“Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin is a poignant coming-of-age story that explores themes of creativity, collaboration, love and identity, while also detailing the importance of human connection in the creative process.
Zevin’s newest novel chronicles the artistic journey of two game designers, “often in love, but never lovers.” Former childhood friends Sam Masur and Sadie Green are drawn together again by chance on a cold December day in their junior year of college. Both Sam and Sadie study game design at Harvard and MIT, respectively, creating games for personal and academic projects. When the two run into each other in Harvard Square, Sadie gives Sam a copy of a game she’s been working on to look over. So begins a legendary collaboration that fuels a lifetime of success, struggle, friendship, love, loss and betrayal as they build off the success of their first game, “Ichigo,” and navigate the future of their relationship.
The book’s title takes from William Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy from “Macbeth,” setting Zevin’s own characters up as “poor player[s]” in the game of life. As Zevin writes, “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.” Diving into the world of video games, where ‘game over’ isn’t really the end, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is about how people in real life grieve and grow from the circumstances they’re dealt. Zevin reimagines Shakespeare’s original statement about the futility of life by turning it into a more optimistic note about how people live for the possibility that everything in life will work out eventually if they keep trying.
The plot revolves largely around Sam and Sadie’s relationship as friends and collaborators. The growth and challenges they face as creative partners are integral to the story’s wider focus on how modern relationships are shaped by identity, privilege and power dynamics. Sam, who was raised by his Korean grandparents, spends much of his early life in working class conditions, fighting an uphill battle after being left physically disabled by a car accident that also killed his mother. He simultaneously respects and resents Sadie for her socioeconomically privileged background and upbringing. Meanwhile, Sadie struggles to make a name for herself in the world of game design as her accomplishments are constantly undermined by her relationship with powerful men in the industry. Zevin weaves a realistic narrative of what it’s like for people with overlapping social identities to thrive in a highly cutthroat environment.
Zevin’s approach to cultural representation, specifically of Asian American representation, is also a point of praise. Zevin, who is herself Korean and Jewish, infuses her characters’ identities with a nuanced consideration of race and cultural experiences.
In a conversation about cultural appropriation, Sam states, “The alternative to appropriation is a world where white European people make art about white European people with only white European references… I’m terrified of that world… and as a mixed race person, I literally don’t exist in it. I was raised by Korean immigrant grandparents in Korea Town Los Angeles and as any mixed race person will tell you—to be half of two things is to be whole of nothing.”
Though Sam’s statement commits a logical fallacy in assuming there are only two extreme alternatives in the participation and appropriation of culture, his point alludes to a familiar sentiment for mixed-race and American-born Asians. The idea that existing between two cultures can make one feel like they have to choose between the two is an experience that Zevin explores in depth, especially when the team is discussing the extent to which culture will influence their art and creative process.
Another character whose cultural experience is widely explored in the novel is Marx Watanabe, Sadie and Sam’s close friend and collaborator. During a visit to Japan where he and Sadie discuss his childhood, he says, “I didn’t feel like anyone understood me. I wasn’t Japanese enough, but I wasn’t anything else either.”
As an Asian American, I identified most closely with Marx. His remarks about feeling distanced from his heritage and his struggle to relate to both his Japanese upbringing and American identity were relatable and authentic. I appreciated how Zevin addressed issues of racism and Asian American representation in the arts without making these dialogues seem forced or overdone. Oftentimes, authors fall short in appealing to younger generations of Asian Americans by creating ‘token’ characters whose ethnic identities are essentially their whole personality. However, Zevin’s use of casual representation and her tactful exploration of cultural identity within the Asian American and mixed-race communities felt natural, refreshing and representative.
Compelling not only in its discussion of racism, disability, and gender, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” also weighs in on the multifarious nature of identity and the enduring power of friendship that ultimately enables someone to confront these social inequities. What resonated with me the most throughout the novel was how genuine the characters are. Zevin crafts complex characters whose thoughts, motivations, ambitions and flaws are unapologetically human. In parts eight and nine of the book, Zevin delves into grief and how Sam and Sadie’s respective past experiences dictate their reactions to the death of Marx.
While Sam, familiar with grief after reconciling with the death of his mother, pours his energy into the next project as a form of distraction, Sadie spirals into a deep stage of depression. She shuts out Sam and distances herself from work that she once considered her passion. Sam’s pressure to rebuild their company and Sadie’s inability to recover derails their partnership, causing them to part ways one last time. Ultimately, their respective backgrounds render them incapable of understanding what the other is going through and providing emotional support. Here, Zevin exposes her characters’ raw emotional responses to grief, which reinforces the complexity and authenticity of their coping mechanisms. Sam and Sadie grieve beautifully, self-destructively and wholeheartedly, Zevin seems to say.
Though a common critique of the book is its characters’ likability, I would argue that Sam and Sadie’s personalities, choices and mistakes reflect humanity in its rawest form: imperfect. This imperfection underlies the social structures that dictate not just Zevin’s literary world, but the real world as well.
Zevin also does a great job of making game design accessible to readers who aren’t familiar with video games. Her use of industry language and understanding of the history of video games makes it clear that the book was well-researched. One of Zevin’s greatest strengths in the novel was her ability to synthesize contextual understanding with factual information made easily digestible by thoughtful explanations and simplified concepts. With references to the Japanese influence that popularized a new genre of games in the late twentieth century and the mention of several groundbreaking game titles from the late 1900s to early 2000s, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” caters to a niche of literary gamers who feel personally connected to the gaming industry, as well as readers who might never have picked up a controller.
At its core, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” captures what it means to love, learn, repeat. The novel hails the art of play as a mode for self-discovery and an escape from suffering, hinting at both the potential and futility of a life with endless tomorrows. Zevin’s novel is an emotional journey that urges readers to make the most of their tomorrows with the people they love. We are, after all, players in the greater game of life.
Photo Credit: “The Great Wave” by Hokusai
Source: Wikimedia Commons