(Uncredited cover for the 1963 1st edition)
You’ve got what almost every middle-aged man in American would like to have. Freedom. Real freedom. You can do any damned thing you want to. You’ve got financial security, you’ve got no responsibilities, and you’ve got no reason at all to feel guilty about what you’ve done. The company’s taken care of everything. Right?” (91)
David Ely’s Seconds (1962), a disquieting and sparse thriller, posits a near future where a shadow organization can grant the wealthy new identities via plastic surgery and staged deaths. Wielding deceptively simple prose, Ely ruminates on the existential dread of the male mid-life crisis–an undefined desire to escape, to redo, to break free from the expectations and constraints of the suburban existence. It is a careful novel. A well-crafted nightmare, a bludgeon to the solar plexus….
Brief Plot Summary
Wilson, a successful professional and husband with a future ahead of him as “a president of [a] bank, which is a sizable one” (20) receives a call from a friend he had presumed dead. Charlie, who according to witness jumped into a volcano, reminisces at length with Wilson about their college days before describing the “rebirth” he experienced (22): “To put it another way, you were ready for such a call” (25). Wilson soon receives a scrap of paper with an address. And he makes the tentative first steps…
Wilson, although he might desire a new beginning cannot fully commit, is soon entrapped by increasingly nefarious means. Within the company itself—with a purgatory-like waiting room where men “were engaged in little hobbies, such as gluing together ship models, while others sat at their ease in comfortable chairs” (30)–Wilson increasingly becomes detached from reality. Surreal sequences unfold where he is asked about the type of death he prefers (and is willing to pay for) and undergoes psychological tests to identify the career he really wanted (painter), etc. Wilson, used to the careful and expected pre-programmed movements he made throughout his life, becomes increasingly anxious as the company uses more and more aggressive ways to compel him towards “rebirth.”
Rebirth grants Wilson a new physique, a new career, a new life, and a new name, Antiochus (Tony) Wilson: “the surgeons had done an extraordinary job. They had taken a face that tended to be rounded, florid, a bit jowly, and somehow made it lean and long and hard” (65). Armed with a forged diploma in fine arts and “letters from the masters [he] worked under, plus notices of [his] first six one-man shows,” Wilson enters his new community expectant (61). However, his excitement turns towards dread as a man whom he does not recognize shouts his new name on the street (68).
Terrified that he possesses the look of another man rather than that of a completely new individual, the company has Charlie call to reassure him. Charlie reveals the nature Wilson’s new community: a community of rebuilt people instructed to “greet you as an old friend” (93). Men and women who are all aware that they are not whom they say they are…. but who will not outright state it. Wilson, “suddenly struck by the amusing notion that he was present at a masquerade whose social façade, ostensibly so proper and ordinary, would at any moment be thrown into confusion with the ripping off of masks and the beginning of wild dancing” (100), abruptly flees. Wild notions fill his head. What did his family think of his death? Did he lead a life without authentic connections to those he claimed to love? Will he ever be able to fully absorb his new persona? Or is it yet another mask he must tear off?
Seconds is characterized by a rigorous narrative economy populated by a handful of characters whose every interaction will return later as an important plot or thematic anchor. For Wilson, the 1950s suburban ideal–a career, the physical trappings of success, a wife, children–creates intense mental displacement. Wilson’s dreams and desires of youth are hammered into molds society imposes. But in reality, Wilson never pursued his own passions in any serious manner. Rebirth will yield a new array of identity crises.
The novel achieves Wilson’s growing psychological discomfort through a series of strategic distancing metaphors (masks, aquariums filled with ants, and waiting rooms) and harrowing yet quiet scenes (the phone calls with Charlie, visits to his family, and moments where characters see through his mask). Moments of offhanded horror add to the nighmarish qualities of the work. For example, Wilson learns, recently awake after his surgery, that the bodies used to extract new teeth and fingerprints come from Latin America and “most of ‘em are on the short side, and then the skin tends to be darkish” (55). In another instance at a party with his fellow rebuilt humans, a woman whom he recognizes from his previous life comments that she “change[s] sects” regularly (99). Without a firm identity to anchor oneself, the reconstructed enter a decadent and aimless liminal zone. A zone little different than the one he had fled!
I place Seconds, due to Ely’s precise control of his narrative and general discomfort generated by the introspective yet riveting premise, firmly among my favorite SF novels of the 1960s (for a list). For whatever reason, Ely’s novel is more often than not ignored as a work of SF–and seldom appears in best of lists. I went ahead and acquired his only other SF novel — A Journal of the Flood Year (1992) (plot blurb + discussion here).
Highly recommended. A must read for fans of near future thrillers and 60s SF.
A brief note about the 1966 film adaptation: John Frankenheimer’s spectacular adaptation, with harrowing cinematography by James Wong Howe, is not to be missed. His adaptation changes only small elements of the original novel but conveys the intense paranoia, existential terror, and is, in itself, an example of experimental style fitting and adding to the material. I’ve included a few stills from the film below.
Read the book. Watch the film. In any order.
(Uncredited cover for a 1960s edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1963 edition)
(German poster for the 1964 film)
(Criterion film poster)
(Still from the 1964 film)
(Sections of the film’s title sequence)
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