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You by Austin Grossman (2013)
You (2013)
by Austin Grossman
Electronic Book
Publication Date: April 16th, 2013
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Buy a copy via Amazon.
Synopsis from Goodreads.

When Russell joins Black Arts games, brainchild of two visionary designers who were once his closest friends, he reunites with an eccentric crew of nerds hacking the frontiers of both technology and entertainment. In part, he’s finally given up chasing the conventional path that has always seemed just out of reach. But mostly, he needs to know what happened to Simon, the strangest and most gifted friend he ever lost, who died under mysterious circumstances soon after Black Arts’ breakout hit.

My Thoughts:
After five pages, I already had a bad feeling about You (this title makes anything taken out of context sound rude or ungrammatical.) But because I thought it was impossible to make video games boring and unfinished books haunt me, so I decided to keep reading, hoping for some miracle to make this novel bearable. That didn’t happen.

You was SO BORING (thanks to the title, I now sound like a toddler). Not even in a rage inducing way so that I can at least laugh about it, but in an incredibly uneventful and bland way. The writing was long-winded, as if the author was trying to reach a word count. Pacing was gut-wrenchingly slow and fast in all the wrong places. The switches between first, second, and third person was confusing. The unannounced flashbacks and spontaneous jumps between Russell’s imagination, the video game, and reality didn’t help things. It was even worse than taking a philosophy class–there was no point in time while reading this novel that I knew what was going on. There was also no moment that I felt engaged. Everything felt disjointed and lacked direction. The characters were paper cut-outs. Worse of all, the protagonist is a condescending loser I wanted to throw off a cliff.

Expectations, Comparisons to Ready Player One:
Now that I finished the book, I went back to read some reviews of it from other readers. And the consensus is: STOP COMPARING THEM! THEY ARE NOT ALIKE except that they are both about video games. Both take a VERY different direction with the topic. And I completely agree. Why I bring it up is because I wonder if Ready Player One, one of my favorite books of the year, gave me expectations about this novel and therefore influenced my opinion. And I don’t think so. Even looking at Austin Grossman’s You as a slower, contemplative novel…it still didn’t work.

Russell, The Guy I Want to Push Off a Cliff:
He is the reason I had a bad feeling from the first five pages. As the protagonist, he is not very likable. Basically, he wakes up one day with a mid-life crisis. He’s twenty-eight, dropped out of law-school, and he doesn’t know what to with his English degree. And he sees his high school buddies, all of whom he ignored for the past decade, have great success by starting an award-winning video game company, Black Arts. He thinks they are “cool,” so he gets a job with them to join the “cool” party. Douchebag move.

So he gets the job even with no credentials, experience, or passion for the field because he has connections and an English degree. He didn’t even do his research, failing to recognize his company’s past productions during a meeting. And he only ever had one computer in his entire life. Never mind that he shoved that computer under desks to accumulate cat hair. Why does this guy want to be in the industry again? Oh right, he wanted to be “cool.”

At this point I would be questioning if it is really THAT easy to get a job as a video game designer. Doesn’t EVERYONE want to get paid for playing games? Seriously, does he at least need writing samples? But apparently back then, it WAS THAT EASY to be a game designer because that’s how the author got his job according to an interview (I am envious.) This also makes me lose faith in the writing behind video games.

Then with a stroke of luck, Russell is promoted to lead designer despite having done NOTHING except drag a few elves around on his computer and “not be reduced to incoherent rage” in the process. Does Black Arts only have five people or something that they have to resort to promoting this guy?

I don’t mind underdog characters who start out being a loser, but grow as a person throughout the novel. Russell is not that character. He WANTS to be that character, but he isn’t. Lisa, his co-worker and former friend, turned herself into my favorite character (which is really not saying much) by calling him out on it:

And so, you know, bye-bye nerds. And that’s what you did. And now you’re back a decade later saying, “Hi nerds, where’s my job?

HALLELUJAH! This is the only time I felt a simulacrum of joy while reading this book. Then Russell acts like a wounded puppy for about five seconds before plunging into another video game.

The highlight of his existence is when he dates a video game character. His tendency to blur the lines between reality and video game makes the novel confusing. It’s creative, but leads me to question Russell’s sanity. He is the reason why parents are paranoid when their children play violent first person shooters.

Simon, The Dead Video Game Genius:
The blurb makes it sound like the novel is about solving the mystery behind Simon’s death. There’s no mystery behind his death, the novel makes it clear in the first five pages that he died in an accident. Probably by falling through an elevator or something–nobody cares about the details, not even the author. Instead we see Simon as the stereotypical reclusive genius through Russell’s condescending eyes. Poor Simon.

Lisa, The Only Real Female Character:
Like the rest of the characters, Lisa is a paper cutout. It makes me wince to see her portrayed as this uptight character who loves to read, but doesn’t know how to have fun. Russell also thinks she has “some cognitive deficit” because she talks too fast. Classic jerk-face Russell. She is thrown into stereotypes, which is saddening when she is the only character with the guts to call Russell out. The only other female character we get is Leira, the princess character in the Realm of Gold video games. The other characters are just pitiful. There’s no character development, everyone else is dismissed as reclusive “nerds” and “geeks” under Russell’s judgmental eye. But apparently, “geeks” are cool now, so Russell rushes to join the group.

