On Seth’s It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken

Please be warned: spoilers ahoy!

Who could doubt that the character of Seth in It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken is a profoundly damaged individual? His inability to grasp his own cognitive limitations continually short-circuits the possibility that his life might be anything other than an endless parade of obsession and alienation. Seth’s perpetual inability to grasp even the essence of why he is, in his own words, one of the really fucked up inevitably kicks up the temptation to digress into the indulgences of amateur psychological diagnosis. Is he traumatised? Is he viewing the world as an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome might? For even at the tale’s end, when he’s been confronted with a string of examples suggesting that the life well-lived involves far more than art and solipsism, there’s no evidence that he’s learned anything of importance at all. Perhaps, it’s hard not to believe, he simply can’t. In that, Seth’s story is concerned not with change, but its lack, and not with redemption, but denial and even disorder.

Though It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken casts “Seth” as an amateur detective hunting down information about the forgotten cartoonist Kalo, it’s the deductions which he fails to make about his own life which dominate the book’s meaning. Time after time, Seth fails to recognise that he’s simply not thinking and feeling in a way that’s either typical or rational. Loathing change in all its forms, he struggles to name any aspect of the modern day which he doesn’t despise beyond his mother’s late-developing habit of amassing “all kinds of make-up in the bathroom”. His lover Ruthie is completely baffled by this. “What about civil rights, or the women’s movement … or medical progress?” she demands, but Seth’s desperate nostalgia for an entirely imagined past is so overwhelming that he simply can’t recognise even the most obvious of contemporary blessings. “I’d hate to think that my belief in the superiority of the past was really just a misplaced, over-rationalised aesthetic choice”, he later tells his only friend Chet, but there’s every evidence that there’s little choice operating where it comes to Seth’s longing for an ordered, unchallenging idyll. As he says, “Things are obviously getting worse every year”, and that remains an unchallenged and yet unsupported item of faith for him as the book progresses. Evidence is only relevant to Seth, it seems, when it concerns the facts of the lives of his long-dead artistic idols.

Much of the brilliance of It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken lies in how skilfully artist/writer Seth juxtaposes his fictional namesake’s journeys in search of information about Kalo with the unrecognised human cost of his under-taking them. Seth’s enquiries present him with all the proof he might need to redefine his compulsive preoccupation with obscure pop culture as dysfunctional, and yet even at the book’s end, he’s complaining that he’s failed to discover “everything” that he “wanted to know”. He has what he really needs, of course, but that’s a very different thing. The illusion of progress that Seth’s slow accumulation of facts about Jack “Kalo” Kalloway creates stands in contrast to his continued inability to substantially emotionally connect with the people he occasionally shares his life with. And so, Seth rejects Ruthie’s offer to travel with him in search of Kalloway’s relatives, and upon his return from Goderich, he cuts her out of his life entirely. It’s simply what he does whenever intimacy threatens the routines of his life. Even when the two of them are shown together, it’s usually only because they’re discussing something that’s relevant to Seth’s fascinations, and she quite disappears from sight whenever her own interests threaten in the slightest way to obscure his. (It’s telling that we’re not shown the two of them making love, or lying in each other’s arms afterwards, but that we are presented with her post-coital success in discovering Kalo’s real name. Naked they may be, but any real intimacy on his part is missing, and his memory focuses on how she contributed to his obsessions.) Similarly, Seth’s friend Chet only appears when something is needed from him, and we never hear anything of what Chet’s life involves outside of providing Seth with a sounding board and a sequence of loans. Throughout the book, relations with others are referenced only from Seth’s perspective, and only in the light of his obsessions, and since he seems unable to care about much beyond his immediate concerns, little if anything else appears of the world beyond them.

Reality appears to constantly threaten Seth’s distorted world-view, but he’s always capable of short-circuiting any slow-dawning self-awareness with an absurd and yet supposedly convincing rationalisation. When the idea that he’s frittering away his time obsessively hunting down the obscure facts of Kalo’s life finally does occurs to him, Seth concludes that “the smart thing to do” would’ve been to research “just about anybody else … with a significant body of work”. That he might have simply chosen not to spent his time on such an ultimately alienating pursuit at all never occurs to him, and it’s hard not to presume that that’s because he simply can’t conceive of a life not organised around quietly fanatical, obscure and acquisitive routines. Pop culture offers a world that can safely, unthreateningly consume Seth, presenting simulacra of social life and emotional engagement with nothing of real life’s ambiguity, unpredictability and mind-overwhelming complexity.

