Loading The Big Guns With Blanks
By Ryan Joe
I’m going to discuss Manuel Gonzales’s debut The Regional Office Is Under Attack regardless of spoilers. So be warned.
So, here’s a novel that’s both completely entertaining and a completely missed opportunity – a comic book in prose instead of panels.
The plot, which seems complicated because of its non-linear structure, is actually pretty simple: A consortium of super-powered teenage girl assassins called The Regional Office is (naturally) attacked by a former member gone rogue. As the attack progresses, we break into backstory that describes the formation of the Regional Office, as well as the histories of some of its key members and attackers.
Credit to Gonzales: He keeps the narrative humming along just fine, and doesn’t get bogged down on world-building details (ie: People With Hidden Super Powers!) made quotidian now that every story seems to be a superhero story.
When Gonzales describes his world’s internal logic, he actually does a pretty good job. His writing is wry and tongue-in-cheek and anchored by real-world minutiae. For instance, when a girl is irradiated and imbued with super powers, it happens in an IKEA parking lot.
To be fair, it’s not like this tact hasn’t been done before…
…but whatever, it’s an effective way to ground the absurd.
And there are certainly moments of brilliance. Take Sarah O’Hara, the Regional Office agent with a bionic arm. Okay, who cares? We’ve seen this stuff before, right?
But what a fucking bionic arm it is! Once the Regional Office is under attack, the invaders neutralize Sarah and remove her arm. Which crawls back to her on its own, annihilating anyone in its way. Gonzales makes the brilliant decision to show this from the point-of-view of the non-superhuman Regional Office employees (It’s ostensibly a travel agency), who are attempting to escape the assault:
It was an unsettling sight, that bodiless monstrosity, half-covered in tattered pieces of skin, coming toward us. Not that any of us had spent considerable time pondering the way an arm might move itself – maybe humping itself forward like some kind of legless caterpillar – but seeing an arm move itself toward us made each of us realize that we probably would have imagined it wrong.
What a fantastic chapter. Gonzales provides more texture to the strange, yet familiar world of the Regional Office. He humanizes its employees – shows that the attack takes a real human toll, and he totally moves the plot forward. Because that arm’s sentience plays a significant role later on.
And yet, and yet, and yet.
These fantastic moments add up to very little. What happens to the woman with the bionic arm? Well, there’s quite an evolution – both psychological and physical. It’s a moment that could open up the book even more. It could address, I dunno, the way a young woman is hardened by betrayal and loss, and the sudden, unexpected flush of power. Instead, the book has a final fight scene, and ends.
Further, Gonzales is meticulous when describing – often with an ironic edge – action or the destructive power of supernatural weaponry. But soon, it feels pretty rote. Even his characters grow tired. His book is almost uniformly populated with sassy, outcast superpowered women who armor themselves with snark. They aren’t literally all the same character, but they sure feel that way.
So this book just feels too surface-y. That’s too bad because Gonzales is clearly a talented writer, capable of doing so much more with his amazing, bizarre concept.