ENID REMEMBERS WHAT was on TV when she lost her virginity. And why shouldn't she? The event itself was so anticlimactic, it's only natural for an 18-year-old pop-culture junkie to remember that they'd left The Jeffersons on in the background. And that afterwards they watched Star Trek IV on cable without saying a word.
For years, Daniel Clowes, who serialized Ghost World in his comic Eightball, has watched Enid without inserting a word of narrative voiceover himself. From Clowes's other stories, you might think the critically acclaimed artist is nearly addicted to such a running commentary, but Ghost World contains only the words of its protagonists. The restraint matches the story well: Where the artist's other creations are mostly scathing, hyperbolic satires and loopy Freudian psychodramas, Ghost World (which has now been collected in a hardcover edition) is a disciplined work of realism, with attention fixed on the quiet, meandering anxiety of its characters.
The ghosts in Clowes's world are two very material spirits, Enid and Rebecca, best friends living in a nondescript city. It's the summer after high-school graduation, and the two wander the town without anything in particular to do or look forward to. As they wander from restaurant to zine store to record shop, the precociously bright Enid provides a play-by-play for their lives: why Sassy magazine sucks, what's so great about their local fake diner, exactly what's so terrible about all the boys in town, etc.
But it soon becomes apparent that Enid's sensitivity has burdened her with insecurities and neuroses (if you can imagine). She's animated not just by her fierce intelligence but by a painfully raw awareness of herself, of what she's saying and how she must sound. (Clowes himself is hardly immune to this self-consciousness: To deflect criticism, he gives himself a cameo appearance and then has Enid describe him as an "old perv.")
Ghost World actually contains a story--you know, with a rising action, conflict, a denouement--though for the first half of the book Enid and Rebecca amble aimlessly through vignettes: Visits to the porn store, fanciful imaginings about the locals, and prank phone calls. Still, this aimlessness is an impeccably written one; Clowes has never before given himself the chance to prove the nuance of his behavioral understanding. His conversation-heavy script, which reads at times like a high-school Woody Allen, breathes with petty miscommunications and equivocations, all of them ringing awkwardly true.
Eventually a conflict does manage to appear: Enid is planning to go to college, more to reinvent herself than for the diploma, and Rebecca is nervous about what she'll become without her friend around. But these questions recede as quickly as they appear, eclipsed by petty distractions. They hunt for one of Enid's childhood records, they watch an acquaintance's appearance on cable TV. Time passes.
Which is exactly what teenage life felt like (at least to this writer, five years past adolescence and almost recovered, thanks): an inarticulate groping for some kind of experience, some kind of a life, coupled with a paralyzing fear of actually facing conflicts. Rebecca and Enid certainly aren't the first teens to sit in a holding pattern waiting for their deepest anxieties to work themselves out and for something--college, marriage, military service--to jolt them out of their uncomfortable complacency.
Something does happen, though, and it's enough of a surprise to merit withholding. Suffice it to say that it has little to do with any actions the characters take, and that outside forces prod them to begin the painful move into young adulthood. But then, that was to be expected, right? Like almost all teens, their sense of impotence can be justified; for the time being, at least, they lack the strength and wisdom to do anything about their malaise.
And that eerie feeling of watching your own life without controlling it is what the title Ghost World refers to--a deep, unrelenting sense of mundanity and disembodiment. The sense that something profound and irrevocable is taking place, even if all you do in the moment is listen to the lonely sound of Sherman Helmsley's "Movin' on Up" in the background, and lie still, and wait.