My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Somewhere or other in his voluminous Livejournal archive, the musician/theorist Momus brought some nuance to the common theory of cultural cycles. The styles of whatever past decade we are currently recycling, he said, feel cool and natural to us; but the styles of the period immediately following the currently-recycled period will feel strange, even creating an “uncanny valley” effect of almost-but-not-quite-humanness. I suspected that Ghost World would come off this way right now.
We are recycling, in pop culture anyway, “the ’90s,” which really means something like 1989-1997—characterized by all the ennui, sarcasm, optimism, and earnestness of the post-Cold-War period, when all universalisms seemed to be discredited, the market seemed to rule forever, identity politics filled the gap left by communism and social democracy, and the middle-classes felt an anxiety or even a dread without a name. These feelings and ideas are in the air again after being temporarily derailed by the bomb-blasts of the Bush years, which, you’ll recall, took us back to the mid-’80s in the cultural cycle, all cheesy glamor, ersatz religiosity, and action heroes. The late ’90s produced the backlash that flung us into the Bush era; it was a time of ferocious reactions against PC and identity politics, when the fashions got as dark, colorful, and streamlined as pop militarism from the future, and the music became electronic or else heavy. It was a soured postmodernism, a search for authenticity less in culture than in intense experience.
Ghost World is a transitional work between these moods—Enid, the teenaged red-diaper baby protagonist, is sarcastic, but she is more than that; she scorns her radical 1960s father and dresses up as a 1970s punk, embracing nihilism and eschewing prettiness, championing an elitist and exclusive ugliness or unconventionality meant to weed out the culturally weak. We are at an early point of hipsterism in this book, in its early quasi-fascist phase, restless and mean and in quest of novelty. (I am not talking about the period the book evokes, but the mood it transmits to and about its own time.)
For most of the narrative, Clowes more or less just revels in it, letting the gender-swapped semi-autobiographical Enid have her say on everything and playing her small city, wrapped in the TV-blue glow of the book’s only color, for laughs. Maybe guilty laughs, but laughs nonetheless. (The roughly contemporaneous Daria was the tamer, more commodified version.) I suppose the series started as a joke, a set of short gag-comics for Eightball, and then got away from Clowes as the characters deepened. The last two chapters—especially the final one, which is much longer than the others—keep some of the comedy but end up in Chekhovian wistfulness. Time starts passing more quickly; the unease that has surrounded the heroines in their cultural barren increases, as if imaginary and surreally amusing threats—the “Satanists,” for instance—have receded back into the real things they were only ever allegories for in the first place, and have become all the more frightening for it. Maybe the effect is more deliberate than I give it credit for: maybe it represents the drift out of adolescence, from a posture of aloofness over exaggerated drama to a greater emotional openness as real losses start to mount.
Despite the “graphic novel” label, which rarely makes much sense anyway, Ghost World is probably best thought of in literary terms as a (realist) short story, the way Frank O’Connor defined it in The Lonely Voice. Like the best short stories, it represents people at a vulnerable point in their lives, baffled and stuck, until they are crushed or else find some means of escape or illumination. One of those happens to Enid in the end, though it is not clear which. The last line of dialogue is wonderful, unforgettable.