We Hooded Utilitarians agreed to do a roundtable on Ghost World weeks ago. Months, maybe. As if I’d keep track of something like that. The point is that I now have to write something, and I don’t want to.
I don’t like Ghost World, but that isn’t the reason I don’t want to write about it – as everyone knows, few things are more enjoyable than climbing up on the old soap box and bursting forth with a bell-like chorus of disgust or, ideally, righteous indignation. Or, to put a finer point on it, I like to vent. I like to read the venting of others, so long as a certain level of intellectual rigor is maintained. I am comfortable with the negative.
The problem is not that I dislike Ghost World, but that Ghost World makes my stomach hurt. It gives me an icky, slimy feeling. I find it annoying, repulsive, and kind of boring, in more or less that order. It is also ugly, really grindingly ugly.
But not accidentally ugly. This is an important note, albeit a side note, for me. Ghost World intends to be ugly and repulsive. It aims high, and it succeeds. So we will pause to acknowledge this. It is also supposed to be hip and funny and, you know, real, man, and in those areas, I think it fails miserably. Well, I guess it is hip, actually. If hipsters say it’s hip, that makes it hip, by definition. Who am I to argue? I’m willing to give the world at large that point.
What Ghost World is not, however, is funny or real, in the sense of creating characters that seem like fully fleshed human beings. You know, as in real. The supposed humor of this book escapes me completely. I am not a dour and humorless person, by the way. (Just the other day I watched the first six episodes of “Big Bang Theory” and I laughed and laughed. Johnny Galecki! So geekalicious!) Nor am I a Puritan or someone who is too old and uptight to get it. I write porn, for Christ’s sake (well, not for Christ’s sake, obviously) (or not, I guess, but no, it really isn’t), and I was more or less the target audience for Ghost World when it was created. I felt the same way about it then. I pulled it off the shelf in 1997-ish – I have always been willing to consume that which is marketed to me – and I read the first couple of stories, flipped through the rest, skimming dispiritedly, and put the book the hell down, wanting nothing else to do with it.
And that’s pretty much exactly what happened when I tried to read Ghost World again last week. (Hey, I do research. I may not have a real name, but I do have standards.) The main issue, or me, is that I do not recognize the main characters. 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. They are not so much characters as collections of anecdotes that are intended to be cool and ironic. Makes the whole thing fall kind of flat. Here’s the thing. I understand that I might not be quite the right sort of person for this book – I might not have exactly the right background to really feel the characters. Except that a) I should be, and b) it shouldn’t matter. I was a disaffected, oddly dressed and coiffed, shockingly acerbic teenage girl through much of the eighties. I was “edgy.” (God, I hate that word.) So, there’s that. But, whatever. I don’t think it matters. I have managed to appreciate stories about assassins and pirates and brooding nineteenth-century English nobles trundling bleakly across the moors, and I have very little practical experience with any of that. If the characters are well-written, I can work with it. They don’t even have to be human. Dog POV? Panther? Bring it on. Enid? Not so much.
In fact, my major reaction to Enid is WTF? I mean, some of the details ring a bell. We’ve all slept with gross losers for reasons that were, and remain, fairly obscure to everyone. And who doesn’t enjoy Satanist-spotting? A while back, I was partaking of a high-fat Indian buffet with a friend, and we noticed the people at the next table were doing an interview for a music magazine. The reporter said – quietly, gently – “It must be hard for you sometimes.” And the metal guy, who was eating samosas double-fisted, as if the reporter was perhaps buying lunch, said, “Yeah, man. It’s hard to be a Satanist at Christmas.” Golden, right? See, I have random things in common with Enid, but she never gels as an actual character for me. Dan Clowes might or might not be pleased to know that Enid and Rebecca remind me a little of the tertiary disaffected youth characters in Lost Souls (who probably have names but are only there for atmosphere so no way in hell am I looking it up). I’m referring to Poppy Z. Brite’s vampire book. I know what that means to me, but I’ll let you make of it what you will.
Here is when I should tie everything together and, ideally, make a point of some kind. Cicero’s rules for rhetoric demand it, and you, having followed me this far, deserve it. Sorry about that. I’ve shot my wad. I think Ghost World is unpleasant in a way that winds up being pointless because there’s no there there (since I’m referencing the classics). I don’t mind rolling in the gutter, but I want to get something out of it. Understanding. Comfort. Titillation. Something. I get none of that from Ghost World. All I get is irony, and straight irony, not even chased with Diet Coke, just kind of makes me feel dirty (not in a good way) and irritated. I do look forward to reading the posts about why people like Ghost World. And, even more, I look forward to not thinking about Ghost World again for another twelve years.
Update by Noah: The entire Ghost World Roundtable is here.