TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW
By Gabrielle Zevin
Most kids who play a lot of video games don’t grow up to become avid readers. Then again, not every kid who reads a lot of books grows up to become an avid reader. Yet, in the diverse taxonomy of the modern gaming audience, there exists the Literary Gamer — someone for whom reading and playing are, and always have been, the same voyage. It would never occur to the Literary Gamer that one activity negates the other. If anything, the Literary Gamer believes, reading and playing enhance systematic thinking and the mysteries of imaginative empathy. This reviewer, for better or worse, is an avowed Literary Gamer — and I call upon my brothers and sisters to join me in a recitation of Fünke’s Axiom: “There are dozens of us! DOZENS!”
Gabrielle Zevin is also a Literary Gamer — in fact, she describes her devotion to the medium as “lifelong” — and in her delightful and absorbing new novel, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow,” Richard Powers’s “Galatea 2.2” and the stealth-action video game “Metal Gear Solid” stand uncontroversially side by side in the minds of her characters as foundational source texts. This is a story about brilliant young game designers hitting it big and slowly growing apart — and Zevin burns precisely zero calories arguing that game designers are creative artists of the highest order. Instead, she accepts that as a given, and wisely so, for the best of them plainly are. “There is no artist,” one of her characters she says, “more empathetic than the game designer.”
Zevin’s three main characters are Sadie, Sam and Marx, bright young things who plunge together into the game-making business while students at Harvard and MIT If anything, Sadie and Sam are possibly a little too bright. Their first meeting takes place in a hospital when they’re both 11, while the chronically ill Sam plays Super Mario Bros. in the children’s ward rec room. When young Sadie asks young Sam if he’s dying, as many of the children around them are, he responds, “This being the world, everyone’s dying.”
Sam and Marx are both mixed-race Asian Americans, and some of the most psychologically interesting material in the novel has to do with their complicated feelings of unbelonging. Sadie, on the other hand, is the trio’s thwarted genius, and when, in college, she and Sam re-engage, she shows him an edgy video game she’s designed called “Solution,” a riff on the legendary game designer Brenda Romero’s controversial (and brilliant) board game “Train.” Sam, blown away, decides to devote his life to making games with Sadie. They quickly become best friends, though never lovers, despite Sam’s unstated if obvious longing for her. But as Sadie explains to Sam near the end of the novel, they shared a bond far greater than physical affection. Lovers are “common,” she says, while “true collaborators in this life are rare.”
This being the world — the video game world, especially — it’s Sam whose work receives the lion’s share of cultural and critical attention, despite Sadie’s arguably greater contribution. It’s very much to Zevin’s credit that she draws out this long process of creative usurpation as being no one’s fault in particular, and even takes pains to show Sadie ‘s complicity her in her own erasure her. In a word, it’s complicated, as most matters of artistic collaboration are. While Sam and Sadie are making their first game, “Ichigo,” they decide to assign no explicit gender to its eponymous character, referring to the small being at the center of the game only as “they.”
Eventually, a game publisher presses Sam and Sadie to go ahead and call Ichigo “he” — games with female leads don’t sell, they’re told — and it’s Sam who urges Sadie to capitulate. Their first creative fissure forms — and we spend the rest of the novel watching it widen along a fault line of fame, money, success and eventual tragedy. Zevin gets a lot of the detail-y things about game development right, among them the centrality of having a good producer — this is Marx, in Sam and Sadie’s case — along with much of the terminology: “volumetric lighting,” the shorthand use of “MC” for main character, “texture layers” and so on.
What’s largely absent here, however, are the unadorned realities of game-making. The despair, for instance, that results from an idea that seems as if it should be fun, but isn’t fun, no matter what you do. There’s very little depiction of how central play-testing and quality assurance are to game design, or of nuking core design conceits because of cost overruns or talent underruns. For the most part, Sam and Sadie’s games tend to work out the way they imagine they will, yet one of the most critically acclaimed titles I ever worked on, “What Remains of Edith Finch,” a game about a cursed family whose members all perish in freak accidents, began its life as a scuba simulator, of all things. No one — trust me on this — wants an entirely accurate novel about game development, which would be a thousand pages of motionless ennui with an exciting 10-page coda, but if there’s a criticism to make of Zevin’s novel, it’s that the professional parts of her game creators’ lives seem far too easy, while the personal parts often seem far too hard.
I have no idea if Zevin has ever read John Irving’s “The World According to Garp,” but she seems to have subliminally recreated it in certain ways. Both novels are about highly creative people struggling, and often failing, to overcome their sex baggage, their mother baggage, their money baggage and identity baggage. Both novels traffic in what could be called whimsicruelty — a smiling, bright-eyed march into pitch-black narrative material: child trauma, amputation, a narratively crucial fatal car accident. Both are finally riven by a random act of shocking violence.
Some readers will doubtless appreciate Zevin’s unflinching willingness to show how the cancer of American violence can strike down the gentlest and most admirable among us, but this event also turns the cultural problem of American violence into an aesthetic problem within the novel. Aesthetic problems might get your knuckles thwacked in a book review, but fiction can’t meaningfully address a cultural issue as significant as this one without making it absolutely central to the story the writer is trying to tell. It’s not as if the violent event depicted by Zevin isn’t believable. It’s all too believable. The problem is that, however horrifying and shocking, this violent event is just not as interesting as what’s around it (a problem this novel happens to share with “Garp”).
But not everything in a story as expansive and entertaining as Zevin’s can be the best part, as they say, and we merry dozens of Literary Gamers will cherish the world she’s lovingly conjured. Meanwhile, everyone else will wonder what took them so long to recognize in video games the beauty and drama and pain of human creation.
Tom Bissell is the author of 10 books, including “Creative Types,” which was published last year. He has also written or co-written more than a dozen video games.
TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, by Gabrielle Zevin | 416 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28