Over the years, such diverse characters as Robert Preston in The Last Starfighter, Dexter Douglas in Freakazoid! and Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy all taught us the same lesson: It’s shockingly easy to blur the lines between the ones and zeroes in a computer game and the actual life we imagine ourselves to be living outside of it. In You, novelist Austin Grossman doesn’t just blur the lines between virtual and authentic reality; he slices them into bits, tosses them in the air and lets them land like confetti on the page.

Grossman, whose hilarious super-villain spoof Soon I Will Be Invincible (reviewed here in 2007) was nominated for the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, pulls back the curtain to invite us into the Mountain Dew-fueled, all-nighter world of the video-game designer. He’s uniquely positioned to do so, having himself worked as a consultant on such titles as Tomb Raider Legend, Trespasser: Jurassic Park, Clive Barker’s Undying and even Epic Mickey.

Set in Boston in the “oddly chilling spring of 1997,” You initially charts the journey of slacker Russell Marsh, fresh from a series of career misfires, into the maw of video-gaming giant Black Arts Games, which had been founded by four of his closest high school pals. The reader’s first warning bell sounds upon learning that one of them, Simon Bertucci, died under mysterious circumstances not long after the company’s first smash release. Russell’s initial job is to help design Realms of Gold VII: Winter’s Crown, but as the story unfolds, time-and-shape-shifting back and forth between the present and past, cyberspace and cubicle-space, his task becomes staggeringly more complex.

There’s an old saying in computer programming: “Things that go away by themselves can come back by themselves.” So it is with an odd glitch in the software that seems to have taken on a life of its own, and it threatens to destroy not only the game, but also the company, and quite possibly the global economy. Got an app for that?

As Russell labors to smash the bug that vexes him, he takes us on a virtual tour of gaming history, with every road leading back to two central questions: why did the smartest brain in the business sow seeds of destruction in the universe that he built? And can Russell avert the catastrophe before those seeds sprout?

 

Thane Tierney lives in Los Angeles, and spent countless hours in his youth pumping quarters into Pong.

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