I stumbled across Jason Shiga’s graphic novel Empire State-a Love Story (or Not) and must admit, I just grabbed it because of the cover. Once again, I struck gold with that strategy. It’s a touching, semi-autobiographical story you can take at surface value or dig deep into and find a piece of yourself. It’s told in nonlinear fashion-flashing from the past to the present timeline. Color coding (blue/pink tones) keep the story lines straight. There is also a lot of humor.
At the heart of this story is Jimmy. He’s a twenty-something Asian-American librarian in Oakland, CA who also has a website he developed. His friend Sara has been on her own since she was 13. Jimmy seems simultaneously in awe of Sara’s experience and floundering with his own feelings about what growing up means. I fight wanting to use the big fish in a little pond analogy. Jimmy is more of a small fish in a small pond just maintaining the status quo; if he doesn’t try anything big, he won’t fail. Sara announces she’s moving to New York in spite of Jimmy’s protests and negative assumptions about the city. But Sara’s move will jump start a giant self discovery for Jimmy.
Jimmy, who has never left California, decides to go cross country on a bus to visit her. The plan is to start a romantic relationship with Sara and apply for dot com jobs in the city. But his six day bus tour is not the “Traveling from town to town solving mysteries like Lou Ferrigno in The Incredible Hulk” adventure he imagined. Instead, he’s schooled in the ways of the road by some parolees. His romantic plan to meet Sara at the Empire State Building a la Hollywood style isn’t successful either.
New York doesn’t exactly go as planned. Jimmy meets Mark. Mark is a professional web developer and makes Jimmy come face to face with the fact he is merely dabbling at website development. Jimmy and his clunky desktop PC writing HTML in Notepad are not up to par. He has no knowledge of Perl, Dreamweaver, that there are multiple versions of HTML. But Jimmy does find out the city itself is not as he assumed. He learns there are things he really likes about it.
Does Jimmy really love Sara or is he just in awe of her freedom and sense of adventure and the fact she has a plan? Does he really wish to be a web developer or is it a dream to comfort himself so he doesn’t feel like he’s just a librarian? Jimmy likes Oakland, he seems to take pleasure in his job. But the pressure of putting expectations on being an adult seems to leave him helpless. He compares his expectations of growing up to the original Star Wars trilogy. Luke went off to the swamp with Yoda and came back as a bad ass Jedi. But Jimmy went to college and went right back to where he came from.
I won’t spoil whether the love story works out. But I will say this book left me comforted. Even in my thirties I struggle with what I think I’m supposed to be doing vs. what I am doing. Ultimately I think just staying true to yourself, being honest about what you want, and being open to the world is the best you can do as grown up. Don’t judge your life path by others’ because we’re all different.
This is the first Shiga work I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. Obviously, it struck a nerve. The illustrations are simple and sweet. It’s a simple and elegant story. Well done Mr. Shiga, I look forward to more of your work.
What have you seen/read lately that has helped you put your life in perspective? Or comforted you?
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