Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Chris Ware’s ‘Lint’

The subject of LINT is Jordan Wellington Lint, a previously minor character in Chris Ware’s universe, last seen as a high school bully tormenting Rusty Brown back in Acme Novelty #16.

Lint is a person of little consequence — just a dude muddling his way through the complexities and disappointments and pleasures of the standard-issue human life: big dreams that fizzle and fade, replaced by smaller joys of work and family; lust, love, marriage, divorce; a successful career eventually marred by scandal and greed. Jordan is kind of a cretin — cocky, self-pitying, impulsive, mendacious — but it’s nothing of great note, and I can discern no real point that Ware is making about Lint’s personality. He’s just telling his story, with great compassion and care but an unflinching and pitiless eye, no rooting interest whatsoever.

There’s a wonderful tension between the towering ambition that Ware brings to this project and the smallness of the story it tells. There’s no high drama, no intrigue — everything is pitched at the level of the kitchen sink. But Ware gives every ounce of his dizzying talent to Lint’s little life, entirely breaking down the barriers between word and image, scene and sensation, trying his utmost to write the human experience from the inside out. His pages don’t read from left to right — they branch off in multiple directions, wrap back around, contradict themselves. They are obsessively detailed pictograms of the way the mind works: in associations, reflections, digressions, fixations. They aren’t scenes, they’re memories, and in one of the book’s most poignant scenes we realize that they are often wrong.

Frozen moments are the medium here. Between Jordan’s birth on the first page and his death on the last, Ware captures hundreds of snapshots in between. The book’s title, LINT, is almost too apropos — as time sweeps Jordan along we see the little fuzzy bits that cling to him: recollections, fading sensations, the ridiculous passions and meaningless instants gradually accumulating into a history, an identity held together, like all identities are, by nothing but spittle and memory.

A brand new driver’s license; a low-riding muscle car; an incandescent blaze of searing red light; “Stairway to Heaven” blaring from the AM/FM radio. These elements all dance and intermingle on the page, sweeping you inexorably forward with an emotional rather than narrative thrust. Ware treats comics like a hieroglyphic code, a language for unlocking some unspeakable truth. Every memory, every sensation is depicted here as minimally as possible, boiled down into its essence: all the momentum, every thrum of surging teenage fervor captured in one spread as the car barrels down the empty highway and a 16-year-old Jordan gets his first taste of feeling like a man.

Chris Ware is regularly criticized for being gloomy and morose, and this book is certainly a dark and a sad one. Ware doesn’t seem particularly fond of his protagonist, and yet he’s the most fully realized character he’s ever created. Jimmy Corrigan was a cipher. Rusty Brown is a parody. Jordan Lint is the genuine article: a frustrating, utterly ordinary human. He’s not a hero with a tragic flaw.

We don’t watch his downfall. He’s a guy who acts like a jerk half the time and we watch him win and lose money, lovers and friends, the stakes always relatively small. It’s a credit to Ware’s unremitting genius that such mundane material reads as impossibly vivid, alive and even thrilling. It takes a great insight and imagination to write neither kindness nor judgment, embracing the multitudes that even the most average person contains. The callous man who abandons his first family is the same little boy who hides in a closet and weeps over the death of an ant. In some sense these are formative and important experiences, but it often feels like they’re just the things he’s dragging behind him, barnacles clinging to his hull.

In Ware’s world life is just a bunch of stuff that happens, decisions made, consequences enjoyed or endured. Look for meaning and you’ll wind up frustrated — Jordan Lint’s life is a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It meanders around, leading only and inevitably to the grave. But the breadth of humanity between the sensitive child hoping for a pair of stilts for his birthday and the sex-obsessed narcissist who sabotages himself at every turn is stunning and flawlessly imagined. LINT may be empty of meaning, but it’s full of truth.

RATING 8 / 10