Book review: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin


By Gabrielle Zevin

Most kids who play video games a lot don’t become avid readers. Again, not all children who read a lot of books grow up to be avid readers. Yet within the diverse taxonomy of modern gaming audiences, there exists the Literary Gamer – someone for whom reading and playing are, and always have been, the same journey. It would never occur to the literary gambler that one activity negates the other. On the contrary, according to the Literary Gamer, reading and playing enhance systematic thinking and the mysteries of imaginative empathy. This reviewer, for better or worse, is an avowed literary gambler – and I invite my brothers and sisters to join me in a recitation of Fünke’s axiom: “We are dozens! DOZENS!”

Gabrielle Zevin is also a literary gamer – in fact, she describes her devotion to the medium as “lifelong” – and in her delicious and captivating new novel, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”, “Galatea 2.2” by Richard Powers and the stealth-action video game “Metal Gear Solid” stand uncontroversial side by side in the minds of its characters as foundational source texts. This is a story about brilliant young game designers who hit hard and go their separate ways – and Zevin precisely burns no calories arguing that game designers are top-notch creative artists. Instead, she takes it for granted, and with good reason, because the best of them clearly are. “There is no artist,” says one of his characters, “more empathetic than the game designer.”

Zevin’s three main characters are Sadie, Sam, and Marx, bright young people who dive into the game-making business together while studying at Harvard and MIT. If anything, maybe Sadie and Sam are a little too bright. Their first meeting takes place in a hospital when they are both 11 years old, while the chronically ill Sam plays Super Mario Bros. in the playroom of the children’s department. When young Sadie asks young Sam if he is dying, like many children around them, he replies, “This being the world, everyone is dying.”

Sam and Marx are both Asian Americans of mixed race, and some of the most psychologically interesting elements of the novel have to do with their complicated feelings of not belonging. Sadie, on the other hand, is the upset genius of the trio, and when, in college, she and Sam re-engage, she shows him an edgy video game she designed called “Solution”, a riff on the game. controversial game from legendary game designer Brenda Romero. (and brilliant) “Train” board game. Sam, blown away, decides to dedicate his life to playing games with Sadie. They quickly become best friends, but never lovers, despite Sam’s unspoken but obvious desire 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, specifically – it’s Sam whose work receives the lion’s share of cultural and critical attention, despite Sadie’s arguably more significant contribution. It’s to Zevin’s credit that she pulls off this long process of creative usurpation as no one’s fault in particular, and even goes to great lengths to show Sadie’s complicity in her own erasure. In short, it’s complicated, as are most subjects of artistic collaboration. As Sam and Sadie make their first game, “Ichigo”, they decide not to assign any explicit gender to its eponymous character, referring to the small being at the center of the game only as “they”.

Eventually, a game publisher urges Sam and Sadie to go ahead and call Ichigo “he” – games with female protagonists don’t sell, they’re told – and it’s Sam who urges Sadie to capitulate. Their first creative crack 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 plenty of details about game development, including the importance of having a good producer – that’s Marx, in Sam and Sadie’s case – as well as a lot of the terminology: “volumetric lighting” , the use of the shorthand of “MC” for the main character, “texture layers” and so on.

What’s largely missing here, however, are the no-frills realities of game making. The desperation, for example, that results from an idea that looks like it should be fun, but isn’t fun no matter what you do. There are very few depictions of play testing and quality assurance being central to game design, or core designs nuking due to cost overruns or talent underutilizations. For the most part, Sam and Sadie’s games tend to work as they imagine, but one of the most critically acclaimed titles I’ve ever worked on, “What Remains of Edith Finch”, a game about a cursed family whose all members perish in freak accidents, started life as a diving simulator, of all things. No one – believe me on this – wants a completely accurate game development novel that’s a thousand pages of still boredom with a thrilling 10-page coda, but if there’s a criticism to be made at Zevin’s novel is that the professional parts of its game creators’ lives seem far too easy, while the personal parts often seem far too difficult.

I don’t know if Zevin has ever read John Irving’s “The World According to Garp”, but she seems to have subliminally recreated it in a way. Both novels are about very creative people who struggle, and often fail, to overcome their sexual baggage, their maternal baggage, their financial baggage, and their identity baggage. Both novels deal with what might be called capricious cruelty – a smiling, bright-eyed march into pitch-black narrative material: childhood trauma, amputation, a narratively crucial fatal car accident. . The two are ultimately torn apart by a random act of shocking violence.

Some readers will no doubt appreciate Zevin’s unwavering willingness to show how the cancer of American violence can strike the softest and most admirable among us, but this event also turns the cultural problem of American violence into an aesthetic problem at the within the novel. Aesthetic issues can hurt your fingers in a book review, but fiction can’t meaningfully address a cultural issue as important as this without making it absolutely central to the story the writer is trying to tell. . It’s not as if the violent event described by Zevin isn’t believable. It’s too believable. The problem is that, as gruesome and shocking as it is, this violent event just isn’t as interesting as what surrounds it (a problem this novel shares with “Garp”).

But not everything in a story as vast and entertaining as Zevin’s can be the best part, as they say, and we merry dozens of literary players will cherish the world she lovingly conjured up. Meanwhile, everyone will be wondering what took them so long to recognize the beauty, drama, and pain of human creation in video games.

Tom Bissell is the author of 10 books, including “Creative Types,” which was published last year. He has also written or co-written over a dozen video games.

TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, by Gabrielle Zevin | 416 pages | Alfred A. Knopf | $28

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