This week, HU is going to do a roundtable on Ariel Schrag’s Likewise. We’ll have guest posts by Jason Thompson, one of my favorite comics critics…and by Ariel Schrag herself, who has kindly agreed to weigh in at the end.
So, in preparation for that, I thought I’d look at what’s been written about Likewise thus far on the old internets. A little while back Suat looked at the extant reviews of Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button and found them wanting. Likewise was considerably lower profile…but nonetheless, I was surprised to find how little had been written about it. I was certain, for example, that the folks at Comics Worth Reading would have something to say about it…but nope. Nothing at Comics Reporter either, which has run reviews of Schrag in the past (I know…I wrote one of them!) Nor did the Comics Journal review it…though, given the lag time with the magazine, it’s possible that something is still in the works, I suppose.
Schrag conveniently lists a number of shorter reviews on her website, though these are mostly of the quick descriptive sort that Suat dismisses rather roughly in his post. I’m not the completist (and/or masochist) Suat is, so I can’t say I read them all closely, but they’re basically (to paraphrase Suat) more interested in giving you a sense of whether you want to buy the thing, rather than in trying to analyze it.
The Kirkus Reviews blurb is a good example — traumas are listed (parent’s divorce, struggles with homosexual identity, conflicted relationship with straight girlfriend); literary references are cited (Ulysses, Brothers Karamazov); metatextual aspects are briefly touched on; the varied art styles are highlighted, and the whole thing summed up positively as “A big leap of artistic ambition and self-discovery; Schrag saved the best for last.”
The best of these buyer’s guide efforts may be Shauna Miller at NPR who bases her piece upon the assumption that Schrag wrote Likewise a decade after the events depicted…a perfect peg for the piece, save for the one unfortunate fact that it happens to be false. (Schrag wrote and drew the entire book in the year following her graduation from high school; it just took her a decade to ink and publish it.)
I did manage to find three substantial reviews of Likewise.
The first is by tcj.com stalwart, Rob Clough Clough’s review is more a series of impressions than a sustained single argument. He does make several nice points: I liked his take on the very end as an anticlimax. As he puts it, “The book ends on a goofy, self-effacing note, deflating both the expectations of senior year of high school and her own obsessions.”
Still, overall, the review felt to me like Clough had trouble coming to grips with the (admittedly difficult) book. He notes the connection to Ulysses, mentions Ariel’s obsessive disorder, talks about her focus on school science subjects, notes that the book gets faster as it approaches the end…and finally throws up his hands, resting his assessment not on the work, but on his vision of the author’s strength of character. Or, as he puts it “Reading LIKEWISE is frequently a rocky and frustrating experience, but Schrag’s sheer ambition and drive behind this comic is so compelling that one can’t help but get swept along.”
The second long review I found is by Kristian Williams. Like Rob Clough’s review, this one is frustrating, though for somewhat different reasons. To me, a big part of the interest of Likewise is the way the book shifts between different styles for different scenes, trying to match visual and emotional content. Instead of trying to engage with this variation, Williams just punts and declares it chaos:
The best thing that can be said about Likewise is it shows Schrag’s expanding range as an artist. Unfortunately, where her earlier volumes used changes in style and technique sparingly to create mood or convey information about the character’s subjective experience, here the style changes frequently, sometimes for no apparent reason. It feels like Schrag just periodically got bored with what she was doing, and decided to try something else, often mid-page. In fact, dozens of pages are left un-done, with polished panels appearing alongside sketches of barely-humanoid blobs with speech balloons tacked to them.
The unwillingness to entertain the idea that Schrag might actually know what she’s doing is especially irritating because Williams is in some ways an astute reader. He notes, for example, that one of the effects of Schrag’s style towards the end of the book is that “Without time, causation and character development become impossibilities as well” — which is surely what Schrag is aiming for. He adds “The border between the story and the life blurs, producing a confused life and a confused story. And given the nature of autobiography, Ariel — writing the story of a relationship that’s still somewhere in the process of collapsing — ends up living a lot in the past.” But instead of trying to see how this works out in specifics, he simply dismisses it because “it still reads like somebody knocked the manuscript off the desk, and just didn’t bother to get the pages back into the right order.”
In short, Williams recognizes that Schrag is working in a modernist idiom, where form follows function. He finds this alienating. He recognizes that the alienation is a deliberate artistic decision. And he responds by…sneering at Schrag for successfully alienating him when she should be writing entertaining, unambitious anecdotes, since that is what high-school girls do best.
The saddest part about that is, with a devoted editor and 200 fewer pages, Likewise could have been a pretty good book. Schrag just needed to go back to the format of Awkward. The story of Likewise is not well suited to the novel form; it would work better as a loose series of vignettes that show us pieces of the life of a young girl, without any grand claims about Life, Love, Art, and the rest of it. Perhaps Schrag wanted to push her talents to the limit. The problem is, she found it.
I mean, if you don’t like highbrow modernism, go after highbrow modernism. It’s a worthy target; I’ve been known to take shots at it myself. But the recognition, on the one hand, of the successful fusing of form and content, the refusal to figure out why you find that fusion alienating, and the conclusion that the alienation has something to do with the fact that a high school girl has gotten too big for her britches — to me that all seems profoundly condescending. Williams would rather dismiss the book altogether than treat a high-school girl as a potential equal — someone who could, and in fact did, write a book that is too highbrow for his tastes.
The last substantial review is by the Inkwell Bookstore and is easily my favorite of the bunch. It’s true that it’s short, and not especially detailed. But in its limited space, it very thoughtfully compares Schrag’s work to that of Dash Shaw and Alison Bechdel, arguing that Schrag is better than either of them at using structural elements of her comic to emotional effect:
With Likewise, Schrag has crafted a comic that is as structurally daring as it is emotionally affecting. Every time she plays with panel layouts or switches art styles or f**ks up her fonts, she is intentionally entrancing the reader with an explicit expressionistic effect. Sometimes it’s giddy, drunken glee, sometimes it’s the harrowing disorientation of a recurring heartbreak, but there’s always an extra layer of emotional imbalance being added.
The review also notes that Schrag’s Joycean monologue sometimes reads as a “slam poetry parody of Ulysses, which is a palpable hit (though I think the effect may be somewhat more intentional than the review suggests.)
Also Inkwell credits my interview with Schrag for pushing him to read the book. So that obviously proves his superior taste.
Despite Inkwell’s review, though, I was overall quite disappointed Schrag’s book is a lengthy, ambitious, complicated, long-awaited work by a well know creator. And the critical response to it has been, for the most part, indifference, dismissive praise, and confusion.
Admittedly, Likewise isn’t an easy book, and our roundtable next week may well not get to grips with it either. We’ll give it a try, though, starting tomorrow.
Update: You can see all posts in the roundtable here.
Update 2: Kristian Williams defends himself here.
Update 3: Ed Howard has an interesting short take on Likewise in his round up of the decades best comics.