Zevin, Gabrielle. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Penguin Random House, New York, 2022. F; 10/22.
This story is a real find and so is the author. Thanks, Johanna, for lighting the way. Zevin is a Harvard English graduate and this book is the latest of her five novels and five stories for young readers. It’s captivating as great writing, a complex and widely metaphoric plot, and full of joyful human insights. Couldn’t put it down.
This in spite of the setting being entirely video games, something I have zero familiarity with and less interest in. If they are half as significant as these characters make them sound I’m sure I’m missing something wonderful (but it will take more than this novel to get me on an Xbox diving down virtual rabbit holes). Although the author is a player she’s fully literary and there’s a seamless metaphoric connection between games and creative artistic activity including fiction, and life.
We meet Sam as a poor brilliant Korean-American middle school kid whose foot is injured in a car accident that kills his mother and who spends long post-surgical stretches in pain in a hospital. There he meets Sadie, a rich Jewish girl visiting her sister, and the two become friends as both lose themselves – and Sam’s pain improves – in the joy of sharing their growing intelligence and video game play.
Sadie in the excitement of her early joyful and intellectual friendship with Sam enrols in a program where she gets credit for helping the boy, and Sam is hurt and the relationship crashes when he finds out and feels patronized. Sadie’s grandmother tells her “Mine Sadie. This life is filled with inescapable moral compromises. We should do what we can to avoid the easy ones.” Reading that I guessed I was in wonderful hands, suspended disbelief and pushed the “buy” button on my Kindle.
Years later Sam goes to Harvard and Sadie to MIT. They meet by chance in the Boston subway and contemplate a Christmas holiday ad stereogram which Sam can’t picture, but Sadie gives him a game she has created for an MIT course, he plays, and the relationship resumes.
These two struggle as brilliant successful but flawed tragic characters through the creation of hugely popular video games, business wealth and conflict. There were mildly tedious short stretches but along with charismatic wealthy Marx, a university friend of Sam (PLOT ALERT) and love interest of Sadie who is killed by a politically-motivated young terrorist (END PLOT ALERT), the trio keep developing new projects as their lives entangle with increasing complexity and excitement.
We sense Zevin’s Harvard English in a wonderful over- and underlay of literary reference, but the central ones are there for anyone who’s been to school. The epigraph is from an Emily Dickinson poem where she says ambiguously of love “It is enough, the freight should be/Proportioned to the groove.” The title of course is the start of Macbeth’s soliloquy of despair that ends “… (life) is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” Accessible emotionally-loaded choices.
I love Zevin’s wisdom at dozens of unexpected moments. Let me illustrate with a few quotes:
“Promise me you’ll always forgive me, and I promise I’ll always forgive you.” These, of course, are the kinds of vows young people feel comfortable making when they have no idea what life has in store for them.
“The ambulance is out there right now. They’re taking her to the hospital.” “Will she be okay?” Sam said. “I think so,” Anna said. It wasn’t exactly a lie. She would be okay. Dead was okay.
It is the same world, she thought, but I am different. Or is it a different world, but I am the same? For a moment, she felt dangerously untethered from her body and from reality, and she had to sit down to feel the ground beneath her, before she could continue …
… coming-of-age, reality and illusion, art and games, impact of inner epiphany, all in three sentences.
We are all living, at most, half of a life, she thought. There was the life that you lived, which consisted of the choices you made. And then, there was the other life, the one that was the things you hadn’t chosen.
… she had been a dervish of selfishness, resentment, and insecurity? Sadie had willed herself to be great: art doesn’t typically get made by happy people.
An online critic commented on the downside of encountering this sort of an achievement: the next few books are bound to be a relative disappointment. This one is fairly long so I was happy that at least I didn’t have to continually set it aside to keep it from ending.
This could wind up in my all-time top ten. Don’t miss it. 9.7/9.5