William Boyd tells the story of a split-second choice that turned out to be the most significant he's ever made...
I’ve long been haunted by a short story – written by the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges – called The Garden of Forking Paths. To paraphrase somewhat brutally, the Garden of Forking Paths is a metaphor for our human lives, seen from one particular angle. Life, from this perspective, is an endless series of choices – this way or that way? And the decisions we make when confronted by these bifurcations on our journey through time shape us and our destinies inevitably and irrevocably.
But that is only part of the story. Of course many of these decisions are conscious and willed, whether banal (shall I have tea or coffee for breakfast?) or momentous (shall I run for president?) but more often than not what takes us down one forking path or another is a result of sheer happenstance, is utterly random. What is both terrifying and exhilarating about life is that we just don’t know when the two aspects will coincide. What seems like a harmless act of will can, once luck – happenstance -- is conjoined, lead you down a path that you never ever contemplated.
The problem is that the future is a void. We may think we know absolutely what the day ahead involves but there’s also a part of us that knows there’s no such thing as a sure thing. There is one method for establishing the veracity of that statement and that is the view back. Looking back at our lives and the significant forking paths we’ve taken – the decisions that make our existences what they are – is to remind ourselves how essentially powerless we are to influence the flow and sequence of events.
To take a personal example: one night while I was at university, writing an essay in my flat, I suddenly decided, on a complete whim, that I wanted to go to the theatre. I caught a bus and went to see a play that was on at the local theatre. It was utterly spontaneous, I didn’t even know what the play was, but the theatre company was particularly reliable (this was in Glasgow and the company was the Citizens’ Theatre). At the interval I went to the bar and spotted that there was a friend of mine there. We got chatting and then she introduced me to another girl whom she knew who happened to wander into the bar. A coup de foudre, as the French would say. At the end of the play I asked this girl for a date – her name was Susan – and she accepted. And here we are forty years on, married, husband and wife, as happy as we could be.
What if Susan’s bus had been late? What if my friend hadn’t been there? What seemed like fate – the first moment of forty years of intense happiness – was in fact the result of a series of chances
Analysing now the forking paths that led up to this moment, this encounter in the theatre, makes me go retrospectively weak at the knees. It turned out that Susan, also a student at the university, was working in the library that night and had spontaneously decided to go to the theatre herself – alone, just as I had. What made us, entirely independently, decide to go and see a play? It was even more sheer luck that in the theatre that night was a mutual friend who was in a position to introduce us. As you look back at moments like these you realise just how incredibly easy it would be for these happy accidents not to have occurred. What if Susan’s bus had been late? What if I had decided not to go to the bar at the interval? What if I hadn’t spotted my friend? What if my friend hadn’t been there? What seemed like fate – the first moment of forty years of intense happiness – was in fact the result of a series of chances. Good luck, yes. But it was luck, not something willed, not some cogitated choice deliberately made.
The view backwards is something I make myself do from time to time just to remind myself of the role that luck plays in our lives – good luck and bad luck, of course: one is not guaranteed happy endings. And looking backwards at the journey we’ve all made to get to where we are today will confirm to any sentient being that we are barely in control of our destinies. I look back at my own life and see the fact that my parents decided to go and work in Africa before I was born as being one of the defining events of my own biography and life as a writer. I see the fact that I never got a single job that I was interviewed for – at the time it seemed like relentless bad luck – actually compelled me to concentrate my youthful energies on becoming a writer. And so on. The forking paths in my own particular garden divide exponentially – and that applies to everyone.
Consequently I believe that luck is the element that shapes our lives at the end of the day – that roll of the cosmic dice that we experience on an hourly basis. In my novel Any Human Heart I explore this theme with great concentration. The central character, Logan Mountstuart (who has led a real roller-coaster of a life), declares that a human life is just the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck that a particular person has experienced. Some people seem to have more good luck than others; some people seem very unlucky. But in actual fact the two piles of luck tend to equal out over a long lifespan.
In my new collection of short stories The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, I investigate this idea of the view backwards in a story called “The Road Not Taken”. In fact the story actually goes backwards through time the better to show how randomly our lives take shape – almost the inverse of Borges’s story. The title comes from a famous poem by the American poet Robert Frost. The key lines are:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth:
And took the other…
Forking paths again. We all do it – look down the other road as far as we can and make a decision. But at the end of the day what you meet on the road you have taken will all be down to luck.
More about the author
A philandering art dealer tries to give up casual love affairs - seeking only passionate kisses as a substitute. A man recounts his personal history through the things he has stolen from others throughout his life. A couple chart the journey of their five year relationship backwards, from awkward reunion to lovelorn first encounter. And, at the heart of the book, a 24-year old young woman, Bethany Mellmoth, embarks on a year-long journey of wishful and tentative self-discovery.
The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth depicts the random encounters that bring the past bubbling to the surface; the impulsive decisions that irrevocably shape a life; and the endless hesitations and loss-of-nerve that wickedly complicate it. These funny, surprising and moving stories are a resounding confirmation of Boyd's powers as one of our most original and compelling storytellers.