Saturday, September 21, 2013

You by Austin Grossman

Grossman's first novel was Soon I Will Be Invincible (see my old ComicMix review), one of the best superhero novels I've seen (up there with Miracle Monday, actually), though the villain half of that book was stronger than the relatively conventional hero half. Six years later, he came back with this second novel, one similarly grounded in geek culture but set in the real world and featuring naturalistic characters leading basically ordinary lives.

You is a oh-god-we're-getting-older novel set in the world of videogames, circa 1997, with a cast mostly just hitting thirty at that point -- pointedly, all about Grossman's age (and close to mine, as well), and the timeline particularly focuses the sense of aging. (Since we all thought we were getting old then, when we turned thirty, but we had no idea what we were in for. And the fifty-, sixty-, and seventy-somethings are smiling wryly at us, thinking we still don't know.)

You is as conventional in its own way as Invincible was: the core characters were a group of teen-age nerds in the mid-80s, who met and started making videogames together in school. There's the brilliant short guy who has no social skills: Simon. And the Jobs-ian glad-hander who's not quite as good at coding but knows all about people: Darren. And the Ally-Sheedy-in-Breakfast-Club token female and obligatory Asperger's case: Lisa.

And, finally, Russell, our first person narrator. He was part of the circle in high school, contributed slightly to the first couple of games before they left school and went pro, but then spent the ten years in between pursuing a series of failed careers: lawyer, writer, this, that, the other. He's finally back in town (just outside Boston), and gets a job at Black Arts Games as the novel opens.

With that set-up, the expectation is that the novel will explore some buried secrets among the four old friends [1], but Grossman isn't interested in that: Simon died four years before (in a dramatically offhand way that feels important for the whole novel, but never leads anywhere), and Darren splits from Black Arts almost as soon as Russell arrives. You quickly turns into Russell's journey through, and into Grossman's love letter to the progress of, videogames from the early '80s to the late '90s -- most of the book is Russell digging through notes and documentation, and playing through all of Black Arts's catalog, to get up to speed on the new job that he's totally unqualified for.

So Russell plays through all of the games -- a series of fantasy adventure, SF adventure, and spy adventure stories with interlinked characters and stories, and a single underlying engine -- while Grossman gets to philosophize about what gaming is and why we like it. You doesn't have a lot of the usual strengths of a novel: the characterizations are thin, the overall plot is simple and linear, and there's little attention given to the world or larger philosophical points.

But, if you've spent any substantial time over the last three decades playing games -- and, if you're around my age, it would be hard not to -- You will be a thoughtful, engrossing look at why we've spent so much time poking buttons and typing "search all" and manipulating controllers and squinting at various screens deep into the night. And Grossman does have an organizing conceit that required You to be fictional -- the games that Black Arts created are not simply other people's famous games thinly disguised -- so there's a clear reason why he didn't just write nonfictionally about the real games of that era.

(Though I do have to admit that I miss Doctor Impossible, and want to see Grossman get back to a voice like that -- strong, self-aware, larger-than-life, driving to do huge things or fail spectacularly in the attempt.)

[1] If you want to read that novel, the best example that comes to mind right now is Walter Jon Williams's This Is Not a Game.


Mike G. said...
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Mike G. said...

Sounds like it's got a very similar target audience as "Ready Player One", at least in terms of the game era. I'll have to give it a try. Thanks!

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