Until the Future: “Tomorrow” Novels by Emma Straub & Gabrielle Zevin

These two 2022 novels I read from the library recently were such fun, but also had me fighting back tears – they’re lovely, bittersweet reads that think seriously about time and failure and loss (and prompted me to ask myself, “Was everything better in 1995–6?” The answer to which is an emphatic YES). If you’re a city-goer, you’ll appreciate the loving depictions of New York City and Los Angeles. They’re also perfect literary/ commercial crossovers that I can imagine recommending to just about any of my readers. Both:

 

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub

Emma Straub is one of the most reliable authors I know for highly readable literary fiction (see also: Jami Attenberg, Maggie O’Farrell and Ann Patchett): while there’s always a lot going on in terms of family dysfunction and character dynamics, her plots are juicy and the prose slides right down (especially Modern Lovers, as well as The Vacationers). Here Alice Stern is a frustrated 40-year-old who feels stuck career- and relationship-wise, working in admissions in the same NYC private school she once attended and living with an okay boyfriend she secretly hopes won’t propose. She devotes much of her emotional energy to her seriously ill father, Leonard, who it seems may never be released from the hospital.

Leonard is the one-hit sci-fi author of a cult classic about time travel, and when an inebriated Alice falls asleep near her childhood home on the night of her 40th birthday, she has her own time-travel adventure, waking up on her 16th birthday in 1996. This is her chance, she thinks: to make sure things go right with her high school crush, and to encourage her father to write more and adopt healthier habits so he won’t be dying in a hospital 24 years down the line. As she figures out the rules of this personal portal and attempts the same transition again and again, she starts to get the hang of what works; what she can change and what is inexorable. And she tries to be a better person, both then and now.

True sci-fi aficionados would probably pick holes in the reasoning, but I would say so long as you pick this up expecting a smart commentary on relationships, ageing, loss and regret rather than a straight-up time-travel novel, you’ll be just fine. Straub is closer to my older sister’s age than mine, but I still loved the 1990s nostalgia, and looking back at your childhood/teen years from a parent’s perspective can only ever be an instructive thing to do.

It’s clever how Straub starts cycling through the time changes faster and faster so they don’t get repetitive. The supporting characters like Sam (Alice’s African American best friend), Kenji and even Ursula the cat are great, and there are little nods throughout to other pop culture representations of time travel. This was entertaining and relatable, but also left me with a lump in the throat. And it was all the more poignant to have been reading it just as news hit of author Peter Straub’s death; it’s a daughter’s tribute.

Some favourite lines:

(Alice thinking about Leonard) “She would feel immeasurably older when he was gone.”

“Maybe, she thought, … her mistake had been assuming that somewhere along the line, everything would fall into place and her life would look just like everyone else’s.”

(in 1996) “Everyone was gorgeous and gangly and slightly undercooked, like they’d been taken out of the oven a little bit too early”

“Any story could be a comedy or a tragedy, depending on where you ended it. That was the magic, how the same story could be told an infinite number of ways.”

 

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

I didn’t think I’d ever read another novel by Zevin after the dud that was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (by far my most popular negative review on Goodreads), but Laura’s fantastic review changed my mind.

Here’s the summary I wrote for Bookmarks magazine:

Sadie Green and Sam Masur met in unlikely circumstances. In 1986, Sam’s serious foot injury had him in a children’s hospital, where Sadie was visiting her sister, who had cancer. They hit it off talking video games, but Sam was hurt to learn Sadie kept up the visits to earn community service hours for her bat mitzvah. When they meet again during college in Boston, they decide to co-design a game. Helped by his roommate and her boyfriend, they create a bestseller, Ichigo, based on The Tempest. Over the decades, these gaming friends collaborate multiple times, but life throws some curveballs. A heartwarming story for gamers and the uninitiated alike.

The novel was more complicated than I expected, mostly because it spans nearly 30 years – and my main critique would probably be that a shorter timeline would have been more intense. It also goes to some dark places as it probes the two central characters’ traumas and tendency to depression. But their friendship, which over the years becomes a business partnership that also incorporates Sam’s college roommate, Marx Watanabe, is a joy. The creative energy and banter are enviable. Marx is the uncomplicated, optimistic go-between when Sam and Sadie butt heads and take offense at perceived betrayals. Underneath Sam and Sadie’s conflicts is a love different from, and maybe superior to, romantic love (I think Sam might best be described as ace).

Gaming comes across as better than reality in that it offers infinite possibilities for do-overs. Life, on the other hand, only goes in one direction and is constrained by choices, your own and others’. Part VII, “The NPC” (for non-player character), is in second person narration and is beautiful as well as heartbreaking – I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers.

