Thursday, July 22, 2010

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour is decidedly not

There's a moment toward the end of the final book in the Scott Pilgrim series when Stacy asks where Scott, Ramona, and Gideon disappeared to during their battle, adding, "What was that all about?" Scott provides a rapid-fire response that sounds nonsensical (because, frankly, the battle was nonsensical), and his friends give the only appropriate response - silence, and a quick change of topic.

They might have been reading my mind - between fights on the astral plane, characters dying and then returning to life via free lives accessed in some space of purgatory, "the glow" on the subspace highway, swords being pulled from chests - twice (but in the real world, not in a psychic one), and Gideon's "cryogenic chamber", it's hard to tell whether there are any rules in the world of Scott Pilgrim. But it's a telling moment, too. Like the cliché says, when the characters seem to be complaining about the plot...

I've made it known that I haven't liked the last few issues of Scott Pilgrim. And I'll go on record in saying that this one is easily the worst - it is, as the kids (ie. me, when I'm pretending to be cool) say, a hot mess. But it didn't have to be. So, at the risk of repeating what I've already written elsewhere, I'll restrict myself to three complaints - two of which encompass the series as a whole, and one of which is the new detail that makes this book the poorest of the series. (My apologies in advance for poor spelling and wonky grammar - this entry seems to be more error-laden than most. That's what I get for not re-reading these things in their entirety.)

Complaint the first - Scott

Okay, I get it. Scott is supposed to be a cipher for the (presumably) nerdy and emotionally-stunted target-readership. He's purposely shallow because it allows us to project ourselves on to him. Because we also realize that we're our own worst enemy (Nega-Scott was a nice touch, though the set-up was awful) and we all want the mysterious hot girl. This is why people see Judd Apatow movies - the lead is usually a loser and a bit of a dick, but there are millions of young guys that find that relatable and want to believe that they can be dickish losers and still get the hot chick. But managing a good approximation of hetero-male-geek wish-fulfillment does not good writing make. And cipher or not, he's also the main character in a 1200 page story. I need something more than wish-fulfillment.

Because Scott is a dick. I was complaining about his character arc to some people yesterday, and said that he gets less likable as the series progresses - and then corrected myself because, in fact, it's more accurate to say that he gets more dislikable. He doesn't just squander the naive-lovable-loser charm of the first book, (or maybe it would be better to say that he tries to hold on to it well past the expiration date) he actually transforms into a willfully ignorant and insensitive prick. When Scott begins shouting at Knives about having casual sex, I want to reach into the comic and punch him in the face. He was a jerk to her when he dumped her in the first issue, but it was at least somewhat forgivable - or, rather, though he handled it badly, I wanted to forgive him. He was torn between his girlfriend and his dream-girl and, while he screwed it up, it seemed like he did it as well as he could have. These are, after all, the sorts of awkward break-ups that one stumbles through in their youth and is supposed to learn from.

Instead, Scott's come-on in the new issue takes insensitivity to new heights - knowing that Knives has never stopped loving him, that he hurt her horribly, and that everyone knows he's still hung up on Ramona, he asks her to sleep with him. That makes him an incredible douchebag, and not someone that I want to root for. At all. (Granted, this is when he has been separated from Nega-Scott, and I think we're supposed to understand that this is also responsible for his douchebaggery. But, a) that's not at all clear at this point in the story, which is a problem, and b) using a device from out of left field in order to undercut the emotion in the intimate personal exchanges that constitute the entire first act of the book is deceptive and annoying.)

I realize that, in real-life, people don't grow linearly - we change, we regress, we grow, we relapse. But books aren't beholden to these requirements, and most would be horrifically boring if they were. That Scott doesn't become a better person - and, in fact, seems even less self-aware and more malevolent - does nothing to recommend this book.

Complaint the second - magic realism/fantasy

When Scott Pilgrim's more fantastic elements are at their best, they're working with the more mundane elements of the story and not against or in-place of them. My favorite stuff is the most dream-like and ethereal magic realism - warp doors and Legend of Zelda dreams that lend atmosphere and depth, respectively. When they're at their worst, they suffocate the story and re/displace it - not magic realism at all, but magic absurdity. Magic nihilism, even. (On Geoff's blog, Dan suggests that it magic so totally overwhelms the realism that the book fully crosses over genre-lines and into fantasy. And so, rather than the magic sometimes encroaching on reality, as in the early books, the book features "realism encroaching on fantasy". I think he might be right, too.)

