Saturday, July 6, 2024

Review: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

At its best, this book sparkles with those moments that are so recognizable but so hard to express: the suffusion of love you feel on accomplishing a goal with a person you love, the despair of failed creative work and brushing off a bruised ego, the self-consciousness of being 22 and feeling like you should know more than you do, the awkward tearfulness of knowing a long-term relationship of your twenties has run its course. These vignettes are marked by the vulnerable honesty Zevin allows her characters to express.

However, these moments come a little too few and far between. Rather than lingering in these emotionally intense everyday events, Zevin relies too much on rare and traumatic life events or inexplicable lack of communication to add drama to the novel and redirect her characters' lives. Seemingly for no reason other than to ensure Sadie and Sam are at odds while creating their game, Both Sides, Zevin has Sadie create an entire fiction in her mind about how Machiavellian Sam is and then rather than having a conversation with her supposed best friend about it, the relationship simply deteriorates for over a year. Sadie keeping her relationship with Marx a secret from Sam feels similarly unnecessary. With so much secrecy and resentment between the characters, I began to doubt the veracity of their friendship. Perhaps it was merely mutual respect for each other's brilliance, shoe-horned into a friendship because society does not have a better model for this sort of relationship, but I do not think that was the story Zevin aimed to tell.

It isn’t just the characters that lack honesty with each other: Zevin withholds information from the reader for no real purpose but for heightened melodrama. We learn two thirds of the way through the novel that apparently the two characters had each been grappling with romantic interest in each other the entire time. Why not weave this tension into the story, allowing the reader to incorporate this information into their understanding of the characters? The same holds true of Sadie's secret abortion, something we only much later learn inspired her design for her first published game, Ichigo. Perhaps the intention is that we, the reader, only discover this information at the time that the friends discover this information about each other. But the result is that we feel like we don’t really know either of the characters.

Part of this unfamiliarity is the narrative perspective; we switch from person to person, from past to present to future, without much change in narrative voice (I felt a renewed appreciation of David Copperfield’s adult reflections on stories told through the eyes of his child self). Even side characters like a hospital nurse, become point of view characters. But I never really felt “in” someone’s head; there was a lot of “Sadie felt” or “Sadie worried” type of story-telling.

It’s a very millennial book. There’s nostalgia for the 90s and 00s — those pre-internet days where you could create without being self-conscious of the critics online and struggle in puzzles without being able to look up solutions, when low graphics expectations enabled three kids to pull together a game over the course of 8 months. But at the same time, it was very conscious of the discourse of the 2010s and 2020s, although without adding much new (with the exception of Sam’s defense of charges of cultural appropriation). It makes sense, the author is a millennial, its highest accolades have come from millennials.

I discovered the author’s husband is in the indie film industry, and this made a lot of the videogame aspect of the book click for me. Where my gaming experience comes from highly competitive or mechanics/puzzle-driven games, the videogames of the novel seem to be completely void of mechanics, with discussion focusing on themes and artistic choices and plot — much like auteur film creation. It was in the discussion of the design process, in the characters’ reactions to critics, in the complex relationship between the characters and the works they create, that I thought the author brought the most new insight to the table, likely because she herself is so immersed in this world.

Perhaps because the landscape of a relationship that spans romance, collegiality, and friendship has so much potential, I found the creation and resolution of the love triangle to be rather facile and cliche. One of the guys dies, but don’t worry, his DNA lives on. My “script doctor” of the book would be to streamline the plot (the mass shooting and the witnessed suicide seemed overly dramatic, and the author had little new to add to these conversations), rewrite the character arcs that rely on people not being honest with each other, and have the three characters recognize that love for each other can be multi-faceted and complex and doesn’t need to fit into a box (just like Ichigo's identity).

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