I should know better by now. When I first picked up Gabrielle Zevin’s new novel, morning, 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 update” as I do about harpooning a whale. You see where this is going. Because regardless of its subject, a novel, if strong enough, takes us readers deep into worlds that are not our own. That’s correct Moby Dickand it is certainly true tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow This makes the process of developing a great video game as addictive as tracking that great white whale.
Zevin’s main characters, Sam Masur and Sadie Green, first meet in the playroom of a children’s hospital in Los Angeles when they are about 11 years old. Sadie is there because her sister has cancer; Sam was in a horrific car accident that killed his mother and crushed his left foot. Almost in silence, they connect via the Super Mario Bros. game that Sam was playing.
Since Sam has been emotionally shut down, the nurses are ecstatic and ask if Sadie could stop by again. Sadie’s mother suggests that her visits could count towards the community service she has to do for her upcoming bat mitzvah. Sadie returns for weeks to play with Sam, secretly presenting her timesheet to the nurses at the end of each visit. Transactional, secure, but also real. Here is how Zevin’s omniscient narrator beautifully describes the intense connection between the two friends:
Allowing yourself to gamble 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 gaming, even sex.’
The plot of Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow extends over around 30 years. Estranged, Sam and Sadie reunite as college students in Boston. In the late 1990s she was one of the few women at MIT; Sam is an estranged Harvard fellow whose Korean grandparents run a pizza place in LA, twenty-one-year-old Mr. Monopoly…”
While still in college, they are working on developing a game called Ichigo, which becomes a box-office hit. The plot then jumps to the founding of Sadie and Sam’s own company called Unfair Games, and finally to a stunningly rendered tragedy that is a by-product of good intentions in one of their games.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow is as complicated as the games Sadie and Sam invent, all stories within stories in this novel. This is a stirring tale of a man-woman relationship that is not romantic but is based on shared passions and heated arguments. For example, Sadie wants to make art: she wants her games to be difficult and beautiful. Sam, a former sick boy who loved escapist, values entertainment very highly.
There are also clever musings about cultural appropriation here, as the game Ichigo is inspired by the famous painting by Japanese artist Hokusai The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Most importantly, Zevin’s novel explores the thrill and frustration of creative work. Here’s a passage where Sadie struggles with the “look” of the game, Ichigo:
Like most twenty-somethings, 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 couldn’t achieve that lightness no matter what she tried. When [the character] For example, Ichigo ran [Sadie] wanted the look to be less solid, almost watery… [But] Ichigo just looked blurry and invisible – nothing like “water in motion”. When [Sadie] getting close to the look she wanted, the game mostly crashed abruptly.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow fulfilling the wishes of Sadie and Sam: It’s a large, beautifully written novel about an understudied subject that manages to be both serious art and immersive entertainment.