Wednesday, 27 August 2014

"Seconds" by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Aaaaaaaaaaaah blog blog blog I missed you so much! I haven't written anything in you for months and I'm sorry. It may seem like I left you for that cute new Tumblr thing but I barely post anything there either. Truth be told, I've gone from working on a really heavy, tiring job (see it here and here) that took up all my weekends and energy for a good couple of months, to taking time off all paid work to immerse myself in a personal project for the first time since uni. It will be seen eventually, and it isn't going to be anything grand but I know the exercise will have been productive.

Today, however, I am taking a break from that project to write in here. I recently picked up and read Bryan Lee O'Malley's Seconds, a one-off graphic novel which is his newest work after Scott Pilgrim. I'd never actually read the latter (only having seen the movie, always a shameful thing to admit to for me), but Joe Sparrow specifically recommended Seconds to me, and the man knows me very well so I had to pick it up.

This isn't going to be a "review". Such things have their place, but many will have written reviews about this book (I haven't read any of them), and it's not my intention to write a brief summary and a watered down opinion for the benefit of people who might be considering picking the thing up. I'll be writing about some specific reactions I had to it, and will assume throughout that the reader has also read the book. Thus, spoilers will be everywhere.

On the whole I really enjoyed it. In particular the story tapped very potently into thoughts I've had for years about regrets and mistakes and owning your decisions. O'Malley's art is good, too.

However, there were two major aspects of the story that felt misjudged somehow. They were Max, and the other house spirit (or witch, or shadow, or mirror, as it is variously referred to).

When I first read through it felt wrong to me that Katie ends up back together with Max at the end. At first I wrote this off to my own emotional baggage around breakups leading me to feel that once you've broken up with somebody it's clear that it was never meant to be and you just have to move on no matter what. However, as I thought about it more and reread the book, I now feel certain that aspects of how Max's character are portrayed aren't quite right.

In order for it to feel thematically correct for Katie and Max to be together at the end, we as the audience need to believe that he is truly valuable, important, and healthy in her life. However, I never felt like the story was convincing me of this. The first time we see Max he frankly comes off as a smarmy shit. He gives Katie his sparkly smile and she melts. We are shown that Katie is infatuated with him, informing us that we're supposed to like him too. However, nothing in this first encounter makes me, at least, like him at all. The story seems to be suggesting that even Katie's feelings for him are entirely superficial, as her reaction is all passion, hormones, irrational emotion, not an honest response to him doing positive things for her as a person. In fact, their whole interaction seems wrong to me given the backstory. It doesn't look like two people who were in a relationship for four years (by which time most couples have moved from the "passion" stage to the "commitment" or "companionate" stage) and then broke up, but who still sincerely love eachother months later. It looks like a girl talking to her high-school crush. However, we're supposed to buy into this vague, nebulous, unconvincing magnetism Max has for Katie. And her feelings are so apparently shallow that she blows him off immediately.

One could say that this first encounter is maybe too brief to establish anything more than this. For Katie's part it's maybe not unreasonable: her avoidant nature (the key aspect of her personality as far as the story is concerned!) is coming out and she's pushing him away. However, I don't feel that this is an excuse from a storytelling point of view. Max ends up being central to the plot, arguably the chief external influence in Katie's descent into her mistake-ridden mess, so the first scene in which we see him, in which his entire relationship to the protagonist is set up, and in which all our expectations and perceptions of him are established, deserves more than these insubstantial four pages.

Subsequent sightings do little to improve my perceptions of Max. The second time around is more of the same: smarmy smile, gets cut short, again with a plot excuse. The third time we actually get to see the backstory. This is the point at which, even if we allow the brevity of the previous encounters, we can expect to really see what Max is like as a person. However, that still doesn't happen. We get to know that he was, in fact, a smarmy cock, and that he and Katie conversed easily before boinking. And somewhere in there a four-year relationsip hahppened. But we're told this, not shown. I finally get the goods on what went down between them, and I still don't love him as much as she does. For crying out loud, the most prominent part of this story is when Katie says "I guess what we had wasn't that strong". The first honest-sounding thing she's said about or to him so far.

And then Katie figures out that she can fix their relationship with the magic mushrooms. This is where things start to feel really off. She's seen him twice so far in the novel, and both times she blew him off within a minute (the second time was during a revision, but it still counts). Hell, both times he was actually trying to talk things over maturely and she still petulantly pushed him away. So suddenly being expected to believe that she still loves him enough to immediately get back into bed with him is a bit much.

