August 23rd, 2009
A short, compressed piece on memory and Enid Coleslaw.
American Spring – Fallin’ in Love
(She’d love this song, but afterwards she’d tear the tape reel up and rock the fuck out.*)
Nostalgia’s a funny thing; the other day I was chatting to a colleague and it occurred to me that his entire taste in music was dictated by it. Literally, everything he liked. It was one of those ‘music was better at such and such a time’ conversations, a position so ridiculous and palpably wrong there’s no answer to it. I quickly realised I was trying to debate a strongly defended area of the guy’s emotional territory and no matter how intellectually offensive his non-arguments were, only bad things could come of prolonging the conversation.
But, seriously, think about it: the chap was personally offended by the idea that music, an art form that is continually evolving and is arguably presently being produced by more people than ever in the course of human history, is as robust and as interesting as it ever was (and this is before we even begin to get onto the shifting meanings of the term itself, and the equally slippery playing fields of musical appreciation and distribution).
So, yeah, it’s an absurd but nevertheless deeply felt conviction that many of us subscribe to, and the word music is interchangeable with ‘art’, ‘films’, or ‘the world’.
We’re a deeply sentimental bunch, the human race, and the nostalgia industry is thriving.
I’m not sure this is really news, to be honest. The combined forces of the internet, massive leaps in communications, archiving and storage technology and the emergence of postmodernism have created a situation whereby we can, ironically, deny the future whilst simultaneously riding its surging crest back into the past. This is a hugely dumb and hypocritical position, but who can really blame us when the aforementioned technologies have such a total impact on our lives and are so ubiquitous they have to all intents and purposes rendered themselves invisible, hiding in plain sight. And it’s certainly no surprise that the crushing weight of all this possibility sees many of us running kicking and screaming back to the cosy tea-time living room of ‘the half remembered eighties’ and the narrow aesthetic bandwidths of endless youtube reruns of Scooby Doo and Ulysees 31. Actually, I like the 80s precisely because it puts the lie to the ‘everything was better then’ argument. The A Team is palpably not very good, no matter how fondly we remember it, it was just an essential part of being 9, and many of us rather enjoyed being 9.
I just worry we still enjoy it too much. I can’t imagine any generation before us having enjoyed such easy access to the sights, sounds and artefacts that comprise its past – such a ready made hotline to regression – and, as Marshall MacCluhan was keen to point out, it’s dangerous to walk backwards into the future. You know, I really see a connection between the popularity of school disco and far right philosophy both on mainland europe and elsewhere and wi-fi. The world is shrinking and simultaneously expanding, borders are collapsing and the very worst and the very best information about our condition and human affairs is only a mouse-click away, and that mouse i no longer relegated to our bedrooms or our studies. We’re not just faced with the end of history, but the end of worlds – cultural, imaginal and, terrifyingly, literal.
But at least I can go online and check out my old Garbage Pail Kids Collection or the complete range of Madballs.
I remember the first time I read Watchmen – I must have been 11 or something – wondering if there was anything in Ozymandias’s statement that the more uncertain the times within which we live, the more seductive the past becomes. About 5 years ago, with horror, I realised he was right. I must have read Watchmen again before that time, but sometimes it takes a while for the reality of a situation to catch up with one’s recognition of it, doesn’t it? We can know certain statements inside out years before we see how they are, and always have been, true.
So, yeah, while I’m a deeply nostalgic and romantic person myself, I’m well aware of how dodgy a worldview this is, and very suspicious of the value of texts designed to inspire sentiment and a hearkening back to an often non-existent past. And that’s why Ghost World continues to fascinate me, because it problematizes our yesteryears so much. But, in true mindless fashion, before we reduce these huge issues to my appreciation of a bloody comic, a gentle reminiscence (hey, at least it’s in keeping with the themes of the thing!)…..
