Alert: This Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow book review contains spoilers.
Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a story of creative kinship between two gamers, Sam and Sadie, whom we meet as children and follow through their quarterlives. There are moments in which you think the two protagonists might turn lovers, and there is even a slightly titillating will-they-won’t-they energy that Zevin courts, but Sadie (and, it is to be assumed, Zevin) asserts: romantic relationships are “common,” while “true collaborators in this life are rare.” The fact that this message supersedes all else in this complicated, dark, expansive plot is a feat in and of itself, and an interesting “talk back” to convention. Though we are well beyond the era of “the marriage plot,” the book seems dead-set, even slightly elbows-out, about the fact that this is not a love story, and still, I wondered the entire time whether Sadie and Sam would end up together. What this says about how we have been conditioned, as readers, is interesting, especially given that the title of the book draws from Shakespeare, master of romance and key forebear to the genre writ large. Yet the title has been fully appropriated, de-contextualized from its original intent. In Macbeth, the protagonist’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / creeps in this petty pace” soliloquy laments the meaninglessness of life. Macbeth has just learned of the death of this wife, and is in despair. Though Zevin cites the referenced Shakespeare passage explicitly through conversation between her characters, she makes clear that, in this case, “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” is about the infinite do-overs of play. There is always a “start over” option in which we might go back and begin again.
The sad truth, though, is that life does not actually operate in this way. In fact, there are so many traumatic happenings in this book that result in ghastly and permanent outcomes that the characters’ obsession with the gaming presents as a coping mechanism. As a child, Sam witnesses a suicide, and then his mother dies in a horrific car accident next to him that leaves him maimed to such a horrific degree that he must eventually have his foot amputated. Later, a critical and lovable supporting character, Marx, dies after a shocking act of gun violence. These are plot events of the most macabre imagining.
Zevin doesn’t fully resolve the dissonance there. In fact, the third person omniscient narrator seems to hover unflinchingly, matter-of-factly, above these happenings, assigning less significance to them than, in my opinion, the mechanics of game play and the mad magic of creating them. In passages focused on the latter, the characters truly shine. I say this because when I think of Sam and Sadie, I think mainly of their brilliance while collaborating. I think principally of their spars over the marketing of the game, the way in which they find and console one another while playing games, their undying attraction to these other worlds they have built. I think much less about the traumas they navigate. And so, even from a rhetorical standpoint, the novel seems to enshrine connection through play and imagination as the ultimate achievement. It promises redemption and rebirth. The rest is, well, details. Pixels. Dust.
Zevin is a meticulous writer. The diction alone blew my mind. Susurrus! She uses the word susurrus! But there is so much more. For one thing, I loved the way the narrative structure borrowed elements of gaming. For example, she often interrupts the chronological flow of the story to return to a previous plot point as experienced by another character. The non-linearity reminded me of game play, in which you might “save” at a certain point of the game to return to it later, or start over, or start a particular challenge over, or — say — switch roles mid-session. On this last point: I appreciated the friction she builds between points of view. Sadie, as an example, appears to deduce the wrong conclusion from the discovery of a game on which her former lover had written her a note. She believes Sam read this note, immediately understood that Sadie was dating this man, and insisted she beg him for the right to use his game engine — using her as a pawn, or a sacrificial lamb, to achieve success in the design of a new game. As it turns out, this is not true — or at least, Sam (corroborated by Marx) say it is not. There are many moments in the story like this, when the characters strain to understand, and often misread, one another, and we are only given a fuller view of the interaction when the narrator “hands the joystick over” to the other character, (e.g., we gain omniscience at key moments). It feels a bit like Zevin is lording this over us, feeding us tidbits of key information at strategic checkpoints, which is to say — she writes this book very much as a game designer might structure a game. There is a deliberate sequencing and leveling up. You might argue that all books operate according to this general sequentiality, but there is something italicized about it here. Zevin goes so far as to have her characters directly discuss the ways in which gamers are artists, and it is impossible not to think, therefore, about the construction of the novel in similar terms.
This book is wildly creative; I’ve never read anything like it. I marvel at the expansiveness of the plot, of the way the prose dapples light and loose atop the atrocious tragedies that befall its characters. It is a marvel of construction and ingenuity from a narrative standpoint alone, and there is also the fact that her characters are gorgeous, drawn with stirring care and intimacy and roundness.
This is the most inventive, pleasurable book I’ve read in recent memory.
What did you think?
Book Club Questions for Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
What do you make of Marx’s character? Is he a foil? Why is he such a prominent “third party” in a story that makes much of the “creative friendship” between Sam and Sadie?
The novel engages with themes of “belonging” (or, put more accurately, not belonging): Sadie as one of the few females in her MIT program, Sam and Marx as mixed-race Asian-Americans, Sam as an amputee. What are we to make of exclusion/inclusion in the novel?
Why does Marx die? What does his death achieve in the novel?
What did you make of the chapter in which we are immersed in the game Sam has designed, following the characters? Did this chapter disrupt the narrative? Did it add something?
What do you think Zevin is saying about players and games?
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