Both longtime blog readers are probably aware that I’m a big fan of Ariel Schrag’s work in general and of her most recent book, Likewise in particular. One of the things I find most interesting about Schrag is how different her work is from male comics creators like Jeff Brown or David Heatley. Specifically, for folks like Brown and Heatley, autobio comics are generally a way to say “me me me me me me me” for thirty to a hundred pages or whatever; the narrative tends to be obsessively focused on their own past, their own psychology, their own ambitions (sexual and professional.) Other characters drift through to one extent or another, but they tend to be there mostly as props, important only insofar as they have something to give to the main character or something to deny him.
As I said, Schrag’s work is very different; she’s obsessed with relationships. There are a lot of characters in her books, but they all have weight and personality. Schrag’s girlfriend, Sally, for example, comes across as both incredibly cruel and entirely justified in her occasional interest and frequently brutal disinterest in Ariel. Sally is often mean, but on the other hand, Schrag gives you enough of her perspective and enough of her actual words that you can see where she’s coming from in her ambivalence about the narrator. With male autobio writing, in other words, you inevitably get a Bildungsroman, where everything relates to the the main characters’ self-actualization. In Schrag, you get romance, where everything relates to relationships between people.
What’s interesting about Likewise is that it seems, in part, like it’s Schrag’s attempt to do what the male creators are doing — to have her own psyche fill up more and more space; to gain control of her painful relationship with Sally by walling herself off in her own pscyhe the way that male autobio creators do as a matter of course. Schrag mentioned in several interviews that her main inspirations for Likewise were James Joyce and Joe Matt — two men, obviously. When I interviewed her and asked her what was attractive about those writers, she said “I guess I related to the obsessive thinking about women that they both had, and maybe related to their work more than I would to a straight woman writer.”
Obsessive thinking like that is often seen as out of control, of course — but I think in a literary context, it can also be a way to turn another person into a figment; it’s a move for control and dominance. You’re turning the other person not into themselves, but into a puppet who performs actions for you over and over again. One of the key literary characteristics of sadism, most theorists seem to agree, is repetition.
Likewise does start out in this obsessive, typically male literary mode. The first part of the book is told in Joycean stream-of-consciousness. The artwork actually represents this, literally, as having a depersonalizing effect on others; many characters around Schrag are drawn featureless, as if she’s so wrapped up in her own head that she can’t see them — or as if they’re part of her dream, and only become clear when she focuses on them.
But while Schrag begins (sort of) in male, she isn’t able to sustain it. In our interview, Schrag described the narrative shift like this:
And then Part 2 starts and you begin with the stream of consciousness, and then it cuts into this tape-recorded version, and it basically goes and then it will cut into a journal written version, and as the stories continue in Part 2, you get stream of consciousness switching with present day styles.
Towards the end of Part 2 the tape recording and handwriting take over the present day reality…and soon the only time you see Ariel in present day reality is when she’s thinking about writing the new book…you get the sense of how much the new book has taken over her mind.
In Part 3 the present day steam of consciousness has totally gone, and you start getting even things that you wouldn’t want to record. Like blank spaces on the tape, or blank pages in the journal…sort of the downside of a story being told only through what’s recorded, you get this warped and biased view
And that continues through Part 3 and then it’s not until the very end, and she’s finally done with it, that the very last page returns to the stream of consciousness reality.
In our discussion, Schrag saw this change as being about art hijacking life: her book taking over the rest of her existence. To me, though, it seems like it can also be read as being about an inability to escape from the outside world, and from her relationships. Stream of consciousness is in her head, but the tape recording and the journal and the writing are outside; they’re objective rather than subjective. Instead of being in control or primary, Ariel goes back to being one voice among others.
The one scene where this seemed most clear to me was in a sequence where Ariel and her boy friend (and sometime boyfriend) Zally go to a strip club. Zally has been to the club before; he got a lap dance and came, as guys do. Ariel is hoping to achieve a similar climax, but it’s not to be. Instead, she ends up being fascinated by the surface of one of the dancer’s faces (literally — the woman has a skin condition), and then by how the women feel about the men (they are not especially enthusiastic about the men, Ariel learns while she’s in the bathroom with them) and finally during the dance itself about what parts go where and what she’s supposed to be doing exactly and on and on and on. The upshot is that Ariel doesn’t get it done in the dance, and has to go beat off companionably with Zally in the bathroom. The whole scene is actually transcribed (I presume verbatim) from the tape-recorded after-analysis which Ariel and Zally recorded on their way home together, and so it comes off as an anecdote; something that is being shared and understood between friends as part of a mutual experience. Zally’s reactions (amused concern that Ariel’s hopes are going to be dashed; icky sexual request to watch Ariel’s lapdance; an general ambivalent investment throughout) are important parts of the story. In fact, in some ways, you could see the whole episode as about Ariel’s relationship with Zally — her competitor, sometimes fuck-buddy, and sometime collaborator — and about how her loyalties and interest are divided between him and the (possibly gay?) stripper who dances for her. This is, in other words, a long, long way from James Joyce’s confessions about his own pursuit of sexworkers in “Portrait of an Artist,” where the prostitutes are little more than scented shadows occupying some guilty corner of the narrator’s skull. For Schrag, getting off isn’t about getting off, but about how she feels about others and how others feel about her.
Schrag is often tormented throughout the book by her inability to shake her butchness, and by the fact that people keep mistaking her for a boy. At the same time, at moments like those in the strip club, she seems to be trying to process experiences like a boy, only to be foiled by a female way of looking at the world. The struggle between the different narrative techniques seems to also be a struggle to find a way to have it both ways — to have the sense of internal privacy and self importance, that male writers often take for granted, while at the same time continuing to respect her relationships with others. Schrag’s struggling with and against autobiography, and as a result Likewise doesn’t read like anything else I can think of, either in that genre or outside it.