Sufficient for the day is the newspaper thereof. – Ulysses, Episode 7
The title of the last volume of Ariel Schrag’s graphic memoir, Likewise, appears four times in Joyce’s Ulysses, most prominently in Episode 7, Aeolus, as one of the hyperbolic newspaper headlines: What? – and Likewise – Where?
(Aeolus is the Greek god of wind and Episode 7 is the chapter where Joyce satirizes “windy and inflated” reporting. Suat might call this poetic irony.)
As Noah has pointed out, the role of Ulysses in Likewise is talismanic, not only in the senses that he describes – to be like Sally and to be(come) to Sally what Joyce has been – but also in the rigorously Freudian sense of an object that stands in for an unfulfilled wish. Ulysses acts in these pages as a substitute for Sally.
For this reason, it feels insufficient to argue that this book is about gender identity. The pages of this book are more saturated with the not-unrelated concept of desire: am I desired, do I desire the right people, why is there a mismatch between my biology and the people I desire, and most importantly, her constant and omnipresent desire to make this comic.
Noah rightly talks about Ulysses as phallus and about the phallus as mastery, but he doesn’t explicitly complete the syllogism. Yet Ulysses does indeed stand for mastery: to read it, to understand it, is to become what Lacan calls “The Subject Supposed to Know.” In this case, it’s not only to know Sally (as Noah suggests, although that’s certainly going on) but also to know … well, how to make sense of Ulysses. Ulysses is the ultimate symbol of the writer’s craft, considered the greatest achievement of English prose. As Likewise progresses, Ariel (the character) gets less preoccupied with Sally and questions of homosexual identity and more concerned with her identity as a writer, and those parts of the book are the ones that mimic the structure and rhetorical diversity of Joyce’s novel. The desire for the phallus in Likewise is not only the desire for mastery of the social dynamic of “It”; it is not only the desire for Sally or the desire for a clear identity – it is the striving for mastery of the comic itself: the obsession even greater than the obsession with Sally.
The equivalence of Sally and Ulysses as objects of desire is evident in the book’s mapping techniques (it’s not particularly evident in the memoir’s “plot”). Part I is concerned with mapping the contours of Sally’s body and the relationship between Sally and Ariel, and is mostly traditional: a literary cartography made from lived experience. The remaining parts prioritize grafting Schrag’s narrative onto the structure of Ulysses and are more Baudrillardian: she tries to follow the contours of Ulysses and ends up creating something that is not-quite-a-simulacrum but that certainly aims there.
This effort to make the comic “like” Ulysses plays counterpoint to her frustration over the naturalized ideas of sexual difference. She is frustrated that she can’t fit her own pleasure with the normative biological imagery and by a visceral sense that her homosexuality is biological too. She is frustrated by the actual lived awkwardness of teenage relationships (gay or otherwise), and the difficulties of sexual and emotional intimacy in general.
In contrast, intimacy with Ulysses is achievable — not the typical romance-novel version of “being meant for” or even being desired by, although those make an appearance in her record. The idealized intimacy is “being like.”
The comic demonstrates that similarity allows for a kind of intimacy that is likewise, in both dictionary senses of the adverb:
1. moreover; in addition; also; too: She is likewise a fine lawyer.
2. in like manner; in the same way; similarly: I’m tempted to do likewise.
This is why this book is, to me, even with all its angst, a celebration of queer desire: desire that is both/and and not either/or.
The construction of desire is immensely appealing and the most successful aspect of the book, as Noah’s post demonstrates. But it could have been accomplished in far fewer pages. The effort to create a simulacrum is staggeringly ambitious, and it fails spectacularly. It fails, however, primarily for reasons that are not Ariel Schrag’s fault.
Ulysses in many ways triggered the birth of experimental fiction: playing with style, form, structure, language, voice, and the dynamic interplay of meaning, it has exerted some sort of influence on almost every “literary” writer since its widespread publication in the early 1930s. The book is a puzzle-box, itself a simulacrum of The Odyssey and replete with literary references – the most obvious of which is a compendium of literary devices and styles. Pretty much every significant device from the history of Western literature makes it into Ulysses at some point (which is why most people, including Ariel, read it with a copy of Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated close at hand).
Western literature has had about 3000 years to codify devices and build references with widespread cultural relevance. Schrag’s novel suffers from the fact that graphic literature doesn’t have this much history. There isn’t a “Concise Oxford History of Graphic Literary Terms.” Art is much harder to pin down semiotically than literature. The success of Joyce’s novel relies on the fact that his starting point was a fairly rigid and well-established tradition of literary history and technique – it is easy to recognize at the surface level the use of drama, poetry, stream of consciousness, and other devices, even if the precise significance of each is a puzzle.
In contrast, Schrag is working in an idiom with about 100 years of history and an incredibly fluid semiotics. It’s really hard to get granular — and impossible to get granular enough for Joycean pleasure — because the interpretation of artistic variation is so impressionistic. Schrag’s choice to use very DIY visuals exacerbates this.
The deeper problem, I think, is that the Joycean project is fundamentally at odds with the autobiographical one: literary history and device are shared cultural phenomenon, whereas the interest of autobiography (as Suat points out) often comes from the uniqueness of the individual perspective. At 19, Schrag simply wasn’t quite deft enough to knit those two threads together into a completely successful text.
So she failed at the impossible task of writing a graphic equivalent to Ulysses — but fucking hell she tried, and that’s much more ambition than most graphic novelists show. I hope her example will inspire more experimental graphic fiction, because I don’t want to wait 3000 years to get the graphic novel that succeeds.
Update by Caro: I was convinced by the comments below taking me to task for the sentence saying Ariel “resolved” the gender question. I edited the post to pull that sentence out. It’s not resolved; it’s just less important to me than the issue of desire.
Update by Noah: The entire Likewise Roundtable is here.