Book Title: In Real Life (Standalone)
Author: Lawrence Tabak
Number of pages: 288
While Seth mopes about his tournament results and mixed signals from Hannah, Team Anaconda, one of the leading Korean pro squads, sees something special. Before he knows it, it’s goodbye Kansas, goodbye Hannah, and hello to the strange new world of Korea. But the reality is more complicated than the fantasy, as he faces cultural shock, disgruntled teammates, and giant pots of sour-smelling kimchi.
What happens next surprises Seth. Slowly, he comes to make new friends, and discovers what might be a breakthrough, mathematical solution to the challenges of Starcraft. Delving deeper into the formulas takes him in an unexpected direction, one that might just give him a new focus—and reunite him with Hannah.
(re: Goodreads @ In Real Life by Lawrence Tabak)
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:
– Presented like a character case-study on the average gamer hoping to turn a dream into reality.
– The less you know about the gaming community or the eSports industry, the more enjoyment you may find with this read.
– Protagonist is presented like a Marty Stu (the male version of a Mary Sue character; basically flawless) and there is limited consequence to his actions that propel him to achieve [almost] everything on his road map.
– Relationship with the primary love interest is fleshed out over time despite the possibility of it actually being instalove.
– Discrepancy in experienced culture shock considering Seth’s willingness and assumed knowledge of the environment prior to endeavoring into the Korean environment versus a regular Westerner venturing into the unknown. Also utilizes stereotypes to sell some narrative elements without making social commentary to change the way of thinking.
I was so stoked to read this book because of the nature of content this story delves into is near and dear to me. That being said, I’ve been sitting on writing this review for a while because the wording was difficult to get right—and I’m not even sure I even scratched the surface with some of these discussions I’ve made below (despite it being almost 3k words too long lololol).
Full disclosure: I received an advanced reader copy of In Real Life through Netgalley for an honest review. I extend thanks to Tuttle Publishing for providing me the opportunity to review this book.
Disclaimer: Potential spoilers inherent to this review from here onward.
Plain and simple: Tabak’s In Real Life is a character case-study of the average gamer striving to make a career out of a dream. In a world with increasing geek chic and hipster culture, I was honestly hoping for this novel to resonate with me because everything in this is familiar territory; the intent behind the content being my bread and butter for a large chunk of my life. But with character driven plots, the book lives and dies by the protagonist—and that is where I ran into the biggest problem with this read. Now I’m not saying that this kid is farfetched in conception but it was [at times] misguided in delivery and not often representative of the culture behind the gamer mentality.
Now you might be wondering how I can throw judgment like that. From a personal standpoint, I’ve been gaming since the early ages of eSports when Blizzard dominated the gaming scene with Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft; along with the likes of first-person shooter (FPS) game trumps CounterStrike and Unreal Tournament (this doesn’t even include MMORPGs I’ve played). I religiously followed these scenes, particularly Starcraft/Warcraft (for which Starfare is likely based off of) which lead to the eventual Aeons of Strife, Defense of the Ancients (DOTA), Heroes of Newerth, and League of Legends. I stayed up late to catch streams of tournaments in Korea, and while people peruse the Globe and Mail, I immerse myself in gaming news. That was (is?) my life when I was in elementary/high school, so while I might not be in the shoes of a progamer, I have strong attachments to how things are being represented. This doesn’t even discount the fact that I’ve grown up around gamers as well, so perhaps that has some bearings as to how Seth was portrayed. #rantover
Also, have you ever had that feeling when you watched a movie trailer and you think to yourself that the preview basically condensed the entire movie into two minutes? I think the synopsis and the book cover oversells the point and is a bit of an immediate spoiler. When comparing the packaging and the overall read, it would have been more of a curious journey to have left some bits a mystery so readers can remain optimistic about their protagonist’s goals. Just a passing thought. (Also: there may be a discrepancy in the synopsis on Goodreads for Starfare versus Starcraft.)
Seth Gordon is a 15 year old teenage-math-wiz who lives and breathes gaming (or Starfare) when he’s not dealing with the hassles of divorced parents, living in the shadow of his esteemed basketball player of an older brother, and enduring the struggles of lacking tangible relationships with his peers at school. As complications arise at home from his less-than-doting parents who would want nothing more than to see their son roll his face over the pages of a textbook, Seth is forced into an ultimatum which forces him to get a job. But there is a silver lining in all of this. His mind, which was once full of Starfare gameplay, reaching national and international progaming fame, and studious, math-driven hobbies is now facing a crisis: a crisis named Hannah.
