Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not)
Created by: Jason Shiga
Published by: Abrams ComicArts
ISBN: 0810997479 (Amazon)
I suffer from a perhaps strange inability to watch Ben Stiller movies. It’s not so much Ben Stiller himself that I find unwatchable. He’s perfectly capable of entertaining me or playing a role that I can enjoy. The affecting issue seems to be more with the type of character for which he is usually cast. Awkward characters. Men with little ability to suss out their social environment in a facile manner. Reality Bites. Meet the Parents. That sort of thing. Films that stock and trade on Stiller’s ability to play a truly, madly, deeply embarrassing schlub.
When I encounter characters doing terribly embarrassing things, I become physically agitated. Or at least my psychological agitation translates into a physical experience. I shake, cringe, and sweat. I start to become nauseated. I feel the same while watching Michael Scott interact with anyone outside of the employees of Dunder Mifflin, Scranton. After watching the “Scott’s Tots” episode of The Office, I made a deal with my wife that I would leave the room whenever Michael Scott did anything and she would call me back when it was over. And I wasn’t always this way so much. I think it’s getting worse as I grow older.
This is the long way about to explain my issue with Jason Shiga’s Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not). Every critic comes to a piece of work from the context in which he or she lives. Every last one of us. You’ll find no such thing as an objective opinion on a book or movie or piece of music. Our tastes govern us and our tastes are in turn governed by our experiences. We can employ certain means to help mitigate the effect of our tastes when we’re aware of these kinds of imbalances, but we can never neutralize completely — and who would want to? Nostalgia is a big hurdle for a lot of people, rendering them incapable of seeing a book as it is. For me, the hurdle is watching a character suffer self-wounding humiliation over and over, never recognizing how it is by their own actions that their lives remain in torment. I can almost not judge a book or movie sensibly if that kind of thing is present.
But I try. I do.
The savvy among you will have discerned that there is something embarrassing going on in Empire State, perhaps some moment of shame or painful humiliation. It’s worse, really. The book’s central premise, the plot from start to finish, is that moment of humiliation. Our protagonist is awkward and socially oblivious — and even while feeling the initial pangs of shame, continues doggedly upon the horrible, scarring course he’s laid out for himself. The book, for me, was painful from beginning to end. I had to read the short work in discreet chunks in order to even finish it. Apparently, for some of the reviewers who have lauded the work, the book was not difficult to take in at all. It is primarily for this reason that I make you aware of my… condition — to give you reason, should you need it, to entirely dismiss my review on grounds of mental instability. If your name is Jason Shiga, this may be the best tack.
Man, I remember not knowing what Perl is. Not really, I don’t. But I can imagine my life was probably more carefree. I was also a newly minted bachelor. Oh Perl, you kidder, you cad.
Empire State is the story of a boy who likes a girl who moves away to a city essentially a million miles away from Oakland, where the boy remains. A better title may have been Damn the Middle States. The tough part is that while the boy has his crush (as boys will do), the girl remains either oblivious or aware-but-uninterested (my guess is the latter). That’s painful and sad, but a pretty common version of the tale. Where it gets tough is watching the boy pin his hopes on a girl who won’t ever have him, knowing this is the case, and witnessing him continue a hapless pursuit of her despite there being no indications that anything will come of it. He imagines some sort of Sleepless in Seattle meet-up at the Empire State Building but does so based not even on the flimsiest evidence. Every step he makes closer to that fateful moment and the inevitable lingering shame brought me a little bit closer to total mental collapse.
I wanted to yell at him, to shake him, to pour sense into him. But a kid like that? There’s no reasoning with him. He has to take his knocks and hopefully learn some lesson or another. It may be the lesson he learns is to seek a better reading of the signs before embarking on a journey of romantic proportions. More likely, the lesson he’ll take away is that women are fickle, inscrutable creatures and are to be pursued wholly apart from reason and that the arbitrary hand of fate is to be accepted for whichever way it chooses to fall. I imagine this boy is well on his way to becoming Oscar Wao. And that’s a hard thing to watch.
Look. I’ve made my own mistakes and miscalculations. I’m not boasting over how superior I am and how I can’t possibly relate to this kid. I can — and that may be why I feel so deeply the humiliation that he himself should have felt even before he began his journey. I understand this kid, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about him.
But apart from that (apart from my personal demons), was the story any good? I don’t think that it was. It may in some way have been realistic, but it wasn’t really compelling or interestingly composed. Neither the boy nor the girl was engagingly crafted and I found no reason that either of them should attract the attentions of either readers or potential suitors. It’s not so much that every book has to feature likable protagonists, but in a love story it’s almost essential. And neither is it that these two are as despicable as the leads in Conversations with Other Women, but more that they’re just flat, uninteresting people with not much to recommend them. The boy has a not-quite-developed fascination with mylaring books, but that on its own is not enough to round him out as a character.
The art is acceptable but nothing worth praising. It’s simplistic and the emotion of scenes is often lost in the blank faces of its characters. The most exciting thing about Empire State is its use of colour, but even this isn’t spectacular (not that I believe it was intended to be and it would be unfair perhaps to put too much weight on the book’s central visual gimmick). The story is told in two parts, cyan and magenta — with cyan repping for the present and magenta standing in for the past. The colors twirl back and forth as Shiga moves the narrative with flashes back and forward and back again. And when the two periods reach a state of intertwine, we get a blend of cyan and magenta. It’s a technique we saw somewhat in Asterios Polyp — only there, new colours emerge to visually describe the protagonist’s psychological growth. In Empire State, the colour choices appear to be arbitrarily chosen. This may not be the case, but I couldn’t figure out a purpose specifying cyan/present and magenta/past.
At the end of the day, it’s difficult to distinguish my evaluation of Empire State as a visual/literary object from my strong prejudices against experiences of this kind. I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t have enjoyed Empire State even if I were someone who could endure character humiliation as easily as I endure characters who have hair and wear clothes, but you’ll have to take that for what it’s worth. Perhaps it was unfair for me to review the work at all, but on that note, perhaps it’s unfair for any critic to review a work, governed as we are by our circumstances, beliefs, histories, moods, and tastes. I trust that you as the reader will be able to discern whether Shiga’s book is something you wish to pursue. After all, plenty of others have enjoyed it.
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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