Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware is often compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Interestingly, this comparison is made by both its’ fans and detractors.
The book’s fans say that like Ulysses, it uses dense language and a stream of consciousness style of writing to challenge its’ readers. The book’s detractors say that like Ulysses, few have ever actually read it, fewer understood it, fewer still liked it and that most of the people who own a copy of the book display it on their bookshelves as a monument to how well-read they are.
This is, to my mind, an unfair comparison.
I’ve read Ulysses. I understand Ulysses. I enjoyed Ulysses. I did not enjoy Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, though I did read and understand it. But if a Modernist literary comparison must be made, I think it would be much better to liken Jimmy Corrigan to Ethan Frome rather than Ulysses.
Now, for those of you who were fortunate enough not to have Ethan Frome inflicted upon you during Mrs. Wentworth’s 7th Hour English or your local equivalent, let me sum up briefly.
Ethan Frome is the story of a man named, oddly enough, Ethan Frome. His life, as told to an unnamed narrator over the course of the novel, is one of sadness and woe. Forced to tend to the family farm rather than to go the big city, college and a life as a scientist after his parents turn ill, he is further forced into a loveless marriage with Zeena; a distant cousin who is both a hypochondriac and an anti-intellectual. A silver lining comes into the dark cloud that is Ethan’s life in the form of Mattie; a smart, kind woman who is sent to take care of her ailing cousin Zeena.
Mattie and Ethan begin the tamest of love-affairs, with the height of their passion conveyed in a single kiss. Zenna, sensing something is up, declares her intent to send Mattie away and hire a new maid, before leaving to visit a distant doctor. Deciding that death would be preferable to life apart or the dishonor of running away to make a life together elsewhere, Mattie and Ethan make a suicide pact and decide to kill themselves while faking a sledding accident.
The plan fails as Ethan is thrown clear of the sled and is left barely able to walk while Mattie is paralyzed and struck dumb. Zenna, who thrives on Ethan’s suffering, is miraculously cured and cheered upon her return home. The novel ends with Ethan an old man who never got to follow his dreams, still trapped in a loveless marriage with a woman who lives to spite him and the woman he loves stripped of the spirit and mind that was the one beacon in his dark life.
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth is the story of a man named, oddly enough, Jimmy Corrigan. The end-result of a one-night stand between a womanizing airport bartender and a faceless, nagging woman, Jimmy is a sad, friendless, emasculated mess who is ignored at best and insulted at worst by those around him.
The plot centers upon Jimmy as he skips off to meet his estranged father (without telling his nursing-home housed mother) over Thanksgiving weekend. This is inter-cut - without warning or links - with a flashback of the life’s story of Jimmy Corrigan’s grandfather. He too was an abused screw-up from a single-parent home, who is eventually abandoned by his father at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
By the end of the novel, Jimmy is hit by a car and briefly hospitalized. Jimmy’s father – who attempts to bond with Jimmy by regaling him with tales of all the women he’s slept with - dies suddenly. And Jimmy alienates the half-sister that he thought he was beginning to form an actual friendship with by presuming too much, too quickly.
Now that we have the summaries done, you might ask why do I think that Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth is more aptly compared to Ethan Frome than Ulysses?
• Both books take their title from the name of their main character.
• Both books were written by their respective authors as an autobiographical catharsis. Chris Ware freely admits that Jimmy Corrigan is based on his own experiences with his estranged father whereas Edith Wharton was trapped in a loveless marriage with a man she despised.
• Both books are set in a bleak, cold, desolate landscape where love is not to be found; one being set in the urban sprawl of the American Midwest and the other in rural Massachusetts.
• The drama of both books would be ended instantly were the title character not such a complete coward more concerned with how others view him than his own happiness.
• Both are filled with symbolism that is, ultimately, pointless. For instance, Ware repeats the image of a damaged Superman as a metaphor for the death of Jimmy’s own dreams and his image of what his father is like as Wharton uses a broken glass pickle dish as a symbol of marriage destroyed by infidelity. Such symbolism is wasted, however, as the text of both books make such subtext redundant.
• Both books were difficult to get through, depressed the ever-loving life out of me and made me want to slit my wrists.
Sadly, Jimmy Corrigan lacks the strength of character to end unhappily. The story concludes with Jimmy working in his office on Thanksgiving and meeting a new female co-worker who offers Jimmy friendship and perhaps – just perhaps - the love that is sorely lacking in his life. This ending comes out of nowhere and stands in direct contrast to the bleak nature of the rest of the novel. It is as if Chris Ware, perhaps aware of how difficult it is to sell a thirty-dollar comic book to anyone who isn’t an Indie Comics Hipster, decided he needed a happy ending to assure the masses that this story does have a point to it other than "Jimmy Corrigan's life sucks."
The end of the book also offers an apology from Ware for how uneven the book is. He goes on to explain how it started with no ending in mind as a series of comic strips published by an Indie newspaper and how it is a personal work written to deal with his own issues and probably not fit for public consumption.
I agree completely. However, since Mr. Ware had the decency to apologize for how horrible his book is – which is more than Edith Wharton ever did - I will be nice to him. I will not go into detail criticizing his artwork and will say only that it is as bland, lifeless and inoffensive as oatmeal.
Despite this, I would still recommend that everyone read Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (if your library has a copy, of course - don't pay for the damn thing!) for much the same reason that Mrs. Wentworth had us read Ethan Frome. Because after reading it, I realized that although I was a shy, quiet outcast who was bullied by the popular boys and ignored by the popular girls, my life could have been a whole lot worse. The sting of adolescence was lessened by the knowledge no matter how bad my life got, I could always take comfort in the fact that I wasn’t Ethan Frome. Or, at the very least, I’d never have to read Ethan Frome again for the rest of my life. So too do I now take comfort in the fact that I can return Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth to the bookstore.
Perhaps I can exchange it for a copy of Ulysses.