TBR Challenge: Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley

This month’s TBR Challenge theme is “Something Different,” and that did pose a challenge for me. I like the constraints of the themes because I’m less overwhelmed when choosing from the vastness of my TBR, but “something different” is very open. Plus I was just getting my reading mojo back after mountains of end-of-term grading, and I had brand new books and library books I wanted to get to that didn’t count as “TBR.” Having dithered over what to pick so long that I was almost out of time, I grabbed Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds off my bedside bookshelf, figuring it would go fast. I rarely read comics or graphic novels so it counts as “different.”

Seconds is Bryan Lee O’Malley’s second work, after the Scott Pilgrim series (which I have not read); Seconds is also the name of the restaurant 29-year-old chef Katie is trying to leave so she can open her own place. Because construction on it is (typically) running over time and over budget, she’s currently stuck in limbo. This is a Groundhog Day story in which magic mushrooms give Katie second chances to fix her mistakes and try to make her life perfect, an effort that goes increasingly wrong (although it turns out OK–just not perfect!). The book was in my TBR because my husband and daughter, both Scott Pilgrim fans, read it and passed it on to me.

This book didn’t wow me, but I think that’s partly my fault. (I am going to commit the cardinal sin of writing about a comic without including pictures because I am still lazy and in a hurry, but do check out these more thoughtful, informed, and positive reviews by Paddy Johnston at Comics Grid and Ben Travis in the Telegraphwhich will give you a taste of the art). While you can read comics fast, if you do, you’re likely not paying attention to the complexities of the images and their interplay with the text, and thus not getting the most out of your reading. I expect that was true of mine.

Nevertheless, while Seconds was kind of fun, it was also kind of shallow and obvious. I think I might be too old for it. Katie’s impatience to move on with her life and reach her dreams, her desire to control and fix everything and make it perfect, felt rather immature. It didn’t help that Katie is drawn as shorter and stockier, more childlike in appearance, than many of the other characters, including her boyfriend Max and new friend Hazel.

There’s also a rather obvious “lesson” here. To be fair, the book is aware of and pokes fun at the obviousness. At the end, Katie is trying to explain her epiphany to her former boss: “There are things we can’t change, and we just have to accept that. And maybe that’s some kind of grace.” And he rolls his eyes and points at a copy of the serenity prayer on the wall behind him: “You’ve been staring at this thing every day for three years.” Maybe that’s the point: certain lessons may be commonplace, but we all have to learn their grace for ourselves, through our own errors, no matter how hard our mothers try to save us from pain by giving us the benefit of their wisdom. But I already knew that, too.

I think my favorite parts were the meta-fictional moments where Katie talks back to the narrator’s attempts to define her, moments that used visual narrative to good effect. And some of the images are really lovely, like the tree that represents all the worlds Katie’s different choices create. Right from the opening epigraphs (one from Italo Calvino, one from Fleetwood Mac), O’Malley shows how high and mass culture references meet in post-modernism. I wished those elements had been explored more fully–or maybe I just read it too fast.

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10 Responses to TBR Challenge: Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley

  1. I read Seconds last year and though it was OK, it is not a story that impressed me. I think for me it is hard to shift from the emotional highs and lows that romance reading provides to the tedium and repitition of a Groundhog Day story.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I didn’t find it that repetitive (I thought O’Malley paced it well and condensed days to avoid repetition, kind of the way Groundhog Day uses montages at points). But I did feel that the repetitions didn’t add depth–in many of them, I didn’t think Katie learned much about herself or her choices, which is what you’d want from a story like this. (E.g. Why didn’t she initially tell Max about the new restaurant?)

      • I didn’t think anything of her secrecy. I thought that it was just part of her needing to cope with her own need for change. I also agree with you as to the pacing of the book (and I really need to not comment when I’m half asleep). I didn’t mean that Seconds was tedious or repetitive but that a groundhog day story has the expectation of repetition/routine/tedium etc that slowly reveals a story rather than the emotional highs & lows that romance brings. I think I read Seconds back-to-back with SuperMutant Magic Academy so I was already in a different reading groove at the time.

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever understood the graphic novel appeal, so I find it an interesting choice. I find it odd that I haven’t tried them since I do appreciate art in general. I’ll have to look into them and see it there’s something I’m missing. Great choice!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      My husband and daughter love them and I have really enjoyed some. But they do take practice (and time) to read well and one issue for me is I have not read enough yet to get as much out of them as I could.

  3. Honestly, it can be sort of a weird adjustment when you’re reading comics for the first time! So that may have been part of the problem. I had the opposite experience of yours, which is that I went into Seconds expecting it to be incredibly dumb and obvious, and then it was slightly less obvious than I had feared but also much more charming. And I was pleasantly surprised.

    That said, Bryan O’Malley’s not my most-ever-fave comics writer. For whatever that’s worth!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I’ve enjoyed some others more–I loved Bechdel’s Fun Home, for instance. I do plan to keep trying. There’s a decent collection in my house to sample.

  4. Sunita says:

    I definitely read comics way too fast, even though I try to slow down. Part of it is not being practised in the medium, but part of it is that when I pick up a book, I subconsciously expect to see text privileged and so I have to force myself to look at the visuals. It’s just an intuitive thing for me. If I’m in an art space, like a gallery, I can take my time looking at a painting or sculpture, but it’s harder for me to combine text and visual art.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, and I am definitely a text-focused person. My husband and I have had a conversation about this, actually, in terms of comics scholarship–a lot of people come to it from English departments and so they do tend to privilege writing/story, even when they are also talking about the graphic elements. They have to train themselves to do that part. When the writer and illustrator are not the same, the writer often seems to get top billing/more credit in the scholarship. But like picture books (which I have read a bit more scholarship on) it is definitely a medium where the pictures are doing way more than illustrating the words.

      • Sunita says:

        I’ve read a half-dozen Harlequin manga versions of HPs and sweet romances, and while they are not at the top of the manga world, they helped me get a sense of the intersection between the visual and textual because I knew the stories already. The art can definitely modify the message of the text in interesting ways.

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