narfna’s #CBR5 Review #50: You by Austin Grossman

youI really, really wanted to love this book. Like, I sat and stared lovingly at it for an embarassing amount of time, letting my hopes and dreams and fears wash over it in imaginary caresses. I mean, just look at that cover. It’s a cover that just begs for you to love it. In fact, I partially blame that cover for what came next (the rest of the blame goes to Austin Grossman and his publisher). Ever since I read Ready Player One last year, my desire for what I’m going to call ‘nerd fiction’ has increased exponentially. I’ve scoured the internet looking for recommendations, but there just isn’t that much out there.* I feel like I’ve got most of those that do exist already on my to-read shelf.

*This is where you chime in and tell me how wrong I am, that there are lots and lots of nerdy books out there, and you will give me their names.

This is precisely why I was so excited by the publication of Austin Grossman’s second novel, You, a book about gaming and gamers and stories and finding yourself and computers and technology and the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, etc (his first, Soon I Will Be Invincible, is also on my list, although I’m a lot less excited for it now than I was a week ago). Not that I had high expectations or anything.

You is supposedly the story of Russell*, a burned out 28 year old Ivy League graduate who has to go begging at his old high school friends’ doors for a job when he putters out in law school and finds himself without any other prospects. Russell ends up lead designer at Black Arts Entertainment, a company started by two of those friends, Darren and Simon. Simon is dead (mysteriously) and soon after Russell is hired, Darren jumps ship to start his own company, out from the sinking ship that is apparently Black Arts. Black Arts is in trouble because its not so secret weapon was Simon’s brain, and Simon’s brain, along with the rest of Simon, is no longer available. Russell is convinced that Simon left some genius piece of programming behind, but no one can find it, so he starts a personal quest to pay through the entirety of Black Arts’ back catalogue. The novel is mostly a mix of Russell’s workplace interactions, his game playthroughs, some flashbacks to high school, and some truly bizarre dreams that Grossman writes as if they are really happening (one involves Russell going on a date with a video game character, others involve characters giving him life advice). Parallel to Russell’s “quest”, the novel tracks the development of Black Arts new videogame, from inception to release. Will Russell uncover Simon’s secret? How did Simon die? Will the new videogame be a success and save the company from going under?

*To illustrate just how memorable this guy was, I had to go look up his name just now, and I only finished the book five days ago.

Unfortunately, we don’t really get good answers (or answers at all in one case) for any of those questions. (view spoiler)The most satisfying resolution of those I just mentioned comes from uncovering the secret that’s been hiding in the code of all Black Arts’ videogames, but that’s not saying much about it. While there was some resolution there, there wasn’t much, and it was mostly anti-climactic. We never find out how and why Simon died. We never find out if the game was a success. I don’t necessarily think those questions needed to be answered in the story Grossman was trying to tell, but the way he wrote, I expected them to be answered so when they weren’t, it just made me angry.

But frustrating plot resolution was only one of the problems I had with this book. To begin with, trying to figure out what this book is really about is like trying to unravel George R.R. Martin’s Meerenese knot. Is it about Russell? Is it about videogames? Is it about friendship? Is it about stories? I think the answer is most likely that last one, but I’ll never be completely sure. Judging by the paragraph I’m about to quote below, it’s really the story of how so many people can lose themselves in fictional worlds, and because that’s a fascinating subject to me, I probably granted this book a lot more leeway than it deserves. Just as a warning, these are the last two paragraphs in the main text of the book (there’s an epilogue as well, but it’s mostly frustrating and pointless):

“But there is only so much you can do about it. Your character is always going to be you; you can never ever quite erase that sliver of you-awareness. In the whole mechanized game world, you are a unique object, like am oving hole that’s full of emotion and agency and experience and memory unlike anything else in this made-up universe.
You can’t not be around it; it’s you, even though ‘you’ might be the last person you want to be around. But when the game, the second-person engine, starts again, it tells you about yourself, and maybe this time you will get it to tell you the thing you’ve been waiting to hear, the mighty storytelling hack that puts it all together. You’re lost in a forest, surrounded by mist-shrouded mountains. You’re in command of a thousand gleaming starships in a conflict spanning the galaxy. You and the machine, like Scheherezade and her king mixed up together in one, trying over and over to tell yourself your own story, and get it right.”

Look, those two paragraphs right there speak to me. They’re great. The writing, the ideas, the emotion. But that’s all this book had. The characters had no plot arc, no backstory, no frontstory. It was always about the game, and that titular ‘YOU’ playing through the games, like Grossman was trying to put us as the reader into a ‘YOU’ as well by making Russell as empty as possible, his very own second person engine wandering through his novel like it was a game instead of a story, which is an interesting idea, but I don’t think it worked. Ideas do not make novels, as great as they can be to think about. Ideas can be in novels, but they shouldn’t be the main point. Characters should be the point. Story should be the point. And for a book about the power of stories, you’d think Grossman would know that.

You’ll notice despite all that complaining I did up there, I’m giving the book three stars. There was stuff I enjoyed about the book. It was fascinating to see the making-of process for video games, and the history of the company was really interesting as well. Watching as Simon, Darren, Lisa, etc. built this thing from scratch, and how games have evolved in the years since was probably my favorite part of the book. Grossman’s prose is also really lovely in parts. I’m giving this book more credit than it deserves because I really liked the ideas it was playing with, and several bits of it resonated with me a lot on a personal level, but if I’m being honest, for most people this would probably be a two star book. For a lot of the reasons I mention above (technical jargon, mostly) it’s also really, really inaccessible and will only appeal to people who either a) Play videogames, 2) Design videogames, or 3) and this is the subset I belong to, understand videogames and most of the ephemera surrounding their creation and utilization, and for whom the idea of escaping into imaginative worlds, regardless of medium, is an obsession. If you don’t fit into one of those categories, this book will frustrate the hell out of you. Hell, I do fit into one of those categories, and it frustrated the hell out of me anyway.