Mystery? What Mystery? And Why Should I Care?
Simon is also somewhat of an antagonist for planting a “bug” into a game: an invincible black sword that wrecks havoc. Because these designers can’t do anything by themselves, they just reuse Simon’s old coding and software from previous games, which leads to this bug being embedded in all of Black Art’s releases. You don’t even that this is the main point of the novel until Chapter 22, when he black sword is finally mentioned a second time from its brief appearance in Chapter 6. Until that point (and even after it,) the novel felt like it was flailing around aimlessly. Everything would be solved if they just started from scratch, but I guess nobody has the talent to do that. Russell, now put in charge of tech support, has to fix the bug. It will be the only thing he “fixes” in 383 pages. I guess all the other bugs don’t matter or he is just very bad at his job. He wonders why none of his co-workers ask him about the bugs, despite them being assigned to him. BECAUSE YOU ARE USELESS! THAT’S WHY.

There’s also something about the stock market weaved into the story to raise the stakes and also something about a white flower. I didn’t care enough to figure it out.

What I Thought Was The Plot, The ULTIMATE Game–Am I Missing Something:
I didn’t read the book blurb before finishing the book, so I thought the book would be about creating the ultimate game since that’s how the story opened. Russell is asked what game he would create if he could create anything. He answers with some chess game when he is secretly imagining a game where the user could weave their own storylines and all that romantic, deep stuff about video games. Russell, that game already exists. It’s called life, with surround sound and 3d high definition technology–and it’s also free! This theme pops in an out of the story. It also randomly appears again a third into the book as if the author forgot he already mentioned it in the beginning. I have a feeling this is what Grossman wanted to convey, that video games could tell stories. But this idea was buried amongst poor execution.

Pacing, Info-dumping, ALL Tell and NO Show:
For anyone who never knew what “show, don’t tell” meant, this book is the perfect example. The entire novel left be disengaged because the novel merely told me what was happening, but I didn’t feel like I was part of the story at all. There’s only so much interest I can muster reading about watching a guy play a game on a monitor: the screen flash rainbow colors with realistically rendered characters, the 8-bit sun was gleaming in all shades of yellow, and the orcs went north, and the elves went east, and I strategically ran south to set up an elaborate trap, look at me jump over this bridge–it’s so exciting! Yeah, fun for you because YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE WHO GETS TO PLAY, while I have to listen to you brag for fifty pages. I felt like that envious younger sister who has to look at her older brother play video games at a distance, when all she wanted to do was take the controller. For a book titled You, the book didn’t give a damn about me.

The sloppy writing dragged down the pace significantly. There’s a LOT of superfluous writing. Even though Russell was doing many “exciting” things in his video games, I didn’t feel like I was in the game. Rather it felt like I was reading an instruction manual because Grossman would dedicate at least five pages to introducing the video games characters and history. And because Russell embarks on a mission to play ALL of Black Art’s games, the banal info-dumping keeps happening. I know it’s hard to avoid for the author who wanted to squeeze all these video games into one novel, but in the end, I didn’t care for any of them because there wasn’t enough room to fully immerse me into all these different games. So you are left with a very boring “summary” of the game which doesn’t sound too different from the one you read in the last chapter. Even though it was fast paced in that Grossman covers the entire creation story of Endoria (the Realm of Gold world) in ten pages, it read like a chunk of filler text that didn’t play a role in the story as a whole.

I found a trend in Grossman’s writing: he LOVES long lists with an intense passion. Lists that go four times longer than they should. Lists that read like space filler. Where’s the editor?

Speaking of filler text, here are some puzzling examples I’ve encountered:
“language and reality have no sacred connection.” pffffftttt.
“the prince emerges, ready to do what must be done.” Which is?
“He is, without any doubt, what Simon looks like in his deepest, most private fantasies.” Why would you know that?
“slightly precious-looking saber stance” Precious-looking? seriously? there isn’t a better word for this?

Second-Person Narrative, I Want Nothing to do With This Guy:
I hated it. The use of second person made the book annoying. Maybe it was supposed to make me feel engaged to the novel, but it felt like the book was pointing fingers at me, desperately trying to mold me. Or it sounded too much like a commercial. How ironic for a book about having control and choosing your own path. The more I encountered the second person narrative, the more I felt like being a rebel:
“You should be combing the galaxy for Mournblade and kicking bugs off your to-do list.”
Yeah, YOU should, Russell, not me–but YOU. God forbid YOU do the job YOU are paid to do.

“Evidently you have been crying.”
No! I have NOT been crying. And even if I was, I don’t need YOU to “evidently” point it out.

I knew the second person narrative is addressing Russel or Simon, and not me. But it felt like the book was addressing me as if I was in their shoes. A position I did not want to be in. I didn’t want to be the anti-social genius who died in a “ridiculous accident,” nor did I want to be the twenty-eight year old loser who came crawling back to his “nerdy” friends.

Stuff I Learned from You:
1) Don’t title a book “You”
2) Video game designers from the nineties are masochists and have poorly designed game creating software. These are the people behind user experience?
3) Adding a penis is the perfect way to make readers do a double take. You also know when a penis appears that the author is getting desperate.
4) People said “Screenshots or it didn’t happen.” in 1998. So hipster.
5) Even professionals have poor grammar and write stuff like, “Fix soonest please.”

Rating: F+
I literally rather watch paint dry than read this drivel again. CONFESSION: One of few reasons I finished You after the first five pages was so that I can take out my anger in a review. I found You disjointed and painfully banal–I didn’t even know it was possible to make video games boring, but this book succeeded. I didn’t care for the characters, nor the first/second/third-person narrative. It’s portrayal of women didn’t impress me either. The book tried so hard to be deep, but just fell flat. However, there are others who LOVE this novel for its introspective, authentic look at life and the nineties video game industry.

It makes me sad that I was so excited for this book too. I was squealing inside when I saw it in Barnes and Noble’s. Lovely cover though. Now that I’ve written this review, I can finally delete You from my Kindle.