Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #282: Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Wishing stories are among the oldest stories we have, and they follow a tight schema. The wisher must discover the power, use it badly, become arrogant, and finally be humbled. And the last wish is always to return to the way things were at the beginning.

The moral of a wish story is always this: the world as it exists right now is the very best thing we can ever hope to have. Any change will make things worse. Trying to escape any aspect of your life will make things worse. All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

And, yes, that is a profoundly conservative moral: the deepest stories are the most conservative, the most concerned with how bad things will get if you stop listening to the people you're supposed to listen to. Wish stories are folktales, or their close cousins: they warn about all of the devils lurking in the woods, and have no time to dream about angels, or even to raise their eyes towards where angels might be.

Bryan Lee O'Malley's book Seconds is a wishing story, and it follows the ancient path of those stories, as it must. Folktales aren't exactly what we'd expect from the creator of Scott Pilgrim, but maybe we should have: O'Malley's earlier works integrate magical, supernatural, even miraculous events directly into daily life, giving them the kind of solid everydayness that's typical of folktales as well. In the same way that veganism gives superpowers to Todd Ingram, the restaurant Seconds has a house spirit: that's just the way these worlds operate.

Katie was the head chef of Seconds, and sort-of still is. She opened it, established the cuisine, made it a huge success in this city that no one actually names. But it's not hers: it's owned by Raymond, the manager. So she's been working on opening a new place with a new partner, Arthur, in a big old building with a lot of problems. She suddenly has the kind of free time that restaurant people never have: she's slowly handed over power and control at Seconds to the new head chef, Andrew, and the new place is still at the building-walls stage, which is mostly run by Arthur.

And her life is off-kilter as well: she broke up with a long-term boyfriend, Max, after years of working with him at Seconds. She's sleeping with her replacement Andrew in a way she thinks is clandestine. She feels unconnected from everything, and stuck in a place she wants to get out of. She even lives at Seconds, in a small room upstairs, to save more money to go towards the new place.  O'Malley never needs to say this, but Katie is someone who has defined her professional life by cooking, and now she's trapped in a moment where she has nowhere to cook.

One night, Katie wakes up to see a strange young woman crouching on her dresser in the middle of the night, with a piercing stare and a unclear warning for Katie. In the morning, Katie has forgotten it entirely. But soon she finds a small notebook and a mushroom in that dresser, with instructions: she can write down one mistake, eat the mushroom, and sleep, to wake up with that mistake fixed.

It works, of course, and like all first wishes it seems to make things better effortlessly -- as if Katie could fix everything in her life with just a few more mushrooms and some judicious choices of mistakes to correct. And she does find a source of mushrooms, and begins a series of wishes to cut out problems large and small. She fixes the new place, brings Max back into her life, and more than anything else corrects whatever impulsive stupid thing she did the night before -- and Katie does a lot of impulsive stupid things. Katie starts to feel uneasy about some of the changes, or tries to convince herself they're what she wanted, as they escalate and the larger world seems to change as well.

Along the way, she makes one other mistake, complicating the situation. But even the sequence of wishes is clearly not good, and can end only one way. And, in the end, there is only one mushroom, and only one wish that can be made.

O'Malley tells this story in mostly bright, vibrant panels -- filled with vivid colors from Nathan Fairbairn -- arranged into a smallish space on the page, with lots of white space in the gutters and margins. His page layouts are very varied: they often have a three-tier structure, but those tiers are only occasionally the same height, and almost never all extend across the whole page. Instead, panels come in all sizes and shapes, with lots of double- and triple-height panels for important moments or to add a story beat or to iris out the camera eye briefly. As others have noted, Katie is often distractingly young-looking, all chibi face and big hair and tiny body, but O'Malley tends to draw everyone young and with open wide-eyed faces.

Seconds tells its story well, and rings some changes on the wishing story along the way. And it has a great, conflicted main character in Katie, and a sprightly line of narration that may or may not be supposed to be Katie's own internal dialogue. (O'Malley makes it a bit too all-knowing and wise for that to entirely work; I took it as a narrator that Katie could sometimes hear, which is not unknown for a folktale.) It shows O'Malley clearly breaking free from Scott Pilgrim and trying new things, and is an entertaining, thoughtful, impeccably crafted story to engage both O'Malley's old fans and a larger folktale audience as well.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment