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Ghost World. By Daniel Clowes. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 1998. 80p. $9.95. ISBN 1-56097-299-8.


Adults, teens; language

NOTE: A movie of Ghost World should be coming out some time in 2001.

Rebecca and Enid are two teenage girls, best friends but on the brink of adulthood and the changes that accompany it. Ghost World is a series of eight related short stories about their day-to-day lives. Enid is the forceful one, dark-haired, glasses-wearing, Jewish, highly opinionated, somewhat reckless; Rebecca is more passive, a "skinny blond WASP" according to Enid (though she's not a WASP), watching with some amusement (and more dismay) as Enid does something weird or cruel. The stories aren't plot-driven for the most part; they're more just examinations of the girls and their activities and opinions. In order, the stories are:

  • "Ghost World," which introduces the two girls and several important fringe characters that will pop up from time to time in the other stories: John Ellis, a kind of Jerry Springer wannabe, who self-publishes a vile magazine and hangs out with all kinds of unsavory individuals, such as child molesters; the "Satanists," a vaguely sinister-looking couple who eat at the diner (Angel's) that Enid and Rebecca frequent; Bob Skeetes, a "creepy Don Knotts guy" who turns out to be an astrologer. Anyway, in this piece the girls mostly comment on the various absurdities around them: a dull comedian, the various individuals Enid encountered by herself at the diner, a trendy girls' magazine.
  • In "Garage Sale," Enid is selling some of her stuff, but she won't sell "Goofie Gus," given her by a boy back in fifth grade. When Rebecca comes around, Enid excitedly tells her that Bob Skeetes came by, talked her ear off, and bought only a ten cent eggbeater. She wants to see if he or the "Satanists" are at the diner, so she abandons her garage sale, and the two girls head off to Angel's. None of the expected people are there, but their friend Melorra comes over to say hi, to brag about her burgeoning acting career, and to tell the others about a friend, Carrie, with a tumor on her face. After Melorra leaves, Enid and Rebecca say nasty things about her. Later, they go to the supermarket, and Rebecca recognizes the "Satanists." Enid sneaks over to see what they're buying and discovers that their cart is full of Lunchables. That night, watching TV at Rebecca's house, they scream in horror when they see the commercial Melorra is appearing in. Then Enid remembers her garage sale and runs home. Most of the stuff is gone, but her little "Goofie Gus" is still there.
  • "Punk Day" displays Enid's reckless side when she gets her hair cut all spiky and green. She and Rebecca go to Angel's, looking for Bob Skeetes. He isn't there. While sitting in a booth, they see Carrie, whose tumor is huge and disgusting, and they scream. Going home, they encounter a guy from Enid's past, John Crowley, a.k.a. "Johnny Apeshit," a former punk rocker gone corporate. Enid is horrified that he sees her hair, and returns home to get a cover for her head. Later, Enid finds the business card given her by Bob Skeetes and leaves an insulting message on his answering machine. A few days later, she goes to meet the cartoonist "David Clowes," but her mental impression of him as a distinguished man is shattered by the rather shabby reality, and she doesn't even approach him. The girls wonder why no one ever asks them out on dates, and Enid confesses that she has fantasies about her summer school teacher.
  • In "The First Time," Enid excitedly calls Rebecca; she went into Adam's, an adult bookstore, and bought a horned leather mask. (She was accompanied by their friend Josh, the only boy that the two actually respect.) Then she reiterates her loss-of-virginity story to Rebecca, who already knows it, but Enid tells her about their friend Naomi's reaction to it. The next day, Rebecca is hideously embarrassed because Enid is wearing the horned mask.
  • "Hubba Hubba" is the name of a 50's diner that Enid drags Rebecca to. They comment to each other about the cluelessness of the place, their waiter's 50's "do," and the stupid names of the menu items. Then they pick up a free newspaper and start reading the personal ads. Coming to one where the man is looking for a redhead he glimpsed once, Rebecca suggests they call him and pretend to be her, and Enid gladly does so later at home, leaving a message for the man that she'll be at Hubba Hubba. The two girls and Josh (who disapproves of the trick) go to the restaurant to see if the man shows up, and he does. Suddenly the girls don't think the trick is so funny, and when they leave, in a paroxysm of guilt, Enid leaves a huge tip for the waiter.
  • "The Norman Square" is a piece of concrete in which some kid wrote his name many times. It sits in front of a bus stop that is no longer used, but at which an old man always sits. The two girls go to Angel's, where neither the "Satanists" nor Bob Skeetes come any longer, but where Melorra (now thoroughly obsessed with her acting) and her friends have started to eat. At Enid's house, they discuss the possibility that she'll be going to Strathmore, which distresses both of them. They attempt to call Bob Skeetes for an astrological reading, but his number has been disconnected. Walking around town, they see "Mrs. Satanist" and overhear that her husband is now in Florida. In the evening they wind up sitting at the "Norman Square" bus stop and discover that it's been reactivated.
  • "A Smile and a Ribbon" starts with the two girls going through a photo album. Waxing nostalgic, they go in search of an old kid's record, "A Smile and a Ribbon." With no luck, they end up at a diner, where Enid, explaining why she's been using big words, reveals that she's going to take a test to get into Strathmore. Becky had thought that Enid wasn't going to take the test; they argue. Walking home, their bad tempers explode when Enid continues to use big words. They split up. That night, Becky seeks comfort from her grandmother, while Enid's father tries to comfort her, but Enid won't tell him why she's crying. She leaves the house ostensibly to get tampons, but really to go see Josh. After an awkward few minutes, Enid tells him "God, I practically love you, Josh!" He reciprocates, but moments before they're about to rip their clothes off, Enid suddenly pulls away crying (for no reason Josh understands) and saying "I just totally hate myself...." She returns home to find that her father has found her old record player and the record she'd been looking for. She falls asleep listening to it. In the morning she calls someone (presumably Becky) to tell her about the evening.
  • "October" sees Becky and Enid discussing Enid's possible migration to college. At Angel's, they lament all the "assholes" who have started to come to the diner, when who should turn up but John Ellis, who announces that he's going on a sleazy talk show to defend an ex-priest who had been busted for molesting altar boys. The two girls watch the program with Josh. Later, Enid takes driving lessons and discusses buying a car with Becky so she can drive to Strathmore. That night, Becky goes to Josh's apartment alone. Enid ends up buying a used hearse because she thinks it's cool, but no one else agrees. Josh and Becky discuss Enid, and Becky finds out that Josh is still attracted to Enid. Becky is highly upset and complains to her grandmother that every boy prefers Enid and that "there's obviously something very wrong with me that I don't know about!" Unsure what to do with herself, Becky offers to move to Strathmore with Enid. After Enid takes the test, the two girls drive up to Strathmore in the hearse for a "practice run." They stop at Cavetown, U.S.A., a cheesy dinosaur statue park from Enid's childhood, and Enid waxes nostalgic. Later, in the motel room, Becky decides not to follow Enid, though both are afraid of what separation will mean. Driving home, Becky makes the telling phrase of the book: "I don't want to go anywhere or do anything... I just want it to be like it was in high school!" But that can't be.

