reissued in 2005 as the 5th book in the new CYOA series published by Chooseco.

The protagonist of this book goes to Mexico to search for a journalist friend who has gone missing while working on a story about the Maya pyramids of Chichen Itza. As the narrative unfolds, the different paths that become possible involve time travel, aliens, and revolutionaries as you visit sites that are variously experienced as modern-day ruins occupied by tourists or the cities as they were in ancient times, populated by the Maya themselves. There is thus an entangling of past and present as various tropes and stereotypes associated with the Maya are deployed in a number of parallel accounts. Towards the beginning of the adventure, immediately following your arrival in Merida, the protagonist is given the option to consult with Dr. Lopez, a specialist in Maya civilization at the local university. Dr. Lopez offers you a time potion, which transports you to the city of Uxmal during its height, a place populated by warriors and priests. That a modern-day scholar is shown to be in possession of a means of traveling through time to directly observe—and even live amongst—the ancient people who are the focus of his studies bestows an unimpeachable accuracy to his interpretations: academic knowledge derives from a mystical encounter with the past. This conceit is belied by anachronistic details that appear throughout the various story threads, such as the sacrifice of a chicken at Uxmal (these birds arrived into the Americas during the Columbian exchange, although the ancient Maya did domesticate turkeys), or the use of sails on a trading vessel traveling along the Caribbean coast of Yucatan (early Spanish accounts refer to Maya traders using large sea-going canoes, not sailing vessels).

While there are some descriptions of daily life and economic activities, such as farming, this is an adventure book and many of the narrative threads tend towards the sensational. In several paths of the story, the ancient Maya are characterized as being particularly aggressive, engaging in regular raids and warfare (although they are also described as being beleaguered by the even more aggressive Toltecs), playing the ballgame for deadly stakes, and subordinated by a priesthood that engages in bloody sacrifice to appease the gods. In a substantial number of the narrative paths, you explicitly die from Maya violence, even as other arcs stress their benevolence and the quality of life you experience living amongst them.

It is intriguing to compare the original 1981 publication of this book with its 2005 reissue. The text itself has remained largely unchanged except for minor amendments, such as the switching at one point of a destination option—one that you never arrive to in any case—from Tulumn [sic] to Isla Mujeres, as well as the total elimination of a few narrative paths. The discarded plot lines involve extraterrestrials or time travel to the dawn of humanity in the distant past or forward billions of years into the future, and which were apparently deemed to be a distraction from the book’s focus on Maya civilization. However, one story arc remains that features a UFO picking up human passengers at modern-day Chichen Itza, showing that the editorial decisions were apparently not motivated by a desire to dissociate the Maya from aliens and other contemporary mystical beliefs by entirely removing such new-age elements from their book.

Compared with the rather minimal changes to the text, the illustrations reflect a much bigger alteration between the two editions, as they were completely redone and expanded for the 2005 reissue. This is immediately noticeable in the difference between the cover art, which has become much more dramatic and exoticizing. Rather than hinting at the variety of experiences that await the reader/protagonist like the earlier cover does with its multiplicity of images, the updated cover features a singular depiction of a dark figure with a skull mask, feathered headdress, and outstretched taloned claws who leaps forward from a stepped pyramid to burst out of the image frame towards the reader. The ominous and threatening mood carries through much of the illustration program in the updated volume, which features many further depictions of looming, leaping, leering, or otherwise threatening figures. This contrasts with the original illustrations, where slightly exaggerated features imbue figures with a caricature-like quality that lightens the overall mood and entire scenes are often dampened with hatching, which relieves them of intensity. The original images show evidence of significant research by the artist, Richard Anderson, as some imagery has been copied from recognizable Maya sources, including codices, stelae, ceramic vessels, and buildings that they can readily be identified. The images from the 2005 version, however, show very little evidence of research or desire for historical accuracy. Instead, they show generic pyramids and costumes with no specifically identifiable prototypes. Perhaps most notably, the new images never include an obvious depiction of the protagonist, whom they tacitly assume to occupy the place of the viewer/reader as a means to heighten the illusion of immersiveness. This is in contrast with the original illustrations from the 1981 edition, which often include images of the protagonist, who is depicted as a girl with blonde ponytails wearing a shirt with bold horizontal stripes. In one sense, this promotes greater inclusivity: by not providing a visual cue the revised images open a space for the reader to imagine themself as the protagonist no matter their gender or ethnicity. But this move actually undermines what was radical about the earlier version, which asked its young readers, male and female, to view the illustrations as interpretive rather than definitive, and in so doing to see the possibility of the second-person protagonist as being female at a time when this certainly wasn’t the default. In considering the intent of including very specific images of a second-person protagonist in the original drawings, we might see this as the pictorial parallel of the narrating of the motivations behind the reader's choices in the text. The fact that the illustrations were redone for the re-release, but the text was left as is, creates a contradiction where the images allow space for the reader to more fully imagine themselves in the role of the protagonist, while the text continues to tell them what they believe or why they did what they did.

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