Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ghosts Outside the Machine

... so anyways, the second book I picked up from work is Ghost World.  I've become a fan of Dan Clowes thanks to his work in The New Yorker and McSweeney's, but I think I first encountered him through the movie adaptation of Ghost World.  It was interesting to pick up this book after I had already encountered his art and this story in separate mediums, and finally see them come together.


The comic is quite a bit different from the movie.  The characters are similar, but it's much more episodic, as I suppose befits a collection of comics.  The movie includes most of the elements in the book, and stretches out some of them to create longer plot threads.  For example, here the Steve Buscemi character is only in the one scene where they first lure him to the diner; in the movie, he becomes a major character and plays a significant role through the rest of the story.

That more extended scope in the movie allows it to feel much more awkward than the book.  I think that's totally intentional, by the way... much of the humor and power of the movie comes from the extremely slow-burn way that it approaches unhealthy relationships.  The relationships are just as screwed-up in the book, but it's punchier and doesn't weigh you down as much.

Both book and movie can be perfectly summed up with one word: "ennui."  Or maybe angst, but I'm sticking with ennui.  It's a direct look at the lives of late teenagers, on the cusp of adulthood, who feel deeply alienated from their surroundings, and have elevated their disconnection to a sacred art.

I never really fit into this mode, but it's one that I recognize well.  In retrospect, it feels like the 1990's (my own teenage decade) were the years when it was cool not to care, cool to embrace bad art, when irony reigned supreme.  It's impossible to fight irony, so whenever an ironist meets someone sincere, the ironist always wins; if you don't take anything seriously, you don't need to ever change your position.

I think the pendulum has swung the other way.  It sounds like today's youth, while still not convinced that institutions (government, schools, religion) can improve the world, still want to take personal action to change things for the better.  So you get community organizers instead of civil servants, blogs instead of peer-reviewed journals, encounter groups instead of church.  Personally, I think it's good when people connect with their world in a sincere way, challenging the things that seem bad and working to increase the amount of good.


Anyways.  Ghost World feels like a really apt bit of social history to me now, rather than a piercing look at real life.  I believe it, but I believe it happened, not that it happens, at least not quite this way, at the age shown here.

But, what is timeless is the theme that crops up towards the end: the unsettling feeling one gets when contemplating the lurch into adulthood.  These characters are fully sexually mature and intelligent, but they are still treated like children, and act like children too.  Each girl is frightened of what the future holds, and seems reluctant to leave behind her childhood.  That's a feeling I recognize well: it's really hard to identify as an adult until you've been faking it for a few years.


Yay Clowes!  I need to pass on the question "Which is better, book or movie."  They're really different beasts, in spite of the shared characters and similar emotions.  Both are good, and worth checking out.

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