Noah Berlatsky compares Ghost World unfavorably to Ariel Schrag’s coming-of-age trilogy, pointing out how well Schrag captures the intensity of adolescence: “Ariel’s difficulty wasn’t that her world was fading out, but that it was too sharply coming into focus, and there was too much of it. It’s the intensity of her emotions — her crushes, her attachments to friends, and, indeed, her attachment to her art — that makes her life a misery. Sometimes. And, then, at other times, that same intensity becomes a source of strength and beauty and excitement.” That’s an astute assessment of Schrag’s work, but I don’t know if it’s accurate as a sweeping assessment of adolescence. Yes, the intensity can result in the richness of experience Berlatsky sees in Schrag’s comics. But it can also inspire a bleak, apocalyptic, end-of-the-road feeling, which is why teenagers are so attracted to death and morbidity. 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. Adults feel more, or more easily, than teenagers do. Teenage writers like Schrag, who are able to dive into their lives and confront their emotions fearlessly, are rare and uniquely fascinating….
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. 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? 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. 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. Meanwhile, she actively discourages Rebecca’s real-life romantic interests. 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.
It’s interesting that Shaenon accuses me of stereotyping teen girls…but in order to do that she kind of has to arrive at the point where she thinks Ariel Schraeg is somehow a less representative portrayal of teen girls than Enid Coleslaw.
Moreover, I think Shaenon’s point about Enid’s sexuality, or lack thereof, is astute…but I think it’s a more crippling problem for the book than she acknowledges. Specifically, I think Enid’s lack of sexuality is precisely why her whole existential dilemma rings so false. At least for myself as an adolescent, I remember quite vividly that my sense of alienation and despair were very much tied up in sexual and romantic impulses that I wasn’t prepared or able to deal with. I don’t think that’s atypical, and it’s why Enid’s alienation — which is tied up more in nostalgia for her past than in desire— seems so entirely wrong. Nostalgia is the fetish of the middle-aged, not the young.
I also wonder about this. “Adults feel more, or more easily, than teenagers do.”
I just don’t think that’s true. Teenagers may have more difficulty parsing social codes and sublimating their emotions in socially acceptable ways. But they certainly don’t feel less, nor do I agree that they feel less easily. I think it’s insulting to suggest they do, honestly. You know, “hath not a teenager eyes? Organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” Teenagers aren’t all that much different than, you know, people. In that vein, I think kinukitty’s point is worth repeating
“I don’t recognize them as high school girls, but that is probably secondary to the fact that I don’t even recognize them as human.”