Enid and Rebecca, a pair of cynical late-teenage hipsters in the mid-1990s, go around peoplewatching, looking for ironically enjoyable diners, and snarking on everything they see. When Enid kind of sort of starts thinking about maybe going to college, a rift opens between the two friends.
Madelaine called Enid and Rebecca "modern monsters," a description accurate enough to warrant my appropriation. They're ironigirls, bundles of attitude all posed, horn-rimmed and faux-jaded with no place to go. What do they do with their time? Nothing so square as as school or work: they hang out in eateries, badmouth their mutual acquaintances and eyeball grotesques all day long. Enid is thrilled when they happen upon a dingy 1950s-themed restaurant ("This place is god") or when they see a hunched old man with wilted flowers ("It's so cute! I'm dying!"). After donning a leather jacket, spiking and dying her hair green, putting in a safety pin as an earring and cuffing her jeans above her Chuck Taylors, Enid gives the following monologue, revealing much about her worldview:
It's not like I was "going punk" or something... I'm not fucking thirteen... anybody with half a fucking brain could see that I wasn't dressed like some modern hardcore asshole... it was like an old 1977 punk look... [ ... ] I wish I could just come up with one perfect look and stick with it... like what if I bought some entire matching 1930s wardrobe and wore that every day... the trouble with that is you look really stupid and pretentious if you go to a mall or a Taco Bell or something... and you have to act a certain way and drive an old car and everything and it's a real pain in the ass!
(All the ellipses read better on the page, I swear.)
And no, I don't think Enid's fixation on the cultivation of a "look" is supposed to be sympathetic, but... yow. She reminds me of why, even though I wasn't drawn to the mainstream kids in high school, I also found the self-proclaimed outsiders repellent, focused as they were on outwardly defining themselves without a whole hell of a lot of inward self to define in the first place. The quest for a lost childhood record aside, there's not much in Ghost World about music, but I can totally picture Enid and/or Rebecca — Rebecca goes with the flow a bit more smoothly, except when she doesn't — being the type for whom it's critically important to demarcate precisely the dividing line between the music she does and does not listen to. I was very nearly the same way — though, I would submit, only at a fraction of the normal magnitude — at their age, but now I look back and laugh: could there ever have been a time when our lives were so small that we had to cling so desperately to the identity loaned us by the genre of organized sound we put in our backgrounds? (Or by the primary color of our hair? Or by the brand of safety pin in our ears?)
There is nothing in the world that could induce me to spend a day with real-life versions of these two, but when they're flat on the page I can get just enough breathing room. (And breathing room is precisely what I needed to read the book, looking up and away as I did every so often just to momentarily distract myself from these personalities with the world around me.) It's a testament to Clowes' skill as an artist and writer that, despite their awfulness, Enid and Rebecca don't come across as one-dimensional strident slackers; they're neither his piñatas nor his mouthpieces, though they may contain ingredients of both. Just as Enid and Rebecca are well-rendered and fascinating in a sort of unappealing way, so is Clowes' work as a whole: just excellently put together and highly compelling, but simultaneously repulsive on a deep, hard-to-articulate level. It comes through in a visceral way in the visuals: Clowes is one of the most skilled artists working in "alternative" comics and it shows, but he draws everything in this subtly ugly way that seems designed to seep into the reader's subconscious. Witness Enid's bulbous nose, jutting philtrum, slight overbite and the quease-inducing sneery edge to most of her facial expressions — and she's supposed to be one of the attractive characters.
I'm not going to be among the first thousand to make a Catcher in the Rye comparison, but here goes: these two kids are kinda like Holden Caulfield, huh? Am I right or am I right? The only problem is that, because Holden Caulfield is a guy, I could spend the entire length of Catcher in the Rye fantasizing about beating the living crap out of him, especially if he were to utter the word "phony" just one more time. (Friends ask, "But couldn't you identify with Holden's attitudes?" God, no.) Enid and Rebecca are girls, so as a nonalcoholic, I can't beat them up. And to Clowes' credit, he avoids creating protagonists that are just bundles of psychodramas. Holden Caulfield is really a concept, and hey, there's nothing at all the matter with beating up a concept. Enid and Rebecca, on the other hand, exist as reasonably nuanced, well-defined people in their own world — distasteful, inconsequential people, but people nonetheless. That's not something you can count on getting in any given narrative, let along those of the comic book variety.
(Also, I credit Ghost World with cluing me in to the term "homeless tan"; I'd been looking for a descriptor for the sort of tan you see on the homeless, and now I've got one.)