The narrative follows a first-person perspective in capturing Seth’s rise and fall from his journey of playing video games as a pastime to when that enjoyment morphs into something much uglier; as if his gaming was now a job. (What a shocker). The book is split into two parts: Kansas and Korea (I think it should have specified South Korea, but that’s okay), and I found the setting in Kansas to be your standard American fare of a town while Korea was described with more of a nod to pop culture and its shock effect than anything else.
The first half of the book felt a bit dragging in terms of pacing; but perhaps that was the point. Hear me out. Seth is quite the unreliable narrator and he’s certainly not the most interpersonal one in real time or cyberspace. He spends a lot of time in his head, formulating and projecting opinions of others that stem from his jealously and inability to personally emote. While there is usual power [in writing] to show instead of tell, Seth is written with the intent of continual rationalization. He thinks and thinks and thinks, and that seems to be very in line with the stereotype of introverted gaming geeks/nerds. So that’s good—it represents a sample size of individuals. However, on many occasions it did feel as though Seth was talking to his audience and not experiencing things on the first-hand account like he should; as if he needed to explain things or narrate [to himself or to someone]. One case that I remember is a passage that went something like: “I don’t really think much about it,” which could have just been omitted entirely or otherwise said as “I can’t think about ABC because [DEF reason]. Now I’m no expert at English or anything so I can’t claim its wrong—but it was definitely weird to read into.
The second half was paced quicker and simply more engrossing due to the difference in environment and vibe regardless of the prose being written the same. There’s extra nuance in how everything has become a new experience to Seth which propels the pacing of events in highlighting the important revelations of his new life. On willingness alone, he seems to eat the same egg sandwich (called gaeran tost-u) when he’s searching for food. I guess there’s a saying, “Why fix what isn’t broken?” But with how it was explained, these egg toasts are a trendy affair in cafes not the described food stalls where Seth purchased it from; which usually have more traditional Korean foods (note: I had to confirm with some Korean friends in this regard). With minor discrepancies in culture that doesn’t really take away from the plot but it’s certainly something to think about as culture shock is an important theme to this novel.
Now let me take a moment to tangent to talk about the culture behind the gaming community, from what I’ve witnessed.
Depending on who you ask, the gaming community being represented in North America can be a bit misleading (not saying that it’s not entirely true). In most gaming scenes, there is a sense of toxicity amongst players of all ranks, but from an outward superficial level, the usual trend is that there’s lesser real negativity (often in the form of verbal abuse and bullying) when the community is much smaller—that being the higher echelon of players. The logic in this is that there’s camaraderie built into a smaller niche group. But sometimes that can be a misconception. Am I saying that everyone holds hands and sings campfire tunes? No—life is far from perfect at the top of the podium. I’m sure players secretly chirp each other out in their own time (or just in their minds), but when you’re standing on top with others, there’s still some form of respect underpinning the raging egos. And from my reading, part of this respect was missing between Seth and his colleagues at the National (American) level. But if this is the reality of the eSports community, then its news to me because every time I view a large-scale event, players from around the world are [for the most part] content with each other. Maybe not immediate hugs and friendly banter but there’s an understanding and environment to celebrate the game with those who have reached that level of superiority. There are winners and there are losers in any setting, and despite Seth being among the top ranked in his country, the atmosphere around his peers is downright tense, awkward, and [sometimes] borderline bullying. The resilience of good game jargon used to punctuate the end of a match feels like it’s lost in the negative egoism of its players—which isn’t a genuine representative of the population. I understand the intent in thematic commentary regarding trolling and bullying in the dark crevices on the Internet (and otherwise online community) but it often handles it at the expense misrepresenting part of the player-community. That’s just my two cents from my own experiences with various gaming communities.
I will also leave some of the gaming usernames for your viewing pleasure: ActionSeth, DTerra, Stompazer2, 3-PointShooter, GForce22, HelterSkelter, GamerzG!rl, RaiderRadar. No comment here.
