Philadelphia author Eric Smith’s latest YA venture is a love letter to gaming and geekdom. Split between narratives featuring two characters, New Jersey gamer Divya Sharma and Philly writer Aaron Jericho, Don’t Read the Comments is a spin on Gamergate with a frustrated teenage girl at the center.
Divya and Aaron
Divya is a recent high-school graduate who finds herself bearing the financial load of her two-person household, live-streaming the video games she plays online through Glitch (a stand-in for real-life game-streaming platform Twitch) for revenue and sponsorships. Her single mom is a graduate student, her father opted out of the family before the events of the novel, and Divya still manages to find joy in gaming despite the pressures of playing for sponsors as well as the ugly underbelly of gaming while female, which means almost constant harassment, sexual as well as other types, simply for doing her job.
Aaron is a writer for an indie gaming startup in the city, spending the summer before his senior year of high school trying to get recognition and back pay for his groundbreaking fantasy script. Complicating matters is his successful physician mother, who wants a more traditional career trajectory for her son, preferably one that echoes her own.
Claiming space in geek culture
Aaron and Divya predictably “meet” while adventuring on the season’s hottest game, Reclaim the Sun, a multi-planet roving quest. Their online adventures are a haven in their increasingly stressful lives. Aaron’s character is a familiar trope: the creative child butting against strict, traditionalist parents, but his parents are much more gracefully and sympathetically rendered than most, more fully fleshed out than the typical antagonistic authority figures. However, it is Divya, who is struggling to keep a roof over her head and forced to commodify everything, from her hobbies to what she wears, in order to maintain a minimum decent standard of living, who feels very of-the-moment and relatable. In the era of car shares, home shares, and the gig economy, Divya is a clear-cut example of the toll it takes when not only every penny, but every minute, needs to be accounted for.
Into the mix enter the Vox Populi, an online group of gamers with grandiose ideas of what it means to be a gamer and how outsiders should be dealt with. They hate Divya for being a girl and resort to increasingly aggressive digital and real-life maneuvers to bump her out of their sphere. To someone unfamiliar with online culture, they might come off as cartoonish and one-dimensional. To anyone who’s tried to claim space in geek culture, they are horrifyingly real.
No savior needed
Fans of Ashley Poston’s Geekerella books will find Smith’s prose is charming and endearing. His plot shifts fluidly between Divya’s and Aaron’s distinct voices and intertwined narratives, and he’s smart enough to allow Divya to be her own white knight, while Aaron’s more impulsive ideals about saving her are rapidly and routinely checked by his best friend. Aaron is awkward and well-intentioned, but he’s never allowed to overshadow Divya’s story. In the end, he provides stalwart support, but the story belongs to her.
What, When, Where
Don’t Read the Comments. By Eric Smith. New York. Inkyard Press, Harlequin Enterprises, January 28, 2020. 368 pages, hardcover. $18.99. Buy it here.