20 Years Later, a Loser Adult Rereads Ghost World
This year is the 20th anniversary of when Ghost World, Daniel Clowes’ famous coming-of-age story, was published as a complete graphic novel. Prior to that, Ghost World was serialized in Clowes’ seminal comic book Eightball from 1993-1997. Because of its timing and Clowes’ attention to quotidian detail, Ghost World is a crystalline preservation of an era that I always think of as particularly definitive of American culture, probably because that era was particularly definitive for me: those were my own teenage years.
The book is about two girls who have just graduated high school and are making an almost imperceptible but unmistakably painful transition to young adulthood. I was in the sweet spot to appreciate Ghost World. The book’s main character, Enid Coleslaw, is driven by the types of emotional paradoxes that were essential to how I felt as a teen. Enid is mean and she is sensitive; she is brave and scared; she both craves and is disgusted by conformity. Enid’s authentic character comes, no doubt, from the real people who inspired her creation. Clowes’ was inspired by the friendships and idiosyncrasies of several women he knew including his wife who, like Enid, drove a hearse.
Enid is also autobiographical; her full name is an anagram of Daniel Clowes. In the year 2000, Clowes said of Enid “When I started out I thought of her as this id creature — totally outgoing, follows her impulses. Then I realized halfway through that she was just more vocal than I was, but she has the same kind of confusion, self-doubts and identity issues that I still have — even though she’s 18 and I’m 39!” Enid is id and superego, creation and creator, young and not-as-young, male and female.
Like Clowes, I saw myself in Enid, which is honestly rather embarrassing. However sympathetic Enid’s self-doubt, she expresses it in repellant meanness. Enid instigates several acts of petty cruelty throughout the book, like when she prank calls an astrologer named Bob Skeetes, whom she knows from the diner where she and her best friend, Rebecca, hang out. She leaves a semi-threatening message on his machine that intimidates him into staying away from the diner for the rest of the book.
In one of the most memorable moments of the book (and an important plot line in the 2001 movie), Enid reads a missed connections ad to her best friend, Rebecca. Rebecca suggests they answer the ad but Enid is the one who follows through. She sets up a date with the man who placed the ad, then conscripts Rebecca and their mutual friend, Josh, to go watch the man get stood up on his phony date.
“Bearded Blazer,” whose real name is never mentioned, comes to the diner, waits and, after 25 minutes, realizes that the teens in the nearby booth, who have been looking at him and whispering, have set him up. He leaves, the teens leave, and everyone feels awful.
The scene with Bearded Blazer represents something of a turning point in the book. After this, Enid and Rebecca fight more and deepen the rift that’s been growing between them. Rebecca starts to grow up. She gets a boyfriend (Josh), a job, and glasses. Enid resists growing up. At the end of the book, she walks by the diner where her and Rebecca used to hang out. Through the window she sees Rebecca sitting with Josh and remarks, sotto voce, “you’ve grown into a very beautiful young woman.” The remark sounds weirdly old coming from a teenager, especially one who is confronting adulthood by running away. When she sees Rebecca, Enid is on her way to a bus stop where she boards a bus to nowhere in a scene reminiscent of the ambivalent ending of The Graduate.
In my teens, I loved Enid for sticking to her snarly, sarcastic, nonconformist guns and hopping on that bus. I hated Rebecca for being so willing to settle for the boy she’s always known, a boring customer service job, and hanging out in the same diner for the rest of her life. Now that I’m older, I relate a lot more to Rebecca. You do have to get a job to support yourself and, in retrospect, Enid’s escape from suburban ennui doesn’t seem ambivalent, it seems pretty dumb. Though I don’t think Clowes intended it this way, the bus that Enid hops on appears to be a city bus. She catches it at a street corner, not a bus depot which makes me think she’s not headed to some mysterious faraway destination. She’s headed either to suburbs further out -- where she’ll be stuck until she can find a payphone and call someone to pick her up -- or she’s headed to a central bus depot where, again, my mind gets bogged down in details. What will she do when she gets to the bus station? Will she buy a ticket somewhere and immediately shatter the illusion that she’s going into the Great Unknown? Maybe it’s all for show anyway since she only packed a hat box - what could she possibly have in there that would keep her going for more than one overnight excursion? If she really does decide to leave, how will she pay for the ticket? She never had a job, is her allowance that good?
…..which brings me to what it’s like for me to read Ghost World 20 years after its release. These days, I’m almost 40, I have a kid, a mortgage, a couple of bland sedans and all kinds of other things that would have made Enid want to barf. I don’t relate to Enid as much anymore except in some sort of bitterly nostalgic sense. I take heart, though, because this shift of allegiances puts me in good company. In 2005, Clowes said “When I wrote [Ghost World] originally I….related to the two girls or to the Josh character who knows the girls, you know, but I felt, like, in their circle pretty much. And then when I reread it years later I was like ‘The dad is the only voice of reason! Poor dad doesn’t get any credit!’” Like Clowes, I relate much more to the adults in Ghost World who exist in the periphery of Enid’s life. In a sense I’m relieved to not relate to a mean and insecure teenager anymore. In another sense, it bothers me to see myself in the loser adults that orbited her periphery and who settled into jobs and diner benches and who, despite growing up, can still be cut to the quick by a mean and insecure teenager.
Although painful, this is the amazing strength of Ghost World, only apparent to me in retrospect. It’s a coming-of-age story that also shows what it is like to have come of age. Teenage insecurities become adult insecurities and the sharp edges of youth dull into adult stability. At the end of Ghost World, Enid and Rebecca take divergent paths but they both make the same trenchant point: growing up is totally lame.