Review by Max Dunbar
I was born in the early eighties. My childhood was coloured by reflective screens of jumping pixels. I became fascinated by video games. There weren’t much to the games back then, of course – we had sixteen-bit consoles plugged into the television, C64s that took forever to load, Game Boys, that sort of thing. Still, Mario, Sonic, Robocop, Double Dragon, F-Zero – there was a kind of magic to them, and a perverse sense of coming home. Welcome, Stranger.
I grew out of video games around my second year of university. In my first year someone on my hall corridor had MarioKart, on an XBox I think, and we had tournaments. Then in house-shares we played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and that’s when I lost interest. Vice City was a fantastic game but it was so complex and time consuming. For those who don’t know, GTA is an urban crime franchise where you have to run around the city doing missions for various underworld bosses. In the beginning it was a top-down, bird’s-eye view, but by Vice City the technology was 3D and street level, which kind of put me off. I liked the old Micro Machines style.
Why am I telling you this? Because Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is all about video games. Protagonists Sam and Sadie were born in the middle 1970s, older even than I am, which makes them old enough to remember the arcade machines which, by my day, were already obsolete. Their childhood is full of the nostalgia I’ve just indulged in, although because Sam and Sadie grew up in Los Angeles, the references are different. At school they play an educational game called Oregon Trail, a pioneer game meant to reflect the origin story of the American West. (In England we had something called ‘Geordie Racer’.) Sam’s grandfather has a Donkey Kong machine in his Koreatown pizza place. There are even references to Ms. PacMan – who, The Simpsons remind us, struck a blow for women’s rights.
Sam and Sadie have video games in common but nothing else. A chance encounter in the games room of a paediatric ward, then a random meeting in Harvard Square leads them to get together and make their own game, ‘Ichigo’. They are so passionate about their game that they all but drop out of college, miss meals and work for months to get it done. The game is a big hit, making the two young people rich and famous. They move back to Los Angeles and set up their own games company, but progress on further games is stalled by Sam and Sadie’s competitiveness. Both are highly driven people with clashing personal visions for their games. It’s easy to read a will-they won’t-they into Sadie and Sam. But they don’t really want to sleep with each other. What drives them is a quest for validation and recognition from the other.
It sounds very basic when I write it down. Yet Gabrielle Zevin‘s love for her characters, and the care with which she brings them to life, make the story compelling. It’s the kind of novel where you form opinions about the characters and the opinions change over time and you start to second guess your opinions about them – I mean, I was more comfortable with Sam. At thirteen he lost his mother in a car crash that also crushed one of his feet nearly beyond repair. He is in hospital for months undergoing various operations to save the foot, which is where Sadie meets him, visiting her sister Alice who has cancer (Alice survives, fortunately). Sam has not spoken a word since the crash, but there’s a Nintendo in the room, he and Sadie play Mario together and he begins to open up… to a point. Despite numerous surgeries, Sam’s foot never really heals, it pains him and reduces his mobility, and when he finally has the thing amputated, he then has to endure a phantom limb sensation that hits him in lightning-bolts of agony. This does not make Sam particularly nice. As a games businessman he likes big bold hits, and is most at ease on the publicity circuit. As a person he is ‘terrified and cowardly and petty and insecure and sexually panicked and broken’. His body is a source of pain and embarrassment, he is too prideful to ask for help. The attraction of video games is obvious. ‘He wanted Ichigo’s life, a lifetime of endless, immaculate tomorrows, free of mistakes and the evidence of having lived.’
Sadie doesn’t have Sam’s baggage, she grew up rich in Beverly Hills, but she faces more challenges in the games business. As a woman she’s an outlier in the male dominated game world. She takes a class at MIT that teaches students how to make games. When Sadie workshops her first game, called ‘Solution’ (you are a factoryman making various machines: the twist is that you’re actually working for the Nazis) another female student takes great offence at this and tries to get her expelled – a mid-nineties proto-cancellation. Her teacher Dov is a cruel man who seduces her into a relationship of semi-consensual BDSM (Dov’s an asshole but Zevin is so good at creating 3D characters, even he has moments of greatness.) Worse, when she and Sam hit the big time, people tend to credit Sam for everything, omitting Sadie’s role in the creative process. I didn’t like Sadie at all as a person, but her ideas are better, particularly the game ‘Both Sides’ which flips between a boring small town life and a magical other dimension, which I felt captured that sense of possibility I’d felt gaming as a kid.