Decades lost to pop culture and little else have fostered in Seth a conviction that life can be understood through events sketched out on the printed page, and much of his own sense of self is framed not by the people he’s known so much as by the cartoon representations of people which he’s encountered. Linus’ techniques of avoiding conflict and responsibility in Peanuts offers, for example, a legitimisation of Seth’s habit of opting out of relationships and all their compromises and confusions. Train journeys are constantly coloured by the memories of old Tintin stories, and even his first memory of sexual arousal at the age of six is associated with “Little Iodine”, who he later realises is “the ugliest girl ever drawn”. Only the most literal minded of thinkers would feel the need to explain away the fact of having been attracted to a less-than beautiful cartoon girl so early in life, and yet Seth seems to want his thoughts and emotions and the events which stimulate them to be forever fixed, understandable and predictable. Of course he’s just a little concerned that we’ll think he’s some kind of weirdo still fixated on unattractive prepubescent girls. Seth can’t understand that most folks wouldn’t ever seek the key to somebody else’s adult personality, let alone their sexuality, in the pages of a comic encountered by them at such a young age. What others might take for granted, Seth feels compelled to explain away, and vice-versa.

There’s a terrible sadness here, an appalling and yet entirely unsentimental expression of an unwitting and uncontrollable loneliness and alienation. This, It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken appears to be telling us, is simply the way that some folks are compelled to make sense of the world. No matter how he attempts to rationalise away his feelings, Seth can’t reach beyond the constraints of his own mind to the social world beyond it. When he chances to see two people playing moonlit hockey on a frozen pond, he’s inspired to ice-skate alone in the night, and, as seems inevitable, the moment his concentration drifts, his clumsiness results in a painful fall. Why he would skate alone when his inspiration was something far more sociable is something he never considers. And when he and Chet decide to visit a harbour-side fireworks display, Seth takes them to a deserted spot far away from the slightest sight of the “crowds”, where the view of the explosions is perfect and yet the communal experience of the event is entirely avoided.

It’s a portrait of a life lived at a distance which the book’s constant presentation of single panel shots of lifeless old buildings accentuates; time largely passes without reference to people and the continual changes to them which time inspires. These beautifully static and balanced panels are the unthreatening abstractions of a mythically peaceful and tasteful past, secure from conflict and menace, a lost golden age of brilliant cartooning and architectural beauty. That the past only appears to have been a more stable and secure world because of the logic of hindsight and the distortions of wishful thinking is just another truth that Seth simply can’t absorb. If only real life were like comic books, if only the present day was the same as the past, if only human beings were as undemanding and loving as domesticated cats can be, if only Seth could replicate the experience of being five years old and closed up and secure in otherwise empty cardboard boxes.

The conclusion of It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken is cannily structured so that the reader can believe that Seth has acquired the knowledge he needs to create a better life for himself. This inspires a warming sense both of closure and hope, and allows the book to end on something other than the sense that Seth is doomed to endlessly burrow away from the present day into the arcana of cartooning history. Yet Seth has proven himself a master at misinterpreting the sense of the social world around him, and no matter how straight-forward are the life-lessons that he’s presented with, there’s no evidence that he’s changed because of them. Despite the story closing on the sight of Kato’s 92 year-old mother smiling at a racy cartoon by her son and declaring that she “didn’t know he had it in him”, Seth displays no sign of being able to be similarly warmed by the unexpected, by a challenge to his preconceptions. As he trudges from one interview to another with the surviving friends and family of Kalo, he’s always searching for a hidden cache of cartoons, for memories of the publishing business in the mid-century, for evidence that Kalo was melancholic if not broken by his failure. Never once is there a hint that Seth’s able to truly take to heart the knowledge that Kalloway wasn’t irreparably shattered  by his inability to make it as a cartoonist, or by that the fact that the ex-cartoonist successfully rebuilt his life by creating new roles as a husband and father and businessman.

“Y’know, it sounds like, above all, he was a good person.” says Seth to Kalloway’s mother, but there’s no indication that that kind comment to a generous mother indicates any awareness on the cartoonist’s part that he might follow a similar part to Kalo. The logic of the book suggests anything but, even as our cleverly-played sentimental assumptions reinforce our expectations that stories close with change, with quests which result in rewards that, in one fashion or another, transform the lives of those who persevere in hunting down MacGuffins. Why would we believe that Seth was suddenly able to grasp what he’s never been able to even faintly perceive before? Seth, it seems, is unlikely to “weaken”. Unlike Kalloway, who learned that there was a moment to concentrate on more directly social and emotional concerns, Seth will most probably find another artist’s life to research, another blind alley to retreat into in the hope of quietening the hubbub of the modern world. No matter how the events of the book lead us to optimism, no matter how satisfying Kalloway’s life appears to have ultimately become, no matter that even the eternal snow-drifts have suddenly disappeared from the page, no matter that the book’s very title promises some kind of hopeful resolution, Seth himself remains essentially the same. It’s doubtful that his inability to opt for something other than a life misconstructed from decades-old pop culture will eventually result in any “good life”. Persevering with his Quixoticism is what the character of Seth does, weakening is the last thing on his mind, but that doesn’t mean that the good life is ever, sadly, likely to be his.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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Also by Colin Smith:

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  1. Great piece. Great subject, deserving of this attention! I’m a huge fan of Seth’s work.

  2. Thanks for this, great take.

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