Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
By Gabrielle Zevin 
Alfred Knopf, US
ISBN: 978-0593466490
416pp.
 

I was a bit hesitant to read Korean-American author Gabrielle Zevin’s book Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow because my trusted source on book recommendations had summarised it as a story about video games.

I have not played video games since Pac-Man came out in 1980 and then Tetris a few years later, so I imagined the novel would be about the modern kind of gaming — a topic that doesn’t interest me. However, my faith in the source goes back a long way, so I downloaded the book on my Kindle and am grateful I did.

It would be unfair to limit this novel to just being about video games. The two main characters, Sadie and Sam, meet as 11-year-olds at a hospital and forge a friendship while playing video games. Over a span of 30 years, they grow up to design their own games and become famous for them.

Readers will become vested in Sadie and Sam’s relationship and their lives, and learn about the world of video gaming without ever feeling bored. As we watch our characters grow and face challenges both personal and professional, we can’t help but fall in love with them. And love is complex, so we will often be frustrated with Sam and Sadie, but it is also why we will feel so invested in their stories.

A novel centred on video games and gamers is actually about friendship and the power of complex connections

Their stories tell us about family, friendship, love triangles, sexism in the video gaming industry, abuse of power in teaching, ambition, greed and loss. Throughout their ups and downs, video games remain their constant.

The story is also about Marx, Sam’s college roommate and another constant in Sam and Sadie’s adult lives. Marx is not a gamer like them, but gets involved in their company. He is what every aspiring good guy should want to be: the best friend, the best co-worker, the best listener, the best partner and the best mediator between Sadie and Sam when it comes to their creative differences.

Marx also gets to say one of the best lines in the novel, when he explains what a game is: “It’s tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. It’s the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption. The idea that if you keep playing, you could win. No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever.”

When we meet Sam, he is in a hospital recovering from a near-fatal car crash. Sadie is there visiting her sister, who’s admitted for treatment. She meets Sam in a waiting room and they strike up a conversation while playing a Super Mario video game.

We learn that this is the first time Sam has spoken to anyone since being admitted into hospital. This thrills the nurses, who ask Sadie’s mother if the little girl can visit again. They agree and Sadie’s mother suggests that Sadie use the time as community service, which is required by the Jewish temple to which they belong. That, however, is not Sadie’s main motivation, because she genuinely enjoys her time with Sam. “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,” writes Zevin.

Sadie was, by nature, a loner, but even she found going to MIT in a female body to be an isolating experience. The year Sadie was admitted to MIT, women were slightly over a third of her class, but somehow, it felt like even less than that. Sadie sometimes felt as if she could go weeks without seeing a woman. It might have been that the men, most of them at least, assumed you were stupid if you were a woman. — Excerpt from the book

But Sam discovers a timesheet that Sadie has the nurses sign after each visit as proof of her community service, and is devastated. This leads to an estrangement between the two until they reconnect as college students in Boston, away from their hometown of Los Angeles. Sadie is one of the few women at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), while Sam studies at nearby Harvard University.

Perhaps because both are navigating the strangeness of being away from home, they are able to return to their world of video games and re-establish their bond. They work together and create “Ichigo”, which becomes a bestseller, rocketing the developing duo to fame and success overnight.

Fans of video games hoping to learn about the programming and designing that goes into the process of developing a game will be disappointed, though, because Zevin doesn’t ‘geek out’ in the novel. The story is not about the mechanics of the games as much as it is about the connections between the players. From the moment they meet and play as children, to the time they begin creating games together, the bond between Sam and Sadie, playing in silence, strategising their moves, tells us about the power of connection.

While the novel may be explicitly about a friendship built on video games, it is essentially about people who bond over shared interests and experiences. Sam and Sadie are outsiders — he is mixed-race and lives with his grandparents in Los Angeles; she spends her time volunteering at the hospital where her sister is being treated for a grave illness. Years later, when they meet as college students on the East Coast, they are still misfits, dealing with racism, ableism and sexism on campuses.

As Ichigo shoots up the gaming charts, pressure mounts on Sadie and Sam to create new games that are equally good, if not better. It is here that fault-lines re-emerge between the two friends. Sadie, in the spirit of ‘been there, done that’, now wants to create something memorable, never been done before, whereas Sam wants to stick to the tried-and-tested format of Ichigo and create something entertaining. Their tussle arises because Sadie is unable to deliver on her goals.

This time round, though, breaking off their connection is not as simple as when they were children. As Sam and Sadie navigate the difficult terrain of being friends who are also business partners, we are reminded of how complex adult friendships can be. This was something I greatly appreciated, because often we gloss over friendship as a — if not the — most wonderful thing, something sane in an otherwise insane world.

But friendship is often a very complicated relationship, fraught with tension. Sam Masur and Sadie Green love each other, but they also fight and harbour resentment, even anger. This makes them relatable, even unforgettable, and is a testament to how good Zevin’s skills at character development are.

As she writes, friendship is “to acknowledge that love is both a constant and a variable at the same time.”

The reviewer researches newsroom culture in Pakistan and tweets @ledeinglady

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 21st, 2023

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