You by Austin Grossman
Another novel that makes staring at a computer screen, thinking, seem more exciting than physical combat. But where Egan took me deep inside the protagonists' heads to generate that excitement, Grossman goes one level deeper, using second-person narration from the perspective of video game characters to take me down past the narrator playing the game and into the game itself. It’s a genius trick, and the fact that Grossman manages the transition between first and second person without jilting me out of the story is impressive.
To me, it’s an example of second-person done right. It contrasts with novels – such as Charles Stross' Halting State – that start out in second person, creating immediate dissonance between me and the story. I’ve never been able to get past the first few pages of Stross' novel, but devoured Grossman’s in a few days.
It also made me miss working in video games. Which is strange, considering how much time it spends describing game developers as ill-fed slobs that don’t have lives outside of work. But that feeling of belonging that the narrator talks about, of discovering where he was meant to be after years spent away from gaming, really hit home for me. The narrator’s descriptions of his childhood in the 80s, even though the character is 10 years older than me, still resonated.
That sense of something important happening when he first sat down in front of a computer, of being on the threshold of the future, didn’t happen to me at the time (I was 6, and not very self-aware), but it could have: I used our Commodore-128 to teach myself how to program, and spent many hours typing in machine language instructions from the back of Compute! magazine in the hopes of being able to play a new game. It didn’t feel like something that was only mine, and not for the adults, but it did feel natural, more so than almost anything else I’ve done, and it still does.
Despite everything it does right, You’s ending is unsatisfying for me. The climax of the book happens off-screen, and in the final few pages – that I tore through the rest of the book in desperation to reach – don’t resolve anything. Perhaps that makes the ending more realistic, but the lesson for me is twofold: first, show your climax. The reader’s earned it. Second, tie up most of the plot threads you weave into the novel by the end. Leave some of them, sure, but after so much time invested, the reader’s going to want to have some of the tension you’ve built up released. Ideally, showing your climax also releases the tension and resolves multiple conflicts – internal or external – at the same time.