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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


David Ely

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To purchase Seconds

Title: Seconds
Author: David Ely
Genre: Novel
Written: 1963
Length: 217 pages
Availability: Seconds - US
Seconds - UK
Seconds - Canada
Les doubles - France
Das vertauschte Leben - Deutschland
Istituto di bella morte - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Seconds was made into a film in 1966, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Rock Hudson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a powerful, creepy tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Times . 15/3/1964 Julian Symons

  From the Reviews:
  • "This may sound like science fiction, but it isn't. It may seem to owe something to Nigel Dennis's Cards of Identity and it does, but Mr Ely is concerned with horror, not satire. (...) The ending is neatly horrific, and this is the best off-beat crime story to appear for several months" - Julian Symons, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The central figure in Seconds has done well for himself. A banker somewhere around fifty, he is married with a grown daughter and has been successful enough in his professional life that he can realistically look forward to being named president of the bank he works at sometime in the next few years. It won't come to that, however: the novel opens with him walking out on that -- all of it, in fact, his entire life.
       When he leaves his office for lunch, he's fairly certain that it is the last time he closes that door behind him, but a bit of indecision remains in his mind as takes the next steps. It's pretty much out of his hands by then, however, and once he's part of the process there's no real turning back -- but he knew that, going in, and did decide to make that leap.
       The man goes to an address he's been given, by a friend, and gives his name there as 'Wilson'. The name -- not his actual one -- is part of the process, too: he's getting a new identity, and with it comes a new name -- eventually also the preposterous one, as he notes, of 'Antiochus': "a terrible name to give a man". Once he's gained entry to the secretive and mysterious organization he is also completely in their hands -- treated well, but also led, with little chance to protest, down the path he's not quite sure about having chosen.
       The opportunity he's been given here is one of rebirth. His former self is killed off -- literally, for all the world he knew: there's even a stand-in corpse to make it convincing -- and he is re-made: provided with a complete history, complete with diplomas from "reputable universities" he never actually attended. ('Wilson' has his doubts these things can be forged, but the organization in whose hands he is can do that and much, much more.) There are also a number of operations, completely changing his appearance -- and taking a few years off, at that. He's also been provided with a career: he always wanted to be a painter and now he is -- a successful one at that (yes, the organization can even arrange that).
       'Wilson' is relocated to California, where he has a nice house all set up for him -- and, to start off with, a man assigned to help him through his "initial period of adjustment".
       'Wilson' could certainly use the help: he has some trouble adjusting. The organization has a long and deep reach, and they're mostly on top of that, but his case proves quite challenging. It's a big business -- "Something like three thousand guys produced every year right on our tables", 'Wilson' had been told (and, yes, they're all guys) -- and there's a kind of buddy-system in place too, with others who have been 'reborn' looking out for 'Wilson'. (Conveniently, a lot of his neighbors have gone through the same thing -- "You're living in a kind of colony of them, old man", he's told..) Still, 'Wilson' has trouble fitting (himself) in -- or rather, showing a willingness to give it the good old college try.
       Everything has been handed to 'Wilson' on a platter, a whole new comfortable life that should be exactly what he always wanted. But he can't quite shake the old connections, wondering about how those that survived his old self remember him -- his wife, his daughter. It's drilled into him that you can't go home again, that all that has to be left behind -- no one from his past would recognize him, in any case, and they are all certain he is dead -- but he can't leave well enough alone. He doesn't need to be told, but someone does: "You're a troubled man, Wilson" -- and that ultimately causes him no end of trouble.
       The whole set-up is, of course, quite creepy, and Ely plays that creepiness well. The shadowy organization is doing some pretty dubious stuff here, after all -- not least in having to find corpses that can stand in for the men who want new lives: a body is generally needed to convincingly end the previous lives, after all -- and with demand so high, there is definitely a supply problem (since bodies have to be at least vaguely plausible substitutes -- similar in at least basic appearance to the person being replaced). The organization is also quite controlling -- constantly watching over 'Wilson' and trying to guide and follow his every move, which is rather unsettling, to both him and the reader.
       The conclusion is somewhat predictable, but still nicely handled -- not least with 'Wilson' encountering the friend who gave him the address and told him about this opportunity, i.e. led him down this path. Nice, too, is the realization by the man who runs the whole show, that maybe the basic premise of the business-model is flawed:

My clients were men who were ready to abandon their original identities ... and why ? Because, for one reason or another, they had made a botch of things (apart from material success, of course), and I can't imagine what possessed me to think that these gentlemen would be likely to do much better just because I gave them a new face and a new name.
       Seconds is thus a cautionary tale of leading an empty life and imagining mere outer circumstances -- shaking those up -- could change that. 'Wilson' recognized as much:
"The point is," said Wilson, "that a man likes to be liked for his inner qualities. That's what I mean. Face value is all very well for the ordinary sort of human experience, but suppose you change the face ? Then you lose the value, don't you ?"
       Of course, he has to go through all this to learn that lesson -- and to see just how empty his life has been. And, boy, is the pay-off for learning that lesson not a very happy one: no happy ending for a wiser 'Wilson' here. In the very effective conclusion Ely makes it an all the more devastating lesson in showing it to be a widely shared one: 'Wilson' isn't the only one in this particular boat at the end, making Seconds also a not so subtle critique of the modern American professional man (and the life he leads) -- as well as of capitalism, in the form of the organization that's pushed to an awful place, driven by its success, which it can't let go of, regardless of the cost.
       If a bit simple in its telling, Seconds is a well-executed horror story that hits effectively close to home in contemporary America (and elsewhere) -- holding up (disturbingly) well even six decades after its initial publication.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 February 2023

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Seconds: Reviews: Seconds - the movie: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author David Ely was born in 1927.

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© 2023 the complete review

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