We are who we were in high school: On Daniel Clowes’ “Ghost World”

Spoilers ahead. On the graphic novel, not the movie.

In the Fantagraphics softcover edition, the scenes before the narrative even starts. 1) “Ghost World” written into pavement. 2) Enid walking past a window where a tv’s glow dominates. “Ghost World” written on the wall. It may be twilight; the moon is out, but the scene feels bright. 3) Enid’s bookshelf: an insult book, an encyclopedia of sex, Oedipus Rex, the “Goofy Gus” toy from 5th grade, something marked Scooby Doo. 4) Enid as a child, hugging what seems to be a plush dinosaur. 5) Enid and Becky, forlorn, in front of someone’s grave. Enid’s mother? Becky’s parents? 6) Enid and Becky in graduation robes. Enid is giving the finger to whomever is documenting the scene. She looks vaguely scared. Becky has a more determined look.

I. A ghost world could be three things. Two of them are types of haunting: either by the past (nostalgia for childhood) or the present (the glow of the television). The third possibility is that you pass through as a ghost. It’s strange to think the link between past/present and the future is more verbal than logical or necessary. Doesn’t the past repeat? Isn’t the future only based on our working through the past? Maybe we tell ourselves such things to keep ourselves from being paralyzed with fear.

II. It’s hard to think of Becky as a boyfriend thief. She has no parents and can’t be as driven as Enid. Becky’s probably not as bright as Enid. Some kind of security is desired more than anything; she’s not really joking when nearly every guy is described as cute.

Enid’s pull on her is powerful, as Enid’s search for identity stems also from feeling abandoned. As Enid explores what are – and what really aren’t – humanity’s sewers, finding losers everywhere, Becky more than willingly tags along. She’s looking for someone. Both she and Enid don’t quite realize they’re surveying a range of identities.

III. “Losers” is too harsh a term for some of the people they meet. Enid lost her virginity to Allen Weinstein, a pothead who made out with her a few weeks straight before the big moment. It’s hard to call the kid bad. It is very clear he simply doesn’t know any better, and after the fact he’s earnest about having a relationship. Enid is a bit harsh in dismissing him, but her regret over tricking someone into thinking he had a date and her actual concern for Skeetes are later developments in the story.

Enid is not really a snob about guys. Josh is a pretty decent guy but not terribly remarkable. Nothing happens between them only because of her self-doubt. She really knows that where she is isn’t for her. We could attempt to extrapolate and say that her being abandoned means she thinks she’ll abandon others. Maybe giving up on other people is fundamental to humanity. Enid perhaps understands loss too deeply. I think there’s something to this logic, but we need to look more at what’s actually happening in the story.

IV. Ultimately, Enid makes Becky in her own image. Becky’s longing for security is just as much a search for identity. This is completely unbeknownst to her. When Enid identifies Josh as a good guy – maybe the best the thing about her town – Becky steps in to be Enid, the Enid she’s understood. She latches on to Josh and makes clear she wants nothing from high school to change. Enid gave the finger to high school: in one way, she spoke for Becky and herself. High school was mutual frustration. Resolution had to occur outside it. The difference is that Enid wants something entirely different, not just an end to frustration.

One could say this is her self-loathing emerging fully, but I don’t think that gets the significance of what’s really happening. Without realizing it, Enid made Becky in her own image. To some degree Ghost World is about Enid realizing what she did, realizing that she has far more pull over the world than she ever imagined. I actually think the slow coming-to-awareness of one’s own power is the source of the self-loathing. One has to leave and re-form oneself in order to have the perspective to do anything right, to know what was done right.

V. What makes Ghost World so powerful is its presentation of going away – whether to college, or simply leaving home – as a profoundly moral, non-communicable choice that 18 year olds can and do make. My path at 18 was a lot more sheltered and protected than Enid’s. But I’ll never forget how much contempt some treated me with precisely because I wanted to make something of myself. We won’t put people down for a degree, but we’ll tell them what they study sucks and that their dreams are useless and doomed to failure. Enid becomes more grateful for her life and for more around her even as she decides to walk away from all of it. Life is when you make wrong choices, difficult choices, for the right reasons. I have no idea what “maturity” is worth when it forgets the hard truth.

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