By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Is it possible to create an app that will help you find happiness? Can playing online games provide an escape from life’s difficulties and griefs? How much of our personalities and actions are based on our physicality, and how much on our intellect alone? Two recent novels explore the intersection between online life and off-line reality: “Happy for You” by Claire Stanford (Viking) and “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin (Alfred A. Knopf). While what I’ve written might make the two works sound intellectual and cold, it is the very human feelings they elicit that make them so intriguing and ultimately moving.
Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto, the narrator of “Happy for You,” is at a crossroads. After four years of working on her philosophy dissertation, she’s unsure whether she wants to continue. Her research is on the mind-body problem, but new technology – for example, social media, virtual reality and artificial intelligence – has complicated the issue. She believes our bodies are not very important, noting that her “dissertation argued that our online selves were an extension of our consciousness, that they were so deeply enmeshed with our cognitive processes, that they had become part of our minds.” However, Evelyn is not sure she believes her own theory, one of the reasons she finds herself applying for a job at “the third-most popular internet company.”
The third-most popular internet company (which is never named) hires her to research the components of happiness so the company can develop an app that will be used to make people happier. Evelyn is unsure that’s possible because emotions are complex. For example, she notes that “studies had shown that a group of people would say that they were all experiencing the same emotion – anger, for example – but MRIs of their brains would show entirely different regions lighting up.” Plus, Evelyn wonders if everyone defines happiness the same way. Would a text asking how you are feeling at any given moment and then making suggestions for what to do next really make a difference in your life, or might you just think you were happier because an app told you you were according to its algorithm?
These are some of the same questions Evelyn is asking in her own life. As one of the few mixed-race people – in her case, half-Asian, half-Jewish – in many situations, including her new job, she doesn’t know if she thinks about happiness the same way other Americans do. Her Jewish mother died not long after her bat mitzvah, so her connection to Judaism has lessened as she’s grown older. She worries about marrying her long-term boyfriend, Jamie, not because of anything he’s done, but rather because she questions what she wants out of life. Her equilibrium is further upset when she realizes her Japanese father – whom as far as she knows has not dated since her mother’s death – now has a serious girlfriend: he has not only changed how he lives, but is attending church with his Japanese girlfriend.
Then something changes and “Happy for You” takes a more serious tone. The surprise makes sense in the context and forces Evelyn to think more clearly about what’s truly important in life. However, this seriousness is still leavened by Evelyn’s deadpan humor; although she may not actually consider herself funny, readers will. The only puzzling part of the novel was its ending: a specific event occurs that’s not part of the general narrative, but which felt like it symbolized an important lesson. Unfortunately, it’s meaning was not completely clear. However, that is a small flaw in a well-done work.
While “Happy for You” features one main character and takes place over a short period of time, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” offers two – the half-Korean and half-Jewish Sam Masur and Jewish Sadie Green – and present events that occur over several decades. The two former friends/enemies (flashbacks explain their relationship) knew each other in California when they were younger and reconnect when they are attending different colleges in Boston. Sam sees Sadie on a subway platform and calls out to her. She almost doesn’t answer, but, after talking to him, hands him a copy of a video game she’s made for a class. Sam, who is majoring in mathematics, but isn’t interested in the subject, decides that the two of them should work together to create a video game. Their work is the beginning of a legendary collaboration. With Sam’s roommate Marx, who handles the business aspect of their work, they become a gamer phenomenon.
Fortunately, readers don’t have to like video games to be entranced by this novel because it is the human relationships, particularly the intriguing friendship that develops between Sadie and Sam, that is the most important part of the work. Watching how their relationship changes from when they were in their early teens to contemporary times serves as a wonderful character study. This works because they are both interesting in their own right, particularly Sam whose life has been filled with challenges and physical pain. How do they differ? One example is shown when Zevin writes, “It is worth noting that greatness for Sam and Sadie mean different things. To oversimplify: For Sam, greatness means popular. For Sadie, art.” For two people working on the same video game, that means trouble.
The novel also explores the attraction of video games, which allows both characters to escape real life. In Sam’s case, “Sam did not believe his body could feel anything but pain, and so he did not desire pleasure the same way that other people seemed to. Sam was happiest when he felt nothing. He was happiest when his body was feeling nothing. He was happiest when he did not have to think about his body – when he could forget that he had a body at all.” This happens when he plays video games. Sadie, on the other hand, enjoys more of life: “She liked playing games, seeing a foreign movie, a good meal. She liked going to bed early and waking up early. She liked working. She liked that she was good at her work, and she felt proud of the fact that she was well paid for it. She felt pleasure in orderly things – a perfectly efficient section of code, a closet where every item was in its place.” This type of life suits her because it means she could be uncompromising in her creations, making games that appealed to her and a few others, rather than the masses.
However, when a change in one of the video worlds they created has real world repercussions, it radically alters both of their lives. That’s when “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” becomes an incredibly moving, fascinating and great work of literature, making it rank with the best novels of the year.
“Happy for You” and “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” portray young people who have yet to learn that it’s impossible to control all life’s twists and turns – that the real world can make apps, games and the internet seem irrelevant. That isn’t to dismiss those things: the characters never do. However, they do learn to differentiate between the two. They also discover the importance of human connections and the way they create true meaning in life.