Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley’s popular Scott Pilgrim series of graphic digests, adapted as a thrilling but financially meh 2010 film starring Michael Cera as the titular Toronto twenty-aught, remind me of that old-timey riddle about a zebra. Were these grounded stories about the relationships between a group of aimless, ambling Millennials filigreed by comic book superpowers? Or about a superhero comic masquerading as a shabby-chic Dawson’s Creek?
Excepting all the thinly sketched female characters, the Pilgrim books mostly worked because they straddled the magic-realism borderline. The superhero elements provided a cathartic release, a way of resolving workaday problems within the explosive frameworks of genre. In doing so, the books made fairly novel claims about the sway of pop culture. It’s like we disappear inside books – or movies or video games or anime or comics – not as plain escapism, but as a way of grappling with problems about relationships, work, whatever. If you can’t, at some level, buy into this function of fiction, then what’s the point of fiction in the first place? To read about people who have different names than you? Weird.
Seconds, O’Malley’s anticipated follow-up to Scott Pilgrim, strikes a different balance between zeitgeist-baiting and genre-copping, between magic and realism. Like Pilgrim, Seconds is stylistically inspired by Japanese manga: wide eyes, spiky hair, exclamation points and question marks hanging over characters’ heads to literally punctuate their moods. As if responding to Pilgrim’s female cast exclusively populated by manic pixie dream girls, vindictive exes and coquettish Asian tweens, Seconds belongs to Katie, a 29-year-old chef on the cusp of opening another restaurant in an unnamed borough. (So, unlike the Toronto-set Scott Pilgrim, there’s no landmark spotting for keen-eyed local readers.)
Katie is a caricature of the Millennial generation: those 80-some million born between 1980 and 1996 frequently lambasted in crotchety op-ed pieces for desiring more out of work than a paycheque and knowing that the active verb for posting a message to the social networking site Twitter is “tweeting” not “twittering.” (Before anyone accuses me of anything like the abovementioned crotchetiness, I fit squarely within this demographic. I even accidentally glopped Hollandaise sauce from my artisanal mid-week brunch Benedict on my review copy of this book. I promise!)
Katie’s flighty, frantic and driven by an impatient ambitiousness. So when she finds a cache of magic mushrooms that allow her to erase any mistakes she makes in her daily life, one misstep at a time, she seizes the chance to construct a more perfect life.
It goes like this: every night Katie writes down something she did wrong (like allow an employee to scald her hands on the job, or let her hunky ex Max get away) and pops a cap. In the morning she wakes up to find that the fate has bowed to accommodate her requests. She eagerly embraces the control, decrying cause-and-effect as “a flawed system.” The mechanic of mulligan-ing your way through life recalls something like Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay to Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (about a company that can selectively erase unwelcome memories of former lovers), or Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s Japanese young adult novel All You Need Is Kill (about a solider caught in a recursive loop of death and resurrection, recently adapted by Hollywood as the Tom Cruise vehicle The Edge Of Tomorrow). Naturally, Katie’s minor tweaks have their repercussions – ripples in the pond, the butterfly effect, etc. And just as naturally, she seeks to iron out these repercussions by downing more destiny-altering ‘shrooms, creating ripples within ripples, a knotted fretwork of forked paths, until all of sudden grinning skeletons walk among the living and nobody seems to think it’s a big deal.
Where O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim books edged their plucky slacker hero toward maturity (and took their sweet time doing it), Seconds concerns itself with the just-as-troubling problem of what to do once you’ve arrived there, when you’re teetering terrified on the edge of 30, eyeball-to-eyeball with the sobering and uniquely awful realization that your life’s not the total calamity you always expected. Once the delusions of falling ass-backwards into rockstardom and joining the illustrious dead-at-27-club dissipate, the prospect of actually being accountable for your whole life can be sobering.
Instead of filling his pages with stylized superhero showdowns, here O’Malley’s genre influences are a bit more restrained, drawing more on haunted house stories and ideas of appeasing the restless spirits of the dead. (A pretty obvious allegory for, duh, Katie’s own complicated relationship with her past.)
Funny, colourfully drawn, briskly plotted and packed with enough detailed food porn to set serious foodies salivating, Seconds is a slight afternoon read, tackling Millennial anxiety and all that (often overstated) quarter-life crisis stuff in its own light-touch way. While O’Malley’s low-key realizations that we can’t have it all dissolve on the tongue, it’s nice to see Gen Y’s hardscrabble, apprehensive ranks so sympathetically, if cartoonishly, sketched.
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