‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ by Gabrielle Zevin: The book that finally fixes the sympathetic nerd trope of the ‘80s

Our Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow book review explores how Gabrielle Zevin uses the world of video game design to turn pop culture tropes on their head in her highly anticipated new novel.

I, like every slightly pretentious Gen Zer, read Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. It is brilliant, innovative, and sports some of the most realistic characters I’ve ever come across. It was also, surprisingly, cathartic. Which is one of the main reasons why I wanted to write this Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow book review.

For those still unfamiliar with Zevin’s most recent novel, it centers around two childhood friends with a penchant for video game design and a deficit in dealing with complex emotions. Sadie Green and Samson Masur meet as children in a hospital, where Sadie has a sick sister and Sam is recovering from an accident that left him with a physical disability. They are something like soulmates, but they spend their entire lives leaving and coming back to one another all in service of creating something great. Video game design may seem like an odd backdrop for such a philosophical book—it certainly did to a gaming novice like me—but it worked to bring together the creative and the academic in a way that lends itself to its main characters.

Both central characters are exceptional in their creativity and their more conventional intelligence. Since reading the book, one thought has continually plagued me: Samson Masur, or Mazer as he eventually prefers to be called, is harrowingly reminiscent of the nerd from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and even early 2000s. You know the type: They villainize the popular girl for ‘thinking she’s too good to date them’ while simultaneously admitting to thinking of her while they masturbate. Anthony Michael Hall can be taken as a sort of blueprint for this nerd archetype, playing variations of the same character in Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles. This trope certainly doesn’t stop at AMH though, as we can find him masquerading as Cameron in Ten Things I Hate About You, most of the boys in Dead Poets Society but particularly Knox Overstreet, Ron Weasley of the Harry Potter franchise, or any man on The Big Bang Theory.

When John Hughes asks me to like these young men, my answer is a resounding fuck no, so what makes Sam different? I would use this Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow book review to wager he, like the rest of the characters I’ve named, relates way too strongly to Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag,” but reading him felt different. Let’s start with the obvious: He’s, thankfully, written by a woman; he’s mixed, with both of his ethnicities being marginalized; and he has a substantial amount of trauma to cope with. It is important to note that the sympathetic nerd is almost always white, because in order for unlikeable men to get to be the hero, they need whiteness as a shield. Masur is, therefore, already a deviation from the blueprint. However, the redeeming quality of Masur is not that he has more reason to feel oppressed and lash out at the women he perceives as an amalgamation of his insecurities, but rather, it is that the author never asks us to sympathize with him at all. Masur makes all of the underhanded remarks, has all of the breakdowns, and even outright states the ownership he feels over Sadie Green, but we are allowed to be pissed at him each time. The author does not position Sam Masur as the hero of the story whose actions should be condoned and all injustices against him resolved; instead, he’s as petulant and unlikeable as every other person walking the planet. It would be unrealistic and therefore useless to write stories where men, especially those who would self-describe as nerds, don’t feel entitled to the women and their lives and subsequently act out when they’re turned down. Gabrielle Zevin knows this, and instead of shying away from the ugly truths of this archetype, found in both fiction and real life, she holds up a magnifying glass and allows the reader to make a moral judgment. Now, this is a useful strategy.

To use this Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow book review to go back in time: The loveable and sympathetic underdog nerd was born, fittingly, in the 1984 cult classic Revenge of the Nerds. The film poster shows a stereotypical white nerd with his short-sleeved button-up and bulky glasses holding a pair of red women’s underwear above his head like a trophy. The movie ends in a horrific rape, but we’re not meant to view it that way; it’s sold to us as a victory. How did this violence get turned into justice in the eye of the media? The answer is unnervingly simple: men’s entitlement. The media industry is dominated by white men who did not have a good experience in high school—the jock picked on them and the hot girl didn’t agree to go to prom with them—so they have decided to make it everyone’s problem as adults. These men write the books we read, produce the movies we watch, and direct the TV shows we consume, and they use this as an opportunity to right the wrongs they feel society committed against them. The nerd is the hero, the jock is an idiot, and most alarmingly, the popular girl is assaulted.

The excusal and heroism attributed to the objectification of women comes from the nerd feeling that women owe him sex, and it is a moral failing on their part that they cannot see that. In Revenge of the Nerds, the movie’s resolution is the main character donning a mask and having sex with the jock’s girlfriend, who turned him down. This moment is positioned as a karmic rebalancing of the universe where the nerd gets what he feels he deserves. It’s not seen by many viewers, and has only come under fire in recent years under a more progressive view of consent, as assault. After all, you can’t steal something you have a right to, and therefore, you can’t assault a woman who owes you sex. It is important to understand that the nerd sees himself as fundamentally better than everyone else and believes that after high school the world will right itself and he will be on top. It is not that the popular girl is actually better than him, it is that high school is stupid, and once everyone leaves, she will realize he is the right choice and beg him to take her back. This thinking also tells us that if the nerd assaults a woman, or perpetuates any other kind of violence against him, he is in fact innocent because if she would only realize she was his, he wouldn’t have had to do it without permission.

tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow book review

The entitlement of men is not always shown to be quite this overtly violent, and sometimes the nerd just blackmails the popular girl or makes some sort of trade with her that results in him getting a pair of her underwear. But it is always nefarious. Alternatively, to get back to this Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow book review, when Gabrielle Zevin uses this trope, she, quite brilliantly, takes physical violence off the table. We establish that Samson Masur is not interested in sex, so what he feels owed is romantic partnership. This allows the women and other misogyny-affected people reading the story to get all of the catharsis without any of the fear. This is not the author claiming it is okay for men to demand romantic partnership as long as they don’t assault women—remember, Sam Masur is not the hero here—but it does take the most traumatic and violent personification of this entitlement off the table, keeping readers from being fearful throughout the novel. So many women and other misogyny-affected people have experienced or spent their lives fearing assault at the hands of the men they know, it is easier to address this problem at the level of microaggressions in order to avoid unnecessary violence.