Sam and Sadie would never be able to work together at all without their mutual friend Marx. Marx is a brilliant actor and people person: he can strike up a rapport with anyone, and enjoys a rich and varied sex life. ‘I devour, and I am devoured’ – that is Marx. He sees always the good and the possibles in every situation and that makes him an ace producer, and the thread of reason that holds the company together. Marx doesn’t have a role in actually making the games. He doesn’t need to.
The novel takes a little while to get going. Despite the very modern subject matter, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is written in an arch, yet expansive past tense (which is refreshing, if you’ve waded through many portentous and breathless present-tensers). If John Irving had grown up playing Donkey Kong instead of wrestling, he might have written something like this novel.
This is Zevin talking about the Los Angeles of the 1980s, before the Olympics.
Los Angeles, especially when taken from a distance, was not a beautiful city, but she could will herself to be beautiful, if only for two weeks. Beauty, after all, is almost always a matter of angles and resolve. Urban renewal projects were accomplished so frantically it seemed like time-lapse photography. Stadiums built, hotels refurbished, decrepit buildings detonated, flora planted, less appealing native flora removed, roads paved, bus routes added, uniforms created, musicians recruited, dancers hired, corporate sponsors slapped on any surface that would receive a logo, graffiti painted over, homeless discreetly relocated, coyotes euthanized, bribes paid; deeper schisms around race and class momentarily tabled because company was coming! L.A reinvented herself as a bright, modern city of the future who knew how to throw a party.
It just falls over. But then, on completion of ‘Ichigo’ you get this:
The sun was coming up, and the snowfall had mostly stopped, and Sam walked home, feeling warm, despite the cold, and filled with gratitude that he was alive, and that Sadie Green had come into that game room that day. The universe, he felt, was just – or if not just, fair enough. It might take your mother, but it might give you someone else in return. As he rounded Kennedy Street, he began to chant to himself a poem that he had heard once, he wasn’t sure where. ‘That love is all there is; is all we know of love. It is enough; the freight should be proportioned to the groove.’ What is the ‘freight’? he wondered. What is the ‘groove’? The mysteries of the poem entertained him, and the poem was so jaunty in its meter (almost, he thought, like the sound of a train barrelling down the tracks), and he felt so uncharacteristically light and happy that he found himself skipping a little – Sam Masur! skipping! – which is why he took a less than careful step off the curb. His foot slipped out from under him.
The freights and grooves of a life, a mind, a body – Zevin is attuned to them. We don’t get to follow Sadie and Sam very far into middle age, because at that point they’re dealing with serious trauma. There is a marvellous section called ‘Pioneers’ which takes place inside an Oregon Trail-like video game itself, and reading it I wondered if Zevin started with ‘Pioneers’ – whether it began as a short story, or a novella. In fact, all the games Sam and Sadie make are fascinating. In a time where it is fashionable only to look upon the dark side of virtual worlds, their bold and gentle creativity is refreshing. There are worlds upon worlds inside Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. As the ‘Pioneers’ chapter suggests, people have always sought diversions that can be all-encompassing. Today it’s the internet, yesterday Grand Theft Auto, before that Donkey Kong, before that the TV, before that the wireless, before that the novel and chapter-play, before that the theatre, from Elizabethan England to the Ancient Greeks.
To be practical is to understand that reality is best swallowed in small doses. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a paean to life itself, but also to escape from life.
Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com and tweets as @MaxDunbar1.
Gabrielle Zevin, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, (Vintage paperback, 2023) ISBN 9781529115543, 482 pp..
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