Friday Five - Book Porn Edition

Underground Reading: Empire State by Jason Shiga

Empire StateJimmy, the protagonist of Empire State, is a bit of a sad sack.

He works in the Oakland library during the day and spends his evenings adding more animated gifs to his website. He's not a geek because he has no passions - his life is boring, repetitive and unfulfilling. In one telling scene, he explains how the "Walk" button doesn't work at a particular intersection, because he spent all day timing the light changes.

By contrast, his friend Sara is bubbling over with life. She's only in Oakland temporarily - capital-L-Life is in New York City, where she can break in to publishing and be at the center of the creative universe. During her brief stint in Oakland she opens Jimmy's eyes - poking and prodding him to break out of his routing. She introduces him to cappuccino and checking accounts and the other niceties of 21st century life.

Sara inevitably heads to New York and Life, leaving Jimmy with an absence in his life the exact size of a perky Jewish hipster. After some agonising, he makes his first ever impulsive decision: he's going to move to New York City. Because he, Jimmy, is in love.

Empire State has the potential to be mumblecore whininess, but it avoids the trap of its own by being so lovingly genuine. Jimmy is finally, achingly passionate about something, but has no idea how to express himself (or deal with) the world. As he sets off on his quest, his enthusiasm and naivete consistently combine to put him in one awkward situation after another, both on the journey to New York and once he arrives.

Empire_State_pg26_detailDamn straight.

Still, creator Jason Shiga refuses to laugh at Jimmy, at that's the beauty of Empire State. Jimmy's goofy and, for lack of a better term, constantly behind. But Empire State is less about Jimmy winning than having the courage to take the field for the first time. Sara is equally well-rendered. In the hands of a lesser writer, she could easily be a callous villainess or a vapid romantic object. She's neither - Sara's her own person. She's Jimmy's muse, but she's also in possession of her own narrative. 

The art of Empire State is simply spectacular. Jason Shiga punctuates the dialogue with achingly-beautiful spreads of the landscape - be it Oakland, New York City or even a truck stop in Cleveland. All in all, a gorgeous and surprisingly tender book.