I’ve been following the Hooded Utilitarian‘s roundtable on Ghost World with interest and mixed feelings. Â In a nutshell, I agree, with reservations and certain moments of bafflement, with everyone on the panel who hates Ghost World, except that I love it. Â Ghost World is a comic I ought not to like very much. Â I dislike modernist stories about disaffected young middle-class people (Dan Clowes’s follow-up graphic novel, David Boring, leaves me cold, and I don’t think I’m alone in this–nobody’s doing a David Boring roundtable, after all). Â I dislike it when creepy adult men write moony stuff about the teenage girls they wish would fall in love with them, and it doesn’t make it any better that Clowes is writing partly about an actual girl who really did fall in love with him–his wife, Erika, to whom the book is dedicated. Â I’m not big on the whole Raymond Carver school of flat, meandering, open-ended fiction.
But I like Ghost World, primarily for two reasons. Â One, I’ll forgive a work anything, absolutely anything, if it’s funny enough, and I find Ghost World funny. Â Maybe it’s just me. Â It threw me for a loop when one of the commenters on the roundtable described Clowes as “Chris Ware without the humor or formal pyrotechnics”–there’s humor in Chris Ware? Â Maybe that art humor where you don’t actually laugh but instead chortle self-consciously, then curl up into a ball later and cry for hours? Â I guess his cover for Candide was funny. Â But I digress.
Two, theÂ Ghost World collection came out at exactly the right time in my life, when I was a college student not much older than the characters. Â Which is where the bafflement kicks in–I was very much like Enid and Rebecca, or at least Rebecca (I usually had a much cooler friend), and I’m amazed by the number of people who say the characters are implausible and don’t act like real teenage girls. Â I thought every high school had at least one of these types: the girl who dresses at Goodwill and cuts her own hair and knows weird older guys and reads indie comic books and sneers. Â The only thing Clowes gets wrong about Enid’s tastes is her lack of interest in current music. Â That might have been plausible if the comic had come out in a different era, but a smart, disaffected teenage girl in the 199os would not have been reduced to listening to her old Close-and-Play records. Â (The comic mostly dodges this crucial issue, but the most self-serving moment in the Ghost World movie is when Enid is moved to tears by one of Seymour’s dusty old jazz records. Â When that happened, Clowes, Terry Zwigoff, Robert Crumb, and Seth all simultaneously ejaculated.)
Noah Berlatsky compares Ghost World unfavorably to Ariel Schrag’s coming-of-age trilogy, pointing out how well Schrag captures the intensity of adolescence: “Arielâs difficulty wasnât that her world was fading out, but that it was too sharply coming into focus, and there was too much of it. Itâs the intensity of her emotions â her crushes, her attachments to friends, and, indeed, her attachment to her art â that makes her life a misery. Sometimes. And, then, at other times, that same intensity becomes a source of strength and beauty and excitement.” Â That’s an astute assessment of Schrag’s work, but I don’t know if it’s accurate as a sweeping assessment of adolescence. Â Yes, the intensity can result in the richness of experience Berlatsky sees in Schrag’s comics. Â But it can also inspire a bleak, apocalyptic, end-of-the-road feeling, which is why teenagers are so attracted to death and morbidity. Â Teach any writing class for teens, and you’ll have to wade through interminable whines about being numb and hopeless and “unable to feel anything anymore”–and, worse, you’ll probably recognize your own teenage writing in it. Â Adults feel more, or more easily, than teenagers do. Â Teenage writers like Schrag, who are able to dive into their lives and confront their emotions fearlessly, are rare and uniquely fascinating.
Clowes establishes throughout that Enid’s disaffection is a front, and Rebecca’s an even flimsier front. Â And, even if Clowes tapped his own feelings at his impending midlife crisis to get at Enid’s inner state, Enid does have legitimate reasons for feeling like her life is over at eighteen. Â She gets cold feet about going to college and realizes belatedly that she may have passed up her only chance to get out of town. Â She doesn’t know how to hold down a job or live on her own. Â Life at home is increasingly intolerable. Â From an adult perspective, it’s easy to see that her situation isn’t that hopeless; she probably won’t be unemployed and living with her dad forever. Â But from Enid’s perspective, she’s dug herself into a groovy hole and she has no idea how to get out–at least until the ambiguous ending, which I think is ambiguous precisely because Clowes couldn’t think of a realistic way to get Enid out.
The one area where Ghost World does fall short, one that several folks on the roundtable have already noted, is Clowes’s failure to imagine any sexuality for Enid. Â Berlatsky writes that Enid is implausible as a teenage girl because “she’s uninterested in discussing her crushes,” which unfortunately comes off as a bit insulting to teenage girls: gee, if she’s not talking about love, how can you even tell she’s a girl? Â In fact Enid and Rebecca do talk about boys often, but Enid’s contributions to the discussion are, as Rebecca points out, either negative or disinterested. Â There are only the briefest hints of what Enid might find attractive: she describes her hipster ideal to Rebecca, then imagines Dan Clowes as the embodiment of that fantasy, only to be brutally disappointed by the reality. Â Meanwhile, she actively discourages Rebecca’s real-life romantic interests. Â It’s okay for a teenage girl to be timid about sex and hide it behind bravado and fantasy, but there should be some indication that she at least looks at guys.
Male writers are often afraid of imagining straight female sexuality. Â There’s a powerful cultural block in there somewhere. Â That’s why Northstar is losing his virginity before Wonder Woman. Â A lot of male cartoonists dodge the issue by making their female characters lesbian or bisexual, to the point that it’s become a cliche. Â (This reaches a kind of apotheosis of sapphic absurdity in the final installments of Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, as the one positive male character dies and all the women pair off with each other in cozy quasi-marital couplings–but Moore is just one of the more extreme of many examples.)
Despite not infrequent hints of lesbian tease inÂ Ghost World, Enid doesn’t seem to be gay. Â She’s closer to asexual, but even that would be too solid a definition. Â Rather, it feels like Clowes isn’t comfortable imagining heterosexual female desire in a character who is half himself, half his own dream girl (and therefore off limits to other men), so he just drops the issue entirely. Â But sex and romance are huge parts of the adolescent experience, so it leaves a gap in both the narrative and the development of Enid’s character. Â Then again, at least in the book she doesn’t have to sleep with her creator’s sad-sack self-insert, like she does in the movie.
I could go on about the tension between Enid as a stand-in for the artist and as an embodiment of his fetishes (many people on the roundtable have mentioned Clowes’s literary influences, but so far no one has brought up the importance of Russ Meyer), but I’ve already gone on for paragraphs. Â Which is probably the other reason I like Ghost World: like it or hate it, you can talk about it endlessly.