Take the Save Point from book 3 - faced with an unavoidable and horribly awkward meeting with his ex Envy Adams, Scott looks around desperately for an out of some kind. When Scott's supporters call him relatable, this is the kind of scene that they have in mind - one in which we've been forced into an uncomfortable situation and wish that we could have saved in advance, because a) we know it's going to go badly, and b) we wish we had a do-over. So the Save Point, while seemingly silly and random, is actually wholly appropriate to the scene - it enhances the pathos of Scott's situation and it increases our nervous anticipation, because we are keenly aware that Scott doesn't have a do-over. (And this is important, too - the Save Point 'exists' but Scott isn't able to use it. He, like us, wishes he could, but he can't - because the damned things don't exist!)

But the magic is the story in this final book: from Nega-Scott appearing seemingly out of nowhere to Gideon's cryogenic chamber to Scott's return to life from death to the psychic battle in Ramona's head... the book isn't grounded in recognizable human drama, much less remotely realistic settings. Which, I suppose, I saw coming because the series has tended increasingly toward absurdity and fantasy - so I shouldn't be surprised. Where the clever subtlety in the first book was in using the magic realism to represent what we couldn't have, that subtlety is deployed for wholly different ends, here: instead of failing to reach the Save Point, Scott uses a Free Life to return and fight Gideon again. Magic realism functions as deus ex machina with all the subtlety of a sword to the torso - Scott is killed and ends up in some Purgatory-like space (why? dunno.) where he meets up with Ramona again (how? dunno.) and uses his Free Life. (well, at least that wasn't pulled out of a hat - it was set up several books ago, as O'Malley reminds us.)

And, despite this, I actually don't mind the fight scenes being ridiculous and fantastic - because, at least in the earlier books, it works. But I would like for that ridiculousness to be somehow internally consistent, beholden to some set of self-defined limits, and contained. When it isn't contained, it threatens to turn the entire exercise into some snark-filled, self-reflexive, post-ironic joke.

Take, for instance, the narrator's increasingly explicit presence. Early in the book, Scott has a particularly awkward scene with Knives outside the Cameron House. When Knives and Scott kiss, we can tell for ourselves that it's awful and that they've made a mistake and feel terrible for it. Why the narrator has to tell us this, and tell us in as obnoxious a way as possible, I'm not sure. To undercut its emotional impact, certainly - because it's a painfully uncomfortable moment.

I'm wondering, actually, whether O'Malley's narrator is a sort of reaction to the author's earlier stuff (including Lost At Sea) after finding it, in retrospect, a little too emo, a little too precious. How else to understand his increasingly incessant need to assert ironic distance from the material, to undermine its emotional resonance and make fun of damn near everything? When the narrator appears in book 1, it's to cheer Scott on - to say 'Way to go' when Scott and Ramona kiss the first time; when he appears in book 6, it's to depress us and poke fun - to say that Scott and Knives' kiss was horrible "for everyone" and "that includes you". The problem, here, is that O'Malley isn't just poking fun at his characters - he's also poking fun at me for wanting to be invested in the characters and their feelings. And so it just feels mean-spirited.

(That really wasn't just one point, was it? It kinda veered into a point about self-reflexivity and irony. But there's a connection there, right? Ah, well.)

Complaint the third - Ramona

In my blog on the last book, I said that Ramona had clearly supplanted Scott as the central and most interesting character in the book - and had probably done so a long time ago, too. Ramona is mysterious and seductive where Scott is superficial and obvious. (This is not with the potential for problems, too, though - as Sara suggests on Geoff's blog, Ramona represents "[p]robably exactly how 20-something hetero men (and beyond?) feel about [women]. Complex, interesting/alluring/scary etc... but... vague." She's not really a real person, but more a projection of what a hot girl should be.)

So, clearly, this inequity had to be redressed. The obvious answer would be to elevate the hero, Scott, somehow - to have him grow, make him worthy of his dream-girl. That doesn't happen, though. Instead, O'Malley takes Ramona down a notch. When Ramona is asked, near the end of the book, where she's been the past four months, she says that she's been "dicking around" by watching The X-Files and playing on the internet. Nothing mysterious, no - she's been just as aimless as Scott, doing equally banal things instead of trying to fix her life. And we know that she's been dumbed-down to Scott's level because all the other characters sigh and sarcastically ask when the wedding will be. Here, it feels like the readers are being flipped off, again: "Oh, you guys! You thought that Ramona was all mysterious and deep, but she's not - she likes the internet and X-Files and dicking around and SHE IS JUST LIKE A DUDE."

The thing is, we didn't need Ramona to be reduced to a joke in order to understand that she's flawed. We already know that she's frightened of commitment, that she has a pathological need to drop her entire life when it grows too comfortable and start a new one elsewhere, and that she doesn't particularly like herself very much. This is the stuff of a tragic heroine, and the above reservations aside, Ramona is easily the deepest character the series has (though maybe this says more about the dearth of deep characters in the series...) - why squander that so needlessly?

