By now, I should know better. When I first picked up Gabrielle Zevin's new novel, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, I doubted I would stick with it. After all, it's about two childhood friends who become legendary names in the world of video game design.
I'm not a "gamer"; I know as much about expansion packs or terms like "adaptive tile refresh" as I do about harpooning a whale. You see where this is going. Because, whatever its subject, when a novel is powerful enough, it transports us readers deep into worlds not our own. That's true of Moby Dick, and it's certainly true of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, which renders the process of designing a great video game as enthralling as the pursuit of that great white whale.
Zevin's main characters, Sam Masur and Sadie Green, first meet in the game room of a children's hospital in Los Angeles when they're around 11 years old. Sadie is there because her sister has cancer; Sam has been in a horrific car accident, which killed his mother and crushed his left foot. Almost silently, they bond over the Super Mario Bros. game Sam has been playing.
Because Sam has been emotionally shut down, the nurses are thrilled and ask if Sadie might stop in again. Sadie's mother proposes that her visits could count for the community service she must perform for her upcoming bat mitzvah. Sadie returns to play with Sam for weeks, stealthily presenting the nurses with her time sheet at the end of every visit. Transactional, for sure, but also genuine. Here's how Zevin's omniscient narrator beautifully describes the intense connection between the two friends:
To allow yourself to play with another person is no small risk. It means allowing yourself to be open, to be exposed, to be hurt. ... Many years later, as Sam would controversially say in an interview with [a] gaming website ... 'There is no more intimate act than play, even sex.'
The storyline of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow spans some 30 years. Sam and Sadie become estranged, then reconnect as college students in Boston. She's one of a minority of women at MIT in the late 1990s; Sam is an alienated scholarship kid at Harvard, whose Korean grandparents run a pizza place back in L.A. Though he tries to ignore his painful left foot held together by metal rods, Sam sometimes needs a cane that he fears "made him look affected, like a twenty-one-year-old Mr. Monopoly ..."
While still undergrads, they collaborate on designing a game called Ichigo, which becomes a blockbuster. The plot then leaps forward to the creation of Sadie and Sam's own company, called Unfair Games, and, eventually, to a stunningly depicted tragedy that's a byproduct of a good intention in one of their games.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is as intricate as the games that Sadie and Sam devise, all of them stories-within-stories inside this novel. This is a sweeping narrative about a male-female relationship that's not romantic, but, rather, grounded on shared passions and fierce arguments. For instance, Sadie wants to make art: She wants their games to be difficult and beautiful. Sam, a former sick kid who cherished escapism, prioritizes entertainment.
There are also smart ruminations here about cultural appropriation, given that the game, Ichigo, is inspired by Japanese artist Hokusai's famous painting The Great Wave at Kanagawa. But, above all, Zevin's novel explores the thrills and frustration of creative work. Here's a passage where Sadie struggles with the "look" of the game, Ichigo:
Like most twenty-year-olds, Sadie had never built a complicated graphics and physics engine before ... Sam and Sadie wanted the graphics to have the lightness of transparent watercolors, but Sadie could not achieve this lightness, no matter what she tried. When [the character] Ichigo ran, for instance, [Sadie] wanted the look to be less solid, almost watery ... [But] Ichigo only looked blurry and invisible — nothing like "water in motion." When [Sadie] approached the look she wanted, the game would, more often than not, abruptly crash.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow satisfies the aspirations of both Sadie and Sam: It's a big, beautifully written novel about an underexplored topic, that succeeds in being both serious art and immersive entertainment.