Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Source of book: I own this.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This one was on NPR’s recommendation list and looked interesting, so I voted for it. While a different book than I would have considered my usual sort, it was actually very well written, and made the nerdy video game design stuff both understandable and fascinating. 

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is, of course, the beginning of MacBeth’s fatalistic soliloquy, the one where his mental state begins to break down, and he sees no way out but death. The book is not, however, fatalistic. Rather, this line refers more to the succession of tomorrows that follow the lives of the characters, the unexpected twists and turns of fate which, combined with their choices, determine the shape of their lives. 


The story centers around Sadie Green, a Jewish-American who becomes a game programer; and her childhood friend and eventual business partner, Sam Masur. The two of them first meet in a children’s hospital: Sam has survived a catastrophic car accident that killed his mother and left him with significant damage to one ankle, while Sadie is there because her older sister is being treated for leukemia. After the two of them meet over a video game Sam is playing - and Sam says his first words since the accident - Sadie is encouraged to continue to play with him (and get points toward the service requirement for her Bat Mitzvah.) The problem is, that she doesn’t tell Sam she gets credit - she would actually prefer to just be his friend, but parents, you know…so it is catastrophic to the relationship when Sadie’s sister spills the beans. 


The two of them end up estranged until they reconnect in college. For a variety of reasons, which I will not spoil, the two of them end up designing a video game together, and, with financial backing from their friend (and eventual business partner) Marx, end up with a hit. This leads to the three of them founding a game company, which has a series of hits and misses over the years. 


This is just a bare framework for the core of the story, though, which is about the complex relationship between Sam and Sadie. They are never lovers. Their relationship is not romantic in the usual sense. But it is intimate in an emotional way - as the book notes near the end, in some ways, gaming with someone is more intimate than sex, particularly the creation of a game into which the designers pour something of themselves.


Surrounding the central couple are a number of other major and minor characters. Sam, Sadie, and Marx all have complicated family backgrounds. Sam is, in a way, like the author - he has a Jewish father and a Korean mother, although his parents were never together - the author’s parents were, and so she had a plethora of extended family on both sides, which inspired Sam and Sadie’s respective extended families as well. Marx is the product of a Japanese-Korean marriage, which makes him unable to feel truly a part of any group - he isn’t white, so many white Americans see him as an outsider. He isn’t Japanese enough to be Japanese, and not Korean enough to be Korean. And then there is the fact that he is a literature major, a gifted actor who can’t land main parts even in college, because he doesn’t “look right” for the part - as the book put it, until Harvard, he hadn’t realized that there were only so many roles available to an Asian actor. Marx is almost a central rather than supporting character in the book. 


There are the family members, who, whether alive, dead, or absent, all contribute to who their offspring are. (We get detailed backstories on Sam, Sadie, and Marx.)


And a few others within the gaming world: Dov, the relatively young professor, who takes Sadie as a lover while she is his student (icky, but the age difference isn’t huge.) Adam and Ant, the gay pair who are the first programers Unfair Games hires, and who become embroiled in the fight over marriage equality. Various romantic partners that Sam, Sadie, and Marx have over the course of the 30 plus years the book covers. You get the idea. Zevin creates a cast of complex and nuanced people, and even the worst characters are treated with some sympathy. 


The author is around my age, and apparently grew up nerdy as well - and in the Los Angeles area, where a portion of the book is set, so there were a lot of references that were familiar to me. One of the most unexpected was The Phantom Tollbooth, which not too many of my generation read, unfortunately. 


I really don’t want to spoil the plot, because there are some major twists, and even trying to tease out the interplay of game design with the interior lives of the characters is futile. I guess the best way to put it is that games are both the context of the story, and also a metaphor that runs through the book. We live our lives within a system that bounds our choices and futures, yet is far more complex than even the most immersive game world. And we cannot simply reboot and start the game again - we live with our choices and our circumstances and all we can do is speculate about the road not taken. 


Our book club had a great discussion of this one. In addition to the well-thought-out plot, the deep characters, and the excellent writing, the book touches (without being particularly preachy) on a number of contemporary social issues. There is the question of cultural appropriation - in a move common at the time, they use a Japanese setting for their first game, something they would not have done later. There is gay marriage, of course. And sexism, both overt and passive-aggressive. There is the question of getting and taking credit for collaborative efforts. Depression and other mental illnesses, physical disability and its psychological toll, mass shootings, and the complexities of violence and fantasy in gaming - all of these come up in the book. 


There is also another interesting issue that seems to have been missed by most reviewers, but noted by readers. Sam is essentially an asexual, which is one factor in he and Sadie never becoming sexual partners. (This is, to be clear, complex - there is a lot going on in both of their heads.) But a lack of interest in sex does not preclude romantic jealousy when Sadie sleeps with other people. 


In any book like this, where financial and artistic success requires certain compromises, there is also, running through the narrative, the problem of being both intimate friends and business partners. What is good for the business (and thus in a certain way for the people who are in business together) is often at odds with what is good for a partner outside of the business. So, when Sam encourages Sadie to ask Dov for permission to use his engine for part of their first game, this is unequivocal good for the business - and leads to their big breakthrough. But it also means Sadie is unable to get credit for a clean design - and she never fully is given credit for being the lead programmer in the company. And also, Sam knows or at least suspects that this will mean Sadie getting back together with Dov, who is not good for her. But, as Sam later defends his decision, he believed she would be back together with him anyway, so why not get some help out of the bargain? 