The reader is given the impression that Sam is over-romanticizing his relationship with Sadie from the first few pages, but we get confirmation of this about halfway through the book in the section “Pivots.” Masur has learned that his two business partners, Sadie and Marx, are dating. Sam responds by making some vaguely frustrating statements to his grandfather about how he loves Sadie and always assumed they would end up together. In a later section entitled “Marriages,” Sam has revealed he is aware of his two partners’ relationship with one another, and he and Sadie are discussing it. Masur bashes Marx, calling him boring and insisting that Sadie is too smart to date him. This is one of Sam’s worst moments, as Marx has been unfailingly kind and generous to him and is the only likable character in Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. These instances are upsetting, and give us a hint at Sam’s entitlement, but there is still a lot left unsaid, until a moment in the section “The NPC” near the end of the book. A flashback shows Marx, ever the unselfish friend, consoling Sam the day he admits to knowing about Marx and Sadie’s relationship. A messy exchange ensues, but the takeaway is a quote I knew I had to include in my Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow book review:

“I wish I’d never met you,” Sam says. “I wish we’d never been roommates. I wish I’d never introduced you to Sadie.” Sam is starting to slur his words.
“Sadie doesn’t belong to you.”
“She does,” Sam says. “She’s mine. And you knew that, and you pursued her anyway.”

Masur shows his truest colors in this passage, and the reader gets to leave this exchange blaming him and wondering exactly why Marx doesn’t leave him. This subplot wraps up as the book does, in the final section entitled “Freights and Grooves.” Sadie and Sam have reconciled, and rather than being satisfied with friendship and creative partnership, Masur asks Sadie why they never ‘got together.’ Sadie Green is frustrated. This relationship is complicated for her, and at every chance Sam has to make it easier, he does the opposite. Sadie expresses her exasperation that their creative partnership isn’t enough, and Masur responds by saying he thought it was because he was poor or disabled or Asian-American. If we were living in the ‘90s, the answer would likely be yes; whether the popular girl wants to admit it or not, she is shallow. We would be asked to remember Sadie’s greatest moral failing: She racked up volunteer hours visiting Sam at the hospital without him knowing earlier in the book. Instead, we are allowed to be outraged at this, as is Sadie. Sam is clearly projecting his insecurities onto his friend, and he thinks he deserves all of her, including her romantic partnership. Her disagreement on this point cannot be a result of Sam’s failing, so he turns it into a statement about Sadie as a person, and Sadie gets to say as much. Sadie Green is still the rich girl who sees me as a project, Sadie Green doesn’t date scrawny nerds, Sadie Green wouldn’t date a guy with a disability. This is absurd, as Sadie has been one of the most consistent people in Masur’s life and remarkably good at not dehumanizing or infantilizing him because of his disability.

Sam Masur is endlessly selfish and self-pitying, and we get an unflinching portrayal of these traits and their consequences, as well as his refusal to acknowledge them. Sam goes from not caring that Sadie is in a questionably abusive relationship to resenting her healthy one, always putting himself at the center of every narrative. We are not asked to sympathize with the martyr Samson Masur; we are shown that he is a flawed human being with a raging Napoleon complex. Gabrielle Zevin not only gives us a new archetype for the nerd, but she also takes the time to flesh out the popular girl. Zevin trades Molly Ringwald’s manic pixie dream girl for Sadie Green, a woman who has long bouts of depression, questionable relationships, and absolutely no desire to be liked. In fact, it is her whiteness and wealth that causes anyone to see her as popular—something she is held accountable for failing to acknowledge. Green is apathetic, petty, and self-pitying, but we are never asked to despise her. We are certainly never asked to blame her for not seeing Sam as a potential romantic interest. Sadie Green even gets to state out loud the frustration so many women feel when their man-identifying friends ask the “why did we never become a thing?” question. Rather than Sadie giving an abstract answer about soulmates in another life, she tells the truth: She doesn’t see Sam that way, and she wishes he saw their relationship as just as valid. Gabrielle Zevin knows people are morally gray, and she allows everyone in her universe to exist that way.

I’m not afraid to use this Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow book review to state that a lesser author would have fixed Sam Masur, making him empathetic and respectful. This would have circumvented the issue completely, and likely made Sam into a martyr in the eyes of many readers, and therefore Sadie Green the villain, by allowing his obvious feelings to remain unspoken so as not to disturb the work. A more dangerous author would have allowed Sam to be petulant, but Sadie Green would have had to be perfect in order for her rejection of him to be valid. This would send the message that unlikeable women do not deserve their autonomy, and many readers would have thought Sadie bitchy and wrong for turning down a guy like Sam just because he’s unconventional. Thankfully, Gabrielle Zevin does neither. Instead, we get a portrait of real people, because in life there are no heroes or villains or even soulmates; there are selfish people weighing how much of their human desires to project on each other. Gabrielle Zevin fixed the sympathetic nerd by taking us out of his head and allowing us to see everyone involved as fully fleshed out people from an objective point of view. The popular girl is a person with her own motivations, desires, and faults separate from the nerd or the jock. The nerd is really just another man believing the world owes him everything, and we get to see all his emotions and actions play out in the cold light of day.

‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ published on July 5, 2022

Buy Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin from Penguin Random House, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

This article was written by Subjectify contributor Megan Peterson. Look for more recommendations like this Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow book review on our books page.