Suppose you wanted to write a novel based in part on a four-line poem about love by Emily Dickinson, but you wanted to make it relevant to young readers who tend to eschew poetry. You might make the superficial focus about computer gaming, and the love between friends, among friends, between lovers, and among family that characterizes a group of people involved in developing computer games. You might make it about life and death, and the ways in which online gaming gives you an infinite number of lives and the ability to stop time, unlike the much crueler reality offline. You might make it about the ability to leave your own body and live through an avatar without the body’s shortcomings, and without its problems that can often seem unsolvable at worse, depressing at best. You might make it about the games and gamers themselves, because “no matter how bad the world gets, there will always be players.” Gabrielle Zevin did all of this, and she did it brilliantly.
The Dickinson poem that precedes the books is this:
“That Love is all there is,
Is all we know of Love;
It is enough, the freight should be
Proportioned to the groove.”
Zevin then proceeds to delve into the many different ways freight can be proportioned to the groove, especially through the ongoing and ever-morphing relationship of two main characters, Sadie Green and Sam Masur.
Sadie and Sam met when they were kids in Los Angeles. Sadie, 11, was at the hospital visiting her older sister Alice, who had leukemia. Sam, 12, was in the same hospital recovering from surgery on his foot following a gruesome automobile accident. When Sadie was directed to the game room to pass the time, she encountered Sam, playing Super Mario Bros. Their first conversation was a wonder, and in some ways predictive of their lives to come:
Sam: “You want to play the rest of this life?”
Sadie: “No. You’re doing really well. I can wait until you’re dead.”
As adults, they formed a wildly successful game-producing partnership, all stemming from that day when they first tested each other’s mettle and became friends.
There are so many clever sub-themes in this book deserving of mention. One is the difficulty of programming, and how it both reflects real life as well as the dreams and wishes of programmers, and how the programmer purposefully constructs a game imagining the person or persons who might play it. That theme sets into relief a more important mirror-image theme, i.e., the programming of the human brain, so much more difficult to adjust than in a game. In one notable passage when Sam was 21 and trying to get through a crowd:
“He found himself uttering a series of ‘excuse mes’ that he did not mean. A truly magnificent thing about the way the brain was coded, Sam thought, was that it could say ‘Excuse me’ while meaning ‘Screw you.’ . . . people – the ordinary, the decent and basically honest – couldn’t get through the day without that one indispensable bit of programming that allowed you to say one thing and mean, feel, even do, another.”
Those little white lies, as well as the stubbornness, tenacity, pride, and prejudice that creates life-altering misunderstandings: they are all bits of human programming explored in this story.
Art and the love of art weaves around the plot and adds visual and auditory elements to it: A recurring motif is the famous picture, “The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa” by Hokusai (1833), and the plays of Shakespeare, particularly “Macbeth,” from which came the famous speech spoken by Macbeth “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” In that passage, Macbeth reflects upon the fact that “life’s but a walking shadow . . . that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more.”
How Sam and Sadie wanted “ a lifetime of endless, immaculate tomorrows, free of mistakes and the evidence of having lived,” as well as the possibility of other life outcomes that games could give you. Sadie reflected:
“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.”
Games gave you those doorways, those portals, that allowed for the possibility of a different world, in which you could reinvent yourself as someone new, someone better. The gaming world was perfectible, even though “the actual world is the random garbage fire it always is.”
Furthermore, in a game, one could repair the world’s shortcomings. As Sadie pointed out, “what is the point of having your own world if it can’t right a few injustices of the real one?”
I loved the idea that “good fortune,” or at least the perception of it, was defined as a choice. Sam and Sadie formed a company in partnership with Marx Watanabe, Sam’s college roommate. Sam told Sadie that Marx was the most fortunate person he had ever met. But Sadie, as she got to know Marx, had a different take: “Marx was fortunate because he saw everything as if it were a fortuitous bounty. It was impossible to know – were persimmons his favorite fruit, or had they just now become his favorite fruit because there they were, growing in his own backyard?”
It was Marx, the Shakespeare aficionado, who pointed out with his sunny outlook, “What is a game? It’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It’s the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption. . . . No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever.”
The issue of appropriation also gets coverage in this story: must artists only reference their own cultures? Do individual artists even have a thorough understanding and ability to portray the cultures of which they are actually a part in any event?
The theme of love is of course dominant, and the conundrum of what it actually is: the same question that stymied Emily Dickinson. What was the difference between love and worry, for example, as Sadie wondered: “It was never worth worrying about someone you didn’t love. And it wasn’t love if you didn’t worry.” Does love mean having sex? Or can it be love without sex, but with a creative partnership that moves you more deeply and consistently? Is one better than the other?
Marx, who had many relationships with women in his life, had a typically positive take on what love meant. He always sought to turn the lover into a friend when the relationship was over. His philosophy was “to never stop loving them, to know that when one phase of a relationship ends it can transform into something else. Importantly, Marx believed, “. . . love is both a constant and a variable at the same time.”
Then there was the take of Sam’s wryly humorous and wise grandmother, who saw love as everlasting. She explained to him about her relationships with the people she loved who had died and were no longer around to be either lover or friend: “‘There are no ghosts, but up here – she gestured toward her head – it’s a haunted house.”
The book ends with an acknowledgment that the game of real life has some pretty good features, too. On a “deep, blue velvet night,” when “the moon hung heavy and supernaturally spherical in the sky,” the characters contemplated:
“I wonder who built this engine…”
“It’s good work. The God rays are nicely done, but the moon is almost too beautiful. The scale seems off.”
…”It should look a little rougher, otherwise it doesn’t seem real.”
“But maybe that’s the look they were going for?”
Evaluation: This book gives the reader a staggering number of ideas to think about, all couched in a clever plot and adept turns of phrase spoken by appealing characters. It is definitely one of the best books I have read in a long time, and in keeping with Zevin’s ability to produce unique affecting books that stay in your heart and mind.
Published by Knopf, 2022
Wow, this is quite the rave! I’ve been back and forth about whether I want to read this one, as it’s not necessarily my usual type of thing, but I’m allured by the bits you’ve quoted. It sounds fascinating.
I started this book in the bookstore and must get it from the library. Excellent review.
The comments form doesn’t allow me to leave a link to my own blog. Here it is: https://bookdilettante.blogspot.com/ Hope you will visit.
I agree with Jenny above. I’ve seen this in the library, looked and the cover and moved on. I’ll have to pick it up and read a few pages next time…
I never thought I’d like a book (ostensibly) about gaming. I hope you read it – I’ll bet it will surprise and floor you!
This is on my short ‘must read 2023’ list.