Apart from playing Super Mario with older cousins at 1990s family reunions and a couple of educational computer games with my childhood best friend, I don’t have any history with gaming at all, yet Zevin really drew me in to the fictional worlds Sadie and Sam created with their games. What with the vivid imagery and literary allusions, EmilyBlaster, Ichigo and Master of the Revels are real works of art, bridging high and low culture and proving that Dickinson’s poetry and Shakespeare’s plays are truly timeless. I was also interested to see how games might be ahead of their time socio-politically.

This reminded me most of The Animators and The Art of Fielding, similarly immersive stories of friendship and obsessive commitment to work and/or play. In the same way that you don’t have to know anything about cartooning or baseball to enjoy those novels, you don’t have to be a gamer to find this a nostalgic, even cathartic, read.

Some favourite lines:

“for Marx, the world was like a breakfast at a five-star hotel in an Asian country—the abundance of it was almost overwhelming. Who wouldn’t want a pineapple smoothie, a roast pork bun, an omelet, pickled vegetables, sushi, and a green-tea-flavoured croissant? They were all there for the taking and delicious, in their own way.”

Sam to Sadie: “We work through our pain. That’s what we do. We put the pain into the work, and the work becomes better.”

Marx (who was a college actor) in the early years, citing Macbeth: “What is a game? 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.”

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26 responses

  1. On the face of it, neither of these draws me in (Sci-fi? Gaming? No thanks!). But on the strength of your warm recommendations, I’ll look out for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, I’m generally wary of sci-fi as well, unless written by literary authors (Octavia E. Butler, Michel Faber, Emily St John Mandel, Sequoia Nagamatsu, Mary Doria Russell et al.). And like I said, I’m no gamer. I think for both authors the focus is more on relationships, with alternative worlds as symbols of possible real-world futures.

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      1. You’re convincing me!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Both already on my list, although I was a little doubtful about the Zevin. You’ve convinced me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent, just as Laura convinced me — a blogger chain!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, I’m so happy you also loved the Zevin! The Straub sounds right up my street – I love both time travel and Groundhog Day premises – so I’ll be checking that out very soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I worry that you’ll find the Straub too simplistic — but I’ll hope that you love it too!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have a copy of the Zevin and am keen to give it a go. I was a bit of a little gamer back in the late 80s and am always drawn to narratives about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you may just be the ideal audience!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have both of these on the pile. Mustn’t forget about them, they both sound wonderful and right up my street.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They’re real treats!

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  6. I didn’t hate The Storied Life but it didn’t make me want to read more Zevin.

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    1. In tone they are completely different. I found AJ Fikry’s story schmaltzy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, but not as bad as some others.

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      2. That sounds fair 🙂

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  7. Yeah, I absolutely loved the Zevin. I too have very little gaming experience, but it doesn’t matter; the book draws you in whether you’re an aficionado or a newbie.

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    1. Ah, brilliant, glad you loved it too. Creating a video game seems to have a lot in common with any other literary or artistic venture. Zevin could have played up the techie side of things but didn’t particularly.

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  8. The Straub sounds great (I bet Laura has read or would like that!) but a bit close to the bone with both of us having unwell parents at the moment. We are planning to read the Zevin together (audio book and real book) and in fact Matthew just pushed for that to be another holiday read, but we’ve only got a week booked away and are already taking the Kingsolver! It feels like it’ll be a bit like Coupland’s Microserfs, and although I’ve not done much gaming at all (if I have to learn to do something over hours, I’d rather it was Spanish or a craft than how to do a computer game, so I’ll only play really intuitive ones; I did have a bad SIMS habit in the early 00s) I think from the range of people I’ve seen liking it, we’ll both love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Straub wrote and published it while her father was very ill, I guess as her way of coping with the idea of being without him.

      I’ve not read Microserfs but I have read JPod and 5 of Coupland’s others, and I’d say there’s a coldness/snideness to his writing that isn’t present here.

      Hope you enjoy both the Kingsolver and Zevin — big American novels to get lost in.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I talked to Matthew about this and we both thought Generation X and particularly Microserfs were a lot warmer than his later work – we gave up at J-Pod as it got too sneery – we think Matthew finished it and I didn’t but can’t remember, which is quite an indication of how we found it!

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      2. Gen X is the earliest of his books I’ve read, so perhaps my mistake has been to focus on the later stuff!

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  9. This Time Tomorrow is one of my books of the year so far. It just really got to me. The Zevin is on my list, glad you liked it so much!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m a fan of Straub, but your enthusiasm for the new one helped me overcome my suspicion of the premise!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This time tomorrow sounds interesting. She seems dissatisfied so she needs an adventure for sure. I’m sure there will be some good insights as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it manages to be both fun and profound. Hope you enjoy if you get the chance to read it!

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