Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Empire State by Jason Shiga

What can I say? I first asked for a copy of this graphic novel by Shiga since it was set in Oakland, and I'm an old East Bay boy myself. I'm always keen to see how an area so deeply imprinted on a cellular level is represented in other art. Would he get it "right," as viewed through the prism of my own memories (and return trips?)

For starters, Shiga works in a cartoony style that normally isn't my favorite mode for self-reflective graphic memoirs about love gone, well, not awry -- just never getting out of the starting blocks. Subject aside, the style is less "graphic" and more Sunday Funny-ish.

But my objections were quickly assuaged, in no small part because Shiga gets his Oakland right: There's Casper's Hot Dogs! There's Children's Fairyland! There are a bunch of old Victorians which could be right off Telegraph Avenue near MacArthur! Et cetera. But having a definitive sense of place (and given the book's title, you won't be surprised to learn the action switches from the East Bay to New York, after a fateful bus trip) doesn't make the story riveting on its own (just, for some of us, familiar!)

It's Shiga's wry/gentle -- and ultimately kind -- way of writing about his overly-smart, twentysomethingy characters who can joke about Fermi estimations of vaginas and where the McSweeney's is placed on their bookshelves, but who have a hard time -- like the rest of us -- asking for what they really need. Or dream about.

Speaking of which, the real Oakland is on the verge of shuttering its real libraries -- where, in this book, the Shiga character works -- due to the usual apocalyptic transfers of wealth from the public sector to the ultra-rich. It might be interesting to see if Shiga follows up this work on the politics of the heart with his characters facing the politics of politics. I'd certainly trust his eye for observation.

A shorter version of this review appeared in Nexus Graphica


Colleen said...

Oh - I've been looking forward to reading this one for a long time and I'm so glad to hear it's excellent. Will totally get it now!

david elzey said...

and as a former east bay boy myself i'm now extremely curious! poor oakland. the place keeps taking one hit after another -- the '89 earthquake, the hills fire, now the loss of libraries -- and yet it still soldiers on.

anyway, thanks for highlighting this.

MarkLWilliams said...

While the piece isn't overrun with East Bay-ness, you can tell the first part of the book is definitely set there.... It's a good read, and a largehearted one, to boot...

aquafortis said...

This sounds great--I'll have to read it. I've been outside of the East Bay (some might call it the East East East Bay...) for a while, but I lived there for 8 years and really miss it. I'm also intrigued by the political aspects. Thanks for the review!