Reasonable Reads: “You” by Austin Grossman

(Editor’s Note: I thought Matt might have a good time with my Chris Christie comparison, and he certainly did.  While I cook up a response to his essay, here are a couple of new pieces I’ve been working on.  

“Reasonable Reads” will be our book-club discussion heading, and we’ll kick the series off with a light read: Austin Grossman’s You, a book I checked out on a whim last month.  I plan on deep-diving into Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul in the next installment.

Plot: Russell, an itinerant late twentysomething, moves home to Boston in 1997 and goes to work for a video game company founded by his high school friends.  The company’s co-founder Simon recently passed away, and as Russell cuts his teeth in the game development world, he revisits his old relationships and reflects on his current station in life.

Quick Summary: A fast-paced but dull and drawn-out story marked by flat characters, mishandled plot strands, and muddled exposition.

Expanded Discussion: I picked up You because it looked like a quick summer read and because it promised to discuss an idea I’m interested in learning more about: the unique narrative experiences that video games can provide.  As books and multimedia are adapted and optimized for digital devices, it seems that games will play a greater role in influencing storytelling’s evolution.  I was hoping Mr. Grossman would encase enlightening thoughts on this theme within an engaging story.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.   None of the characters give the reader any reason to feel invested in the story.  Simon’s isolationist history and quest for the ultimate experience is the closest Grossman comes to developing an engaging narrative thread, but Simon is dead, a passive engine who exists to move the tired endeavor along.   Russell, our driver, is an uninspired protagonist who shows no sense of enlightenment as the story progresses.  The plot hinges on Simon and Russell’s shared search for transcendence in gaming amidst personal turmoil, but Russell’s actions and personality consistently undermine his supposed realization of what this transcendence entails.  We’re left with annoyingly brash and banal comments that make it clear how Russell has learned nothing from the previous experiences he constantly complains about.  “F*** parents, f*** having a real job.  Maybe this is what we do,” he declares at one point in the story, a maddeningly juvenile remark from a 27 year old who is supposedly learning about what it means to be an adult.

Grossman’s development of the story is hindered by his characters’ lack of depth, and the book’s construction mirrors this imprecision.  The history of Russell’s employer Black Arts is interspersed throughout the narrative to parallel Russell’s increasing knowledge of the company, but this decision creates frequent confusion about the mythology’s relation to the main story arc.  Grossman also blends the two stories so that the four game sages appear in Russell’s “real life” to help him learn about the company (and life itself).  This leads to frequent cringe-inducing scenes such as the one when a wizard tells Russell about his dating prospects with a programmer at the company.  These scenes are unnecessary, dull, and only further dilute the tenuous maturity Russell asserts on account of his new position.  They also feel like a narrative cop-out.

I understand that the incorporation of the game characters in Russell’s life, as well as the shifting between first and second-person narration, is supposed to manifest how games require that element of personal investment to effectively fuse the ideal and the real.  But the entire process is done too sloppily to be effective, resulting in pervasive and stagnant narrative ramblings about two-thirds of the way in.  Page after page sees Russell play through various games in the hope of finding a major computer bug, a decision that torpedoes any interest in the four fictional characters.  These constant game jumps preclude the reader’s emotional investment in a lush dreamscape to foil the Massachusetts testing zone, effectively extinguishing the thrill of video game immersion that Grossman is trying to capture.  The incorporation of a “real-world stock crisis” within the last one hundred pages is a gimmicky throw-in that adds a diluted, cheap sense of tension to the climax.

It’s frustrating that Grossman handles his characters and story like this.  At the core of the book lie some very worthwhile and intriguing themes, including how to deal with the ennui of young adult life and the potential for interactive media to lead to something greater than the self.  “In the whole mechanized game world, you are a unique object, like a moving hole that’s full of emotion and agency and experience and memory unlike anything else in this made-up universe,” he writes, a wonderful condensation of what makes games unique as a narrative medium.  Unfortunately, any such insightful observations are subsumed in the text with minimal subsequent development.   The book includes some worthwhile questions and ideas about game theory, but these ideas are shortchanged at the expense of a bloated plot.

Skip You.  There are plenty of other titles that warrant your attention first.