These sorts of moral decisions encompassing the personal and the financial - and artistic as well - they are making art, not just money, but art takes money - come up again and again throughout the book, and they are never simple. 


It is this depth that lifts this book from the gamer fan-fic it could have been to true literary fiction. Many times after finishing a chapter, I would say, “wow, that is just excellent writing.” And it is. 


I am not a gamer, and never really have been. Okay, so I loved Sim City (all three versions!) and occasionally played other worldbuilding and immersive games like that. Shooters never interested me, and I never got the hang of thumb controllers. So there were many sections in the book that I lacked a personal connection to, which is why it was impressive that I couldn’t put the book down. And not only that, I really was interested in the fictional games that the characters created - I’d totally play them! Perhaps this is Zevin’s strength as both a gamer (although not a programmer) and an English major - she is able to put the gaming world into words that resonate with more than just gamers. 


But it is also important to note that the book is mostly about the humans, rather than the games. The book is never “gee, look at the cool games they made,” but is so much more about what the characters put into the games of themselves. The games are another window into the characters, a way to see what they don’t always see about themselves. 


In addition to the references above, there were some lines that I loved. 


First was this one, in reference to the way that the experience of being raised by someone is often different from experiencing the same people outside of the family. 


Other people’s parents are often a delight.


I also thought that the (fictional) interview with Kotaku, by Sam, who is by that time going by the name of Mazer, on the issue of cultural appropriation. 


MAZER: The alternative to appropriation is a world in which artists only reference their own cultures.

KOTAKU: That’s an oversimplification of the issue.

MAZER: The alternative to appropriation is a world where white European people make art about white European people, with only white European references in it. Swap African or Asian or Latin or whatever culture you want for European. A world where everyone is blind and deaf to any culture or experience that is not their own. I hate that world, don’t you? I’m terrified of that world, and I don’t want to live in that world, and as a mixed-race person, I literally don’t exist in it. 


This is a tricky issue, and it is one that I bump up against a lot in my own life. I am a semi-professional musician, and it is pretty much impossible to make music without some degree of what could arguably be called “appropriation.” And, like Sam, the fact that I am a white guy with roots in Germany, England, and Sweden - but don’t have any actual cultural connection to those countries since my ancestors emigrated to the United States well over 100 years ago. Rather, “my” culture is at least as connected to the multi-racial neighborhoods I grew up in, and the multicultural state of California I have lived in nearly my entire life. 


In the context of music, it is impossible for music to exist without cultural cross-pollination. In fact, I would strongly suspect that soon after the first humans invented music as an art form, another human “borrowed” it and transformed it, and soon afterward, the two forms blended and became something new. As an American, it is impossible to make “American” music without borrowing from the African American tradition - literally every truly American form of music, from Bluegrass to Rock to Country, descends in part from the Blues. You cannot escape it. And no, a German American guy playing Irish music isn’t any less appropriative.


So for me, the best way forward is to acknowledge the roots of the music I make, and enjoy the way that it cuts across cultures and speaks a universal - and shared - language. Music can and should bring us together, and it should grow and evolve as cultures come in contact with each other. 


Likewise for food, for art, for everything that makes us human. And I think what Sam is also getting at here is that the whole concept of purity - cultural and otherwise - has always been a myth. We are all the product of multiple cultures that have blended and evolved in the past. And that is something worth celebrating. 


That said, let me be clear, borrowing without giving credit is still plagiarism, and showing disrespect to another’s culture, profiting off of it outside of its context, is problematic. So, please don’t wear Native American garb if you aren’t actually participating with a Tribe’s event (and with their permission), but by all means, learn to cook with the Three Sisters, and appreciate how Native American musical traditions have become part of our own cultural lexicon. 


On a more humorous note, I have to share Marx’s impression of Dov:


When Dov came down to the apartment to help Sadie set up Ulysses, Marx hated him immediately: the leather pants, the tight black T-shirt, the heavy silver jewelry, the immaculate goatee, the eyebrows permanently in the shape of circumflexes, the topknot. “The poor man’s Chris Cornell,” Marx whispered…


I about died laughing at that one. The final quote I wanted to mention is one from Zoe, Marx’s girlfriend for a time - cello playing, nudist, oddball - her musical compositions form the score for Unfair Games’ first titles. She decides that it is crucial that the company move away from Boston, and go to California. For a variety of professional reasons, but also because of two very personal ones: Sam’s foot needs to be amputated, but he cannot bring himself to do it, and a change will likely make him see the light. And also because Sadie needs to get away from Dov. Zoe is a good bit more worldly than Marx, and she sees exactly how it is to be done.


“Marx, my love, you are so innocent. You don’t need to convince anyone. You tell Sadie that Sam needs to go to California - his foot is rotting; he needs to have the surgery and he won’t do it in Massachusetts. You tell Sam that Sadie needs to go - she needs to find a way to break with Dov. Those two are thick as thieves; they’ll do anything for each other.”


And Zoe is correct. Even if her motives may not be entirely pure. (She herself wants to go to California without losing Marx.) 


So, without any further spoilers, that gives an impression of the book. I really enjoyed it, and the rest of our club (at least the ones who read it) did as well. It’s not quite like any other book I have read, but it captures human complexity in a new context, and that makes it well worth reading. 

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