Title: It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken
Genre: Semi-autobiographical graphic novel
It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken is a graphic novel that came highly recommended. If one searches “top graphic novel lists”, Seth’s piece is a common addition. Plus, it was one of Drawn and Quarterly’s bestselling books, and I usually love what this publishing company produces. Combined with the fact that the story takes place in Canada and deals with the coming of age of a disaffected twenty-something, I figured that this graphic novel would be a staple of my library. As it turns out, I loathed it. I hated the story, the characters, and the overall themes (though the art is really quite nice). Even after reading the reviews of other people to see if I missed something and giving myself a lengthy period of time to contemplate my thoughts on the piece, I’m afraid that I can only give this book one star.
It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken is a good example of a one star book that has nothing objectively wrong with it. Sometimes I will rank a book low because there are glaring technical errors that make it a weak and frustrating read. Sometimes, as in this case, I just hate the subject matter. Plenty of people absolutely adore this graphic novel, and I can understand their appreciation for the work. Similar to books such as A Catcher in the Rye, this is a novel that will have dedicated followers and intense haters, and there is nothing wrong with that. While I might not like the story, it is well-crafted and has powerful themes.
Seth’s picture-novella (as it is coined on the cover) is about a disordered young man who alienates all those around him by obsessing about the supposed perfections of the past as he searches for information regarding an old cartoonist. The protagonist describes himself at one point as a maudlin dope and truer words have never been spoken. What I disliked most about this book was the protagonist’s inability to see his own selfish, navel-gazing nature in a way that could inspire him to change. He accepted his personality faults, but seemed to treat them as immutable. Throughout the book you see that his interactions with others are always centred on his interests and needs. If the other person is not needed in these pursuits, they are dismissed from his life. He comments on this briefly, but centres his thoughts on what harms come to him as a cause of his behaviour. He gives no thought to the pain that he causes others. For example, he enters into a relationship with a young woman, then, after he finds himself consumed by his search for Kalo the cartoon artist, he completely cuts her out of his life. He stops calling or trying to see her without any explanation, and eventually the young woman tells him that things are obviously over between the two of them. While Seth recognises that this type of behaviour is unacceptable and hurtful, instead of thinking about the pain he caused another person because of his selfishness, he focused on the effects that his inability to have a relationship have on his own life and loneliness. He lacks empathy for his partners, and states that this situation will inevitably happen to him again. Instead of taking steps to change himself, Seth self-indulgently wallows in his faults, and this is exceptionally irritating for the reader. This is a character who refuses to change. This is not an inherently bad story choice, but it is one that I personally have little patience for.
Regardless of my dislike of the subject matter of this graphic novel, the artist does convey the protagonist’s world view very realistically, and many will probably find that they too have had similar thoughts at some point. I was quite stuck by a scene where the protagonist was looking at some knick-knacks on display in a window. He felt melancholic when he saw that the fake flowers were dust-covered and sun-damaged, imagining the thought and care that was originally put into the display, and the degradation that had since occurred to it. This scene well-portrayed the pain and distress that some can feel with the passage of time, and I too have felt the stirrings of sadness when I see something that was once meaningful become destroyed or damaged as the years go by. The main character also suffers from ongoing depression, and many readers will probably identify with the listless and unsatisfied feelings that Seth undergoes throughout his story. The author very capably draws the reader into these emotions, and it is hard to avoid feeling a sense of disgruntled apathy and misanthropy at certain points throughout the story.
On a positive note, I found the art in It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken to be quite beautiful. The story is told in a decompressed manner so readers can enjoy slow scenes with many frames detailing character movement and expression. The style is simple, but confident, and it worked well for the small town backgrounds that were used in much of the story. If anything could have bumped this graphic novel up in ranking for me, it would have been the art, and I really find little fault in this area.
Overall, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken is a book that I wished had taken a different path. I don’t mind reading about flawed and disordered protagonists, but I found this particular character had few redeeming features. Since the story is told in first person, you are stuck in his head, and his thoughts are incredibly one-track and self-focused. If he had changed throughout the book, I would have enjoyed this piece more, but the ending of the novel only suggests that it is possible that the protagonist has been given the right knowledge to turn his life around. Given his ability to ignore life lessons, however, I didn’t leave the book feeling very hopeful. Despite my dislike for this graphic novel, I can honestly see why some people do really like it, and if the topic appeals despite my admonishments, you might want to give it a shot. It’s certainly not on my recommend list though.