Bryan Lee O’Malley, Seconds (Ballintine, 2014). $25, hardcover.
For someone who writes a lot of reviews, I don’t read them very much. I am, after all, a highly-impressionable boy and so I try and make my own way and forge my own opinions as best I can. But upon finishing Bryan Lee O’Malley’s new book, Seconds, I could not resist the temptation to see how other reviewers were handling what seemed to me a “delicate” matter: the author of the beloved Scott Pilgrim series had written a brilliantly-rendered and beautifully-packaged second-rate book. Surely the resounding chorus of crickets that accompanied my reading of the book was still echoing in the ears of all other reviewers as they sat down to pay their respects to this ambitious but ultimately middling book.
Boy, was my face red! Turns out I was pretty much on my own (gosh, maybe I always am! Maybe I should read reviews more often…). The only thing to do for it was to reread the book, which was in truth appropriate for a book about rewindings and replayings. Unfortunately, try as I might in the end I could not successfully change my first impressions of the book the second time around: it remained beautiful to look at and profoundly underwhelming to read.
Heck, beautiful to look at is a good thing, especially for a visual medium. After all, Scott Pilgrim was a work-in-progress in terms of O’Malley’s development as a cartoonist, truly hitting its full stride in the final volumes when the artwork fully caught up to the energy and wit of the script. And in Seconds there can be no question of O’Malley’s skills as a visual storyteller. Working in color, with a larger format, his experiments with the pace and rhythms of the layouts are a pleasure, and the climactic scenes of super-weirdness at the book’s end are downright stunning. The character design for the protagonist, Katie, is pitch-perfect kuwaii: cute, cool but still believable as an ambitious 29-year old chef on the verge of opening a new restaurant. All of it is laid out beautifully, like a meal at Seconds, Katy’s restaurant (and home) and the setting for most of the drama that unfolds in this book. And the coloring by Nathan Fairbairn is stunning, at times even stealing the show entirely.
All of which is to say, there is a lot to like here. I do not regret the price of admission, and I for one am delighted to see O’Malley move past what was surely the daunting burden of all-eyes attention following Scott Pilgrim with what is by any account a solid single to centerfield. But that’s what we have here. Trying to make it more than it is simply because we love O’Malley and want him to hit a home run is revisionist thinking of the kind this book discourages.
On the level of script the book is at best uneven, struggling for tone and structure throughout and ultimately losing control of both by the end when everything goes apocalyptic and then suddenly ends with a disappointingly flat, “happy” ending. And I put scare-quotes around happy here because, well, really? We are supposed to be happy that Katie ends up having her cake (her new restaurant) and her other cake (Max, the pretty-boy ex who everything in the story up to the end suggested was not right for her). Not much of a lesson here; nor is one to be found in the big meaning Katie derives from her experiences of going out of control with her housesprite-inspired and mushroom-fuelled power: “there are things we can’t change, and we just have to accept that.” OK, it’s a fine lesson, but we didn’t need a 320-page book to tell it to us: there are plenty of motivational posters and AA bumperstickers that can tell us the same thing much more economically. And, it needs to be said, unlike Scott Pilgrim, the book is just not funny. Not once in two reads did I laugh. OK, I came close once, but that was more of an embarrassed giggle when O’Malley recycled his own “bread makes you fat?” joke from Scott Pilgrim.
So, look. I’m glad this book is out there. Given the expectations, let’s call it a solid effort and move on. But let’s not pretend that this is a book we will be returning to again. I occasionally take some ribbing from my more caustic colleagues for being overly generous in my reviews, and it is true I generally write reviews of books that I think are worth reading. After all, life is short and the marketplace is increasingly overcrowded with really strong (and expensive) books. For fans of Scott Pilgrim, this book is worth reading (although you can surely wait for the paperback edition). For folks who haven’t read Scott Pilgrim, well, read it, already. And if you want to read a funnier, smarter and more moving story about how and why you shouldn’t go back in time and try and change your life, read Jess Fink’s We Can Fix It (Top Shelf, 2013).
And let’s call Seconds single a single and stop trying to stretch it into a home run.