And lastly

Despite these complaints, I actually have some hope for the movie. Because part of my problem is that Scott has something like 1300 pages within which to stagnate, and O'Malley had 6 years over which his dreamlike magic and precious optimism slowly turns into fantasy-overload and cynical irony. The shorter run-time of a film should make Scott more bearable, even if he similarly learns nothing, and the briefer turnaround of the movie project should at least bring some thematic and stylistic consistency, even if it is consistently absurd and cynical. But that's a worst-case scenario.

Sorry for ranting so long, and probably sounding so grumpy. Was it clear that I was disappointed? Because that's the short version of this review/critique/essay: I was disappointed.


dschonbe said...

Well said.

I laughed though when I read your line complaining about Ramona no longer being mysterious because she spent her time watching the X-Files. Is there any show more apt in that it plays at high mystery but mostly failed to deliver (as I understand it, know what people have complained about the show).

-Dan S.

neilshyminsky said...

I hadn't thought of that, but you're right - it's a wholly appropriate choice, given how disappointing the reveal at the end of the each was.

James said...

I wasn't expecting to, but I agree with you on damn near everything, Neil.

Like Geoff, I managed to squeeze some enjoyment out, and I'll always have a deep affection for the series, but I did way too many "really?!"s reading this one.

"In real-life, people don't grow linearly - we change, we regress, we grow, we relapse. But books aren't beholden to these requirements, and most would be horrifically boring if they were." Exactly. I couldn't believe such a large chunk of this last book was spent beating the "Scott's an idiot (read: arsehole)" drum, AGAIN. It reminded me of this line from your Spider-Man 3 review: "How many movies will we have to sit through before Aunt May finally gets it into Peter's head that Ben Parker wouldn't have wanted him to be irresponsible/isolated/vengeful/so dense?" People relapse, but they also don't "level up", get flaming heart-swords representing the power of love or books promising they'll "Get It Together" and trumpeting Their "Finest Hour"s. It hardly seems fair for his backslides to be so "realistic" when his progress never has been - maybe that's the point, but if so it's not a very satisfying one to read. I've always forgiven Scott for the harm he's wrought out of genuine ineptitude (relatable!), but his following (the newly idiotic) Wallace's advice was just inane.

Speaking of which: One of the "Scott's an idiot" sub-jokes that's grown throughout the series is his self-obsession, to the point of not-knowing what any other characters are up to. It's repeated here, only: we don't get to see what any other characters are up to! Everybody just gets one-page/one-joke/one-note wrap-ups, because... we absolutely need to spend as many pages as possible seeing Scott be a dick, again? (Re-reading the series in anticipation for the last book, I noticed the "Kim still loves Scott" thread more than before, to the point where I thought it might be where the story goes -- that's dismissed out of hand, in a scene that feels almost like a middle finger to any hypothetical "Skim Pinegrim" fan subculture [that surely exists].)

The other thing that the book spends most of its time on is the Epic final confrontation with Gideon. I haven't had a problem with the transition to more and more fantasy in previous volumes, but you and Dan are right that it overwhelms everything here. Personally, I really enjoyed how all the Ex-boyfriend fights in volumes 2-5 were deliberately undercut, and I think this book would've been much better served by further anticlimax in that regard. Certainly the Final Volume aspect is going to mount some pressure/expectation, but is it too cynical to feel the presence of the movie here?

I think you're right that the movie is well placed to do some things better than they turned out in the book(s), but I also can't help but think that Scott's new hair and Gideon's (hitherto unrevealed? Right?) age were decisions made to accommodate Michael Cera and Jason Schwartzmann. I also - and god, I feel like kind of a dick myself for begrudging O'Malley wanting his books to look better - but I much preferred his charmingly wobbly brush-renditions of buildings, over the slickly art-assisted ones in this volume.

Um, that's all I got. Speaking of things better served by concision(!)

neilshyminsky said...

James wrote: 'People relapse, but they also don't "level up", get flaming heart-swords representing the power of love or books promising they'll "Get It Together" and trumpeting Their "Finest Hour"s. It hardly seems fair for his backslides to be so "realistic" when his progress never has been - maybe that's the point, but if so it's not a very satisfying one to read.'

Yeah, the titles and power-ups seem to serve as substitutes for actual character growth, which is lazy. I guess that the defense would be that they're only symbols, and he has to do something to earn the power of love or whatever. But I'm not sure that he actually *does* earn them, based on what's in the books.

And I totally agree on the topic of the backslides seeming so much more realistic - and bereft of magic. I guess consistency is too much to ask for?

Anonymous said...

You ever notice how it's called "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World?"

Did you ever notice how Scott Pilgrim vs. The World plays like an actual video game?

You ever notice how despite the significant change Scott Pilgrim has made as a character his love affair with video gaming continues to persist?

So If Scott's Pilgrim's world was an actual video game, what would it mean if Scott Pilgrim outgrew video games?

What if he can't?

There's something else going on in Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour.