Second Chances

There’s something uniquely entertaining about stories that feature a wide ensemble of characters whose distinct, separate lives intersect and become entwined in complex, emotional ways. I think immediately of films such as Magnolia, Short Cuts, or Slacker (the Linklater film, not the more recent college farce), and I wonder what makes these narratives so enjoyable. Certainly there’s a palpable sense that they are extremely contrived, in the most negative sense of the world. Surely such coincidences do not happen. This could never really occur, I tell myself, that these people just happen to have such intimate connections.

But these tales are contrived in the more literal sense as well. They are constructed, created, crafted on the level of minute detail, so that each character’s seemingly isolated existence profoundly impacts all the others. The overall plot is truly greater than the sum of its parts; it is a beautiful chimera that could never come into being were it not for the various players coming together in the particular way that they did. Such stories can be so compelling, yet so implausible, that it almost makes a jaded atheist such as I believe in some higher power.

Tricked, the new graphic novel by Box Office Poison author Alex Robinson, presents just such an implausible yet compelling ensemble story. The primary cast is made up of six people: Ray Beam, a reclusive rock legend struggling with his career; Nick, a seemingly normal suburban husband who moonlights as a counterfeiter of celebrity autographs, sometimes under the pseudonym Ray; Phoebe, a young woman searching for her long-lost father; Steve, a socially maladjusted and obsessive fan of Ray Beam; Caprice, a waitress with low self-esteem and a penchant for dating assholes; and Lily, a low-level office worker at Ray Beam’s record label.

As you might guess from that description, Ray Beam is the central character, if any of them are. The story both begins and ends with Ray, and as it charts the lives of the other characters, Ray’s progress is the model. Tricked is essentially about second chances, and for Ray, his second chance to make a fulfilling life for himself as an artist and as a person. After years of the same old sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, Ray finds himself with a severe case of writer’s block as he works on his new album. The first inklings of a rejuvenated career emerge, however, when he meets Lily, a young woman who isn’t awed by his celebrity status.

Caprice finds her second chance when she meets a guy who seems to actually respect and care for her. Phoebe’s comes when she reunites with a father she hasn’t seen since childhood. And Steve’s comes when, after losing his job and going off his meds, he stumbles on what he believes is a vast conspiracy surrounding his rock star idol. But if Ray is the central character, Nick enables the second chances of all the others. Forging autographs at a sports collectibles store, he finds himself sinking, and soon reveling, in a life of double-dealing, backstabbing, and crime. He is the dark side of the other Ray, and at the climax, when all plotlines converge, he is the one whose actions unravel Robinson’s Gordian Knot.

The problem with many such stories is that their implausibility makes them, paradoxically, quite predictable. Of course it turns out that the man Oedipus killed was his father and the woman he married was his mother; the ending is so deliciously ironic and bizarre that it had to happen that way. Despite this potential pitfall, Robinson manages to keep the reader off-balance. The story often jukes when you think it will jive, and even when you know what’s coming next, Robinson keeps the suspense high. While the basics of the climactic scene can be predicted from a mile away, the way it plays out is truly surprising. And if the end is a bit too neat, and in a certain sense obvious, it is still highly satisfying.

To focus on the end, however, would be to miss the point of this story. I believe that these stories of interwoven lives are so compelling because, in spite of their sometimes fantastical nature, they are true to life. Each of us relies on our friends, our neighbors, and even on strangers to help us get through the day. Someone you’ve never met could be your future lover, a stranger you meet on the street could end up saving your life, and somewhere, a person you didn’t know existed could be planning your murder. Is it likely? Maybe, maybe not. But, anything is possible, and to doubt that would be… unrealistic.