(By the way, compare all this to Katie's relationship with Hazel, which we see develop organically and which provides Katie with important emotional outlet and feedback, and the one time we see signs of it breaking down, when Katie neglects the friendship for just a couple of days and finds their conversation suddenly awkward, it comes off as far more poignant and well-observed than umpteen iterations of "I need him to love me")

Now, up to this point I've been commenting retroactively. I'm calling aspects of Max and Katie's interaction "off" or "wrong" based on my knowledge of what comes later (that their relationship is fulfilling). However, in the vacuum of reading the story for the first time, there is actually nothing fundamentally wrong, at least from a storytelling point of view. Because it seems like Bryan Lee O'Malley is setting something up. And as Katie makes more revisions, and things start to spiral out of control, and in particular when she changes things relating to Max, this seems to be reinforced. She finds herself lying next to him in bed, they're still together, living together, and even married. She finds herself stunned at having his stuff in her room, and indulges herself by huffing his clothes in the wardrobe (a physical, hormonal response). However, many things are wrong. Though having boy things in her room is exciting, she is visibly unsettled by the compromise of her personal space, even as she denies it to the narration. Even less progress has been made on Lucknow, her new restaurant, than in the original timelines. Max is running the proceedings on it, not her. The servers at Seconds all love him and not her. She has compromised important aspects of her life for her obsession with Max.

And as she makes more revisions things only get worse. Based on his suggestion, she revises the decision to set up the new restaurant at Lucknow, and instead goes with Talmadge. And having retroactively ceded more control to Max, she finds him invading her life further. It is no longer "my" restaurant but "ours". The look, the feel of it is being done according to his wishes, wishes that, by the way, she literally cannot imagine herself agreeing to (and this is a man she went out with for four years?). The restaurant will now bear their shared initials, instead of her name. Her boundaries have been compromised. More revisions, and she compromises them still further, letting him get ever more stiflingly close, obsessively telling herself that him still loving her at the end of every day is the most important thing. It gets so bad that the world itself seems to start falling apart, and even familiar, comfortable, immutable Seconds starts getting changed according to Max's alien tastes.

These are all clear signs. Max is a destructive, negative influence in Katie's life. Focusing on him is a mistake. Every single thing we see of him in the story indicates that he is not just a red herring: he is the red herring. She makes the most sweeping changes to satisfy her need to be with him, and it ends up literally destroying everything. That is why, in the end, when she gets back together with him, I felt unsatisfied. One could make the argument that the problem was Katie's attitude towards Max, rather than Max himself, that her relationship with him was only destructive when she allowed her boundaries to be compromised for it... but I'm honestly not convinced the nuance is there.

The other confounding aspect for me is the other house spirit that Katie accidentally brings in from Lucknow. Simply put, I'm not sure it's actually a necessary plot element at all.

Thematically, the focus of the story is owning one's mistakes. rather than worrying about undoing them: to instead accept the consequences as a natural part of one's life. The crux of the plot is that the protagonist finds a method that allows her to erase and redo any mistakes she makes, but she abuses it, and finds that it ends up creating a convoluted, confused mess of a life that leaves her less happy than she started. It's a fantastic idea for a story, the kind of thing one imagines practically writing itself.

However, in order to start the degeneration of reality that builds up to the climax, O'Malley makes use of a plot device I'm not sure was ever needed. Katie finds an ancient pot or cauldron in the site of her up-and-coming new restaurant, and decides to take it home and, on a weird whim, uses the dirt in the bottom as some kind of fertiliser for the magic mushrooms that enable her to erase mistakes. It turns out that the pot was carrying the house spirit of the Lucknow building, and it uses the mushrooms itself to tear apart reality in bitter revenge for having been forgotten and neglected for hundreds of years.

Thematically this just doesn't seem relevant. The story is about mistakes. Does this mean that taking some old pot with dirt in it and pouring it over some mushrooms is a mistake? No, it's meaningless. A mistake is distracting your best chef from his kitchen and causing one of your servers to get horribly burned. A mistake is pushing away the person you love. A mistake is compromising your personal boundaries. Pouring some dirt on some mushrooms is not a mistake.

The shadow is used as the motivating force for things to start going truly wrong with the world. As Katie finds that her revisions are tying herself in knots, the shadow is getting stronger, and is using the mushrooms to tear reality apart. The angst of the protagonist is framed against a larger crisis involving the entire world, a well-trodden storytelling tool. However, I don't feel the other house spirit was a necessary device to enable this. It would be perfectly believable for reality to start buckling simply because Katie is using the mushrooms too much and to make too big changes. In fact I think it would feel more organic, as the further she goes back to make revisions the more confusing and alien the new world seems to her anyway: it would make sense for reality lose its grip on itself as Katie loses her grip on her life.

Ultimately she has to placate the shadow in order to right things. She talks it into calming down and letting her bring it back to its proper home. She has a face-off with its horrifying final form, and while this certainly provides a nice climax, the dialogue doesn't feel like it's really tackling the themes of the story as directly as it needs to. We get that in the epilogue, but the final "battle" just feels... divorced and irrelevant. And to be honest I don't know that we needed this second house spirit to provide a scary final boss either. The shadow could just be the amalgamated spectres of all the Katies from all the abandoned timelines or something. That would feel way better.

Again, what is the story about? Is it about house spirits? Is it about placating some superstitious belief? No, it's about believing in your own choices. The idea of house spirits is perfectly fine plot device to kick things off, but having one be the final boss as if that's the whole point is just weird.

So that's my thoughts. Again, it's a good comic and I liked it. I'm just picky. I'm sure if you've read anything I've ever written you know that.