If it wasn’t enough that teenagers these days have already mastered their invincibility complex (because rarely do kids feel the fear of illness and death), Seth also carries this mantra into the realm of social awareness and the embodiment of the ultimate Marty Stu. As a representative of teenage gamers, there are so many red flags that are being waved regarding his behaviour. Despite being phlegmatic in nature, Seth seems to have everyone at his beck and call, and everything is so easily handed to him without tangible consequence. This caused me to read into his character as being narcissistic, and quite frankly, conceited considering his aspirations and his tacit knowledge for the industry. Furthermore, Seth basically chirps out the ugliness in other players at the tournament/convention he attends in America. But where his Marty Stu-ness shines the most is when Seth lands in Korea. He basically has the perfect physique compared to all the other Koreans with the same haircut style and everyone has white fever for him. Not to mention that in the land of the foreign, Seth thinks it’s also surprising to see English words in one of the most globalized cities in the world—where there’s plenty of western food influences and many of their signs being shown in more than one language (re: had confirmation from a Korean friend).
Understandably, Seth is a Western character who has grown into the ambition of the Eastern gaming scene. But why is it that he’s familiar with the Internet environment yet so oblivious to the ‘awful pop music’ that is Korean music—which might I add has taken over the North American scene in the late 2010’s to what Japanese pop was during the early 2000’s. Now I’m not sure whether or not this is supposed to spark dialogue regarding culture shock but it would have made a lot more sense if Seth wasn’t the progamer that he is and he wasn’t trying to break into a scene he should know very much about. It just didn’t work. There was also this idea that Seth was some prodigal math wizard and I’m just not interested in delving into more detail regarding that narrative element as it did have some influence on his personal and gaming career. I’ve burdened you enough with Seth talk.
The saving grace in Seth’s character was his relationship with Hannah—although even that started a bit rocky. Why? Because before he met girl numero deux (Hannah)…there was Brit. The same Brit that was on his mind day in-and-out suddenly is out of his mind. Brit isn’t even brought up ever again by him until she walks into his workplace—talk about convenience. But that’s okay, I guess, because despite Hannah being the recipient of Seth’s instalove (or simply attraction)…it does pan out over the span of the novel; about a year, and it does paint the image that boys are unknowingly bad at romance. Moreover, Seth’s propensity to show affection might be the truest thing in this entire book (if we consider his character as a nerdy gamer) and it was something that was handled quite well if you could get past the daydreams and non-descript [and likely] nocturnal emissions. I’m just kidding—the latter didn’t happen. There’s this psychology (and perhaps a stereotype) that girls are enticed by emotional attraction while boys are more physical, but this book seems to find a balance to exemplify both in a way that becomes refreshing in the YA contemporary romance genre.
There was also a wavering undertone between Seth and his parents (re: divorce) that kind of isn’t fully fleshed out. His mom basically ditches him for some voodoo yoga facility and his father is more often than not away on business—leaving Seth to do what Seth pleases—and yet for some reason he still feels the need to be connected to them. I kind of wished this area was explored more because I went through something similar to this and ultimately favoured one parent over the other for obvious reasons.
Some of the “Asian” individuals in this novel speaking English was kind of a hit and miss for me. As a person of colour myself, I understand the use of broken English but it honestly felt kind of off-putting to read into. I’m not sure how else I can explain it. I mean, there is truth in the portrayal with how enunciation of words is difficult if it isn’t the dominant language in the country. So maybe I’m just biased as to actually seeing it first hand when you grow up as a coloured individual facing the continual criticism that your English proficiency is always being questioned. I guess I just wished that there was more commentary regarding Seth learning Korean and the broken telephone which would be created there-in; instead of the situation being one-sided. I just don’t know how to feel about this, sorry.
In Real Life is truly about facing the realities of misguided dreams and the outward feeling of alienation of the insurmountable culture shock when venturing into the unknown. Despite a less than stellar protagonist carrying the weight of stereotypes that line the framework of the gaming community, there are some narrative gems that vividly describe the importance of relationships between friends—both offline and online. And though it may be nitpicking, Tabak has crafted a piece of work that will appeal to readers who seek some insight into the progaming community; even if there are some reservations made in realistic delivery (or so I personally think). As I mentioned earlier, this book lives and dies with the protagonist and while I personally found him to be a giant Marty Stu, he may be an interesting character to read into in terms of male protagonists within the contemporary genre. The last thing I’ll say is that despite having reservations as to how things played out in this novel (considering my [almost] negative vibes in rambling), I’m actually quite on the fence with how I feel as an overall. You see, I’m glad there are more books dealing with these types of character aspirations (gaming as a career) but at the same time, I’m not fully enjoying how this plot was realized.
I’m just so perplexed that I’ll just stop talking and confusing myself even more. gg in real life.
// End of review.
This book has already been released but I just took so long to write it. My apologizes for the lateness and this incredibly long read! And now perhaps I will go game and alleviate some pent up stress from ranting so much.