Novel: You by Austin Grossman

Austin Grossman’s You (2013) was a bookstore impulse purchase, and I’m so glad I snagged it. This one looks at the history of video gaming through a fictional lens, and it’s a richly imagined and compellingly nostalgic journey.

The narrative pivots around 1997, when lapsed computer geek Russell abandons a career in law in his late twenties to reinvent himself as a producer for Black Arts, a video game giant founded by his childhood buddies Darren and Simon. Circumstances thrust him into a major design role for the latest release in the company’s flagship fantasy franchise, Realms of Gold. But as game development progresses, he finds himself drawn into an increasingly quixotic quest: to root out a bizarre software bug plaguing the company’s complex gaming engine. In the process of immersing himself in Black Arts’ gaming history to solve the problem, he reflects on the dawn of the computer age, when he and his friends — including the enigmatic genius, Simon, who died tragically young — were taking their first tentative steps into uncharted technological waters.

You paints an impressive emotional portrait of its late twentieth-century milieu, and I think it will particularly resonate with readers who grew up in the 1980s and remember the early days of Commodore 64s, Apple IIs, and video arcades. I was never an early adopter, but even for me, You’s flashbacks took me on an immersive gaming nostalgia trip: from Centipede and Tempest, to the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Genesis, to Final Fantasy VII and Worlds of Warcraft. Grossman clearly knows gaming, but he also knows how to translate the gaming industry for the rest of us. It makes for a compelling backdrop for Russell’s past-mining, mystery-solving quest. The surface mysteries didn’t resolve all that neatly, unfortunately; the narrative lost touch with the characters a bit in the latter stages, delving ever deeper into Black Arts’ fictional gaming canon. But it’s still an extremely satisfying read, its unusual ending solving a different mystery, one that I wasn’t expecting. Highly recommended, especially for gamers.

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