The phrase "Ghost World," by the way, is a slogan that someone's painted on various surfaces around town for many years.

This is a sad, wistful, but very realistic and very interesting examination of two teenage girls and how their relationship deteriorates over time. Near the end of their relationship, both begin to catch glimmers that the opinions they held about so much of the world are, if not entirely invalid, then certainly childish and superficial; that the activities that gave them pleasure aren't as much fun as they used to be; and that everything ultimately changes, despite their personal desires. People stop coming to Angel's, separate, get new friends, get ill; places close or reopen; etc. Enid probably perceives the coming changes more than Rebecca, as Enid is planning (somewhat unwillingly) to go to college, while Rebecca seems to accept that high school is it for her. (Having been in a similar situation with my former best friend in high school, I can relate!) Their discussions about Rebecca accompanying Enid to the Strathmore area are always superficial; one gets the sense that neither girl thinks it will happen, or even particularly wants it to happen. Perhaps both have realized the futility of trying to keep things as they are.

Of course, change is not always bad, but as perceived by adolescents, it's always frightening. At its core, the story is about two girls who see the end of adolescence coming and strive desperately to stave it off but ultimately fail. Significantly, unexpected moments of stability please the girls. When they twice see the same pair of pants lying in the street, they're delighted; the persistence of the slogan "Ghost World" and its painter seems to suggest that some things are unchanging. But when the "Ghost World" painter shows up at the end of the book, Enid tries to catch him; he eludes her, as her childhood is eluding her now. Not that she isn't trying to cling to it, with her refusal to sell "Goofie Gus," her desperate search for her favorite childhood record, her punk haircut....

These are really masterful character studies. Both girls are confused, deeper than they think, and self-absorbed (and self-loathing). They do and they don't understand what's happening to them; they probably do, in some wordless way, but neither has the vocabulary to articulate it, even internally. There's no narration at all, which requires the dialogue and visuals to move the story; and I think I can safely say that I've never seen anyone do so much with such inarticulate characters. For example, when Enid turns away from Josh, she doesn't know why, but we understand why. When Becky decides not to follow Enid, both girls are relieved because "it would feel weird" if it happened, but the real reason, which neither can say, is that they're growing apart.

If the book has a weakness, it lies in the plotlessness of the stories. For the most part this is a strength, for it provides the illusion of spontenaity. We are able to see the girls behave naturally in a realistic world where story threads disappear because real people don't operate via story thread (e.g., the satanist "thread" is never resolved because the characters simply stop appearing in the book), and where their relationship can subtly alter without contrivance. But on occasion the stories ramble, and in some cases one has to make assumptions about what happened, such as at the end, when an obviously older Enid looks into the window of Angel's, sees Becky, and murmurs, "You've grown into a very beautiful young woman." Did Enid go to school? Was her rejection from Strathmore real or a lie? How much time has passed? A touch more contextual information would have helped.

But that's a very minor point in an otherwise outstanding book. Ghost World is a terrific piece of literature, the kind of graphic novel that we can point to with pride and say, "Yes! Our writers know how to create character! Our writers understand human relationships!" A first choice for adult- and teen-level collections, keeping in mind the large amount of rough language that might be controversial in places. However, this book speaks to teens, especially those close to the end of high school, and should be available to them. (A last note: it's hard to imagine how this book could make a good movie. Plotless movies rarely work. Good luck to them, though.)


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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