This novel is a mess – at least when it comes to structure. It reads like a wildly assembled collection of great ideas for a story. It reads like a first draft of a novel, where everything is still unordered and does not immediately make sense.
Here’s an example. The protagonist, Russell (I repeatedly forgot his name…) is in his late twenties, he has yet to find out what he wants to do with his life. In the beginning of the book all the reader knows is that he quit law school in order to work a game development company. This company was founded by some of his high school contemporaries. Russell does not come off as your typical gamer or programmer, in fact he states that he hasn’t really been into games since he left high school. Still, he gets the job at the small, but pretty well-known game developer and becomes a designer on their new adventure game.
I personally found this weird. The author probably did not, because he knew the character’s back story. However, he only deigned to reveal that story much much later in the novel. While reading I had reactions like “oh, so they were FRIENDS in high school” or “oh, so he was actually part of the nerd group”, and even “he went to computer camp?! And helped create one of the first adventure games ever?!…ok….”. If I had known these things sooner, I would’ve cared a lot more about the characters and I would’ve been able to understand why this non-gamer guy got a job as a game designer. But even with this knowledge Russell remained one-dimensional and odd. He makes his way as a game designer and still is baffled when his colleagues mention E3. Weird.
And this is what I mean when I say this is a structural mess. I kept forgetting the protagonists name and the pacing was really badly executed. Frequent jumps from college to childhood and back to the present (in this case the late 90s) made for confusing reading. Dreamlike sequences where the line between reality and games blurred could have been really interesting but where simply strange. And only about a hundred pages from the end, the relationship between the four main characters became clear. Also the typeface and layout lack a consequent system. Sometimes there where sub-headings during chapters that designated the start of an in-game narrative; sometimes the narrative just switched from one paragraph to the next. All in all, “You” is very manuscript-like and seemingly unfinished.
Still, there were many things I liked about this book. Like all the 80s and 90s pop culture and gaming references (though these have been done much better in Ready Player One – there, I said it!). I also liked the glimpse into the world of game development and the meditations on why we play computer games and why some of us love them so much. I loved how Grossman immersed the reader in that fake game universe of his. Come to think of it I was more into the world of Realms of Gold than I was into the “reality” of the novel itself.
This actually was a fun and quick read. I just wish Grossman had had a better editor.