On the second page of Curioddity — the debut novel by Eisner-winning comic-book writer Paul Jenkins — the book's protagonist Wil Morgan wakes up and looks in the mirror. Thankfully he doesn't do the expected thing, which is describe his appearance for the benefit of the reader. Instead, Jenkins writes, "Not a good time to make eye contact with his reflection, he decided, and he hastily backed away." It's a tiny scene, but it's telling. By and large, Curioddity tries to subvert — or at least smirk at — a whole host of fictional clichés and tropes. It does so in a framework that's strictly conventional: a science-and-magic-infused urban fantasy. But its self-deprecating humor and quirky charm quickly wear thin.
Wil Morgan — the missing "l" in his name seems to hint at something missing from his life — is a private investigator specializing in divorce and insurance cases. Accordingly, his life is a dull one. Jenkins makes sure you know how dull it is, over and over, throughout the book. Wil is withdrawn and socially awkward. His imagination, which his rocket-scientist mother did everything to cultivate in him, has withered. He shuffles through life like the underdog he is, breaking into tears and spending most of his time gauging his own ineffectuality as a person. But he goes about all that in a funny kind of way — with sad-sack asides and dry, deadpan laughs — and that helps keep Curioddity moving long enough to get to something juicier: the introduction of a strange man named Mr. Dinsdale, who enters Wil's office one day and begins to show him the magical things that lurk behind the veil of his humdrum reality.
Before long, Wil is searching for a maguffin called the Levity box, a scientifically fantastical device that Dinsdale desperately needs to retrieve. Dinsdale is the curator of the Museum of Curioddity, which exists only if you know how to "un-look" for it. He, of course, teaches Wil how to un-look, and an adventure ensues, one in which ninja-bots, an evil mastermind, and a century-old electric bill (really) must be overcome. Along the way, Wil meets the lady of his dreams, the "groovy"-spouting Lucy, even if she is the epitome of the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl — a vibrant and exciting young woman who seems only to exist in order to give our glum, dull hero a reason to snap out of his self-obsessed moping.
Once it finally picks up steam, Curioddity is a serviceable urban-fantasy romp. What holds it back is Jenkins' constant need to undermine his own framework. It's one thing to nimbly avoid the rote, describe-yourself-in-the-mirror scene early on; it's another to incessantly bring up every trope imaginable just to deflate it. At one point, the characters discuss how the villains in movies always spring back to life just when you think they're dead — even as they anticipate the same thing happening to them. And in a scene thinks it's much cleverer than it actually is, Wil observes that another character "had a voice like two breadfruits falling off the back of a rhinoceros." He then proceeds to tediously examine his overuse of horrible simile — which is Jenkins' way of poking fun at his own overuse of horrible similes. But it doesn't excuse it.
Jenkins winks broadly at his readers, but all that winking ends up blinding the story. It's a tale of regaining innocence and imagination, but he smothers it in snickering self-consciousness, even as he hits you over the head with sentimentality. The glib platitude "Your eyes only see what your mind lets you believe" is repeated far too often. Hollow, facile parodies of everything from Starbucks to Siri abound. And while it's clear Curioddity wishes it were a Douglas Adams book — complete with a Zaphod Beeblebrox homage in the form of a conjoined-twin character from another dimension — it's neither as curious nor as odd as its title would imply.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.