It was the end of the summer holidays, I was 10 years old and I was walking down the village high street towards the recreation ground. I don’t know what I was doing, or where I was going, but that’s not the point, the point is that suddenly I was hit by an overwhelming sense that the street felt different to the way it had done not a few hours before, and that it’s atmosphere then was different to the way it had been the day before that, and so on and so forth. The feeling stopped me in my tracks – it was sad, beautiful and terrifying in equal measure, and so memorable that it’s vivid even until this day. Of course I’d been aware that time had passed before, I’d felt nostalgia (the twilight hour has, since as far back as I can remember, always fucked me up), but I don’t think I’d truly reflected on either of these things until that afternoon. I hadn’t conceptualised or abstracted them, turned them into a possession – a psychic object – that I could wheel out and play with whenever the fancy took me. More to the point, the world had yet to condense into the world more generally. Now I look back, I can see that afternoon represented an initial stirring of the adult awareness I now inhabit daily, where reality isn’t small, monolithic and as constant as a high street in a village where time moves more slowly than the rest of planet earth, but shifting, fleeting, composed of *stuff* and subject to disintegration, and included the understanding that my consciousness was subject to the same rule. Indeed, that was the core of the experience, and like a buddhist monk experiencing his first taste of satori, part of me was thoroughly delighted by this new understanding. I couldn’t wait to see what other transformations would take place inside me. I was scared, sure, but mainly I was excited.
Perhaps I should’ve been more trepidatious, but how could I ever have predicted turning 12.
Things change, Kundun.
It’s no accident that this occured when it did or that Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World takes place during the same time frame. The summer holidays are a period of enormous upheaval and transition for those of us between the ages of 4 and 20, and are, consequently, indelibley scorched into our collective consciousness – a timeless symbol of deep, deep nostalgia, hope and fear concerning an uncertain future. As I commented ages ago in my Edward Gory post, we never know what the falling leaves herald. No wonder autumn is populated by monsters. It is a key feature of the warm glow of nostalgia that it is accompanied by a sense of loss, even dread, and Clowes’ masterwork never loses sight of this. That’s what I want to talk about with this little essay. The way in which Ghost world holds a mirror up to this increasingly important aspect of the human condition – the seductiveness of memory – and how, in many ways, it serves as a riposte to it while never denying the past’s beauty.
It’s an amazing juggling act, getting all the elements right. Allowing for sentiment while quietly mocking it, and a far cry from the revivalism of the late nineties superhero comic book scene, where the skies were forever golden and silver and that was all there was to that.
Ghost World first emerges in the pages of Eightball in 1993 and finally wraps, four years later, in 1997 just before the internet and mobile phone culture starts to make a serious dent on all our lives. The point at which, while you may have been making use of the web (read: on chatrooms) in the university library, Mum was still scratching her head wondering what all the fuss was about and what the bloody thing was for – and just look at her now, wrestling with all those pesky emails. It was a comic about the movement from childhood to adulthood, nestled on the edge of the precipice of the information age. While this is unlikely to be a contrivance on the part of Daniel Clowes, the poetry of Ghost World’s original temporal positioning won’t be lost on you, I’m sure, dear reader, and, once understood, adds an extra depth and weight to the work. Enid and Becky inhabit a world where physical artefacts contain real charge. Where the past is composed of decaying, hoarded *things* as opposed to incorruptible data, and dissolution is a real concern. The tangible effects of time’s passing manifests in the slow destruction of those objects containing memory, and memory itself is, necessarily, a more valuable commodity, the past sweeter, because slowly washing away. What a perfect environment within which to explore the themes that are the subject of the work and this short essay!
Enid, the focus of the piece, is a character torn. Her snarling eternal critique, seemingly directed at everything, in it’s arbitrariness and diffusion suggests a general – total – dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire for change, but her forays through family photo albums and siftings through second hand record shops for music to be a child to belie a reverse drive, and in this way she embodies Ghost World’s major competing themes, evolution vs regression. I suppose the purest example of this is her lame-ass garage sale which sees her roundly declaring ‘I don’t want any of that shit!’ and abandoning her stall, only to return, distraught, hours later to cradle and comfort her favourite toy, Grumpy Gus, like a mother recovering her child after having lost him somewhere around the vegetable aisle. Inevitably, Enid’s transformations are largely superficial – endlessly shifting sartorial choices standing in for real change in lifestyle or circumstances – but there is an inexhorable, insistent quality to the passage of time through the work that frames her early attempts as dress rehearsals for the main event, the act of leaving, whose looming presence we can feel bearing down on us all throughout the story. Basically, Ghost World tells us, the past is always slipping away, and it’s not just deeply unhealthy to cling to it, but in the end impossible. You are getting older. That’s that.
The point is this isn’t just a matter of narrative thrust, it doesn’t simply hinge on Enid’s successful application to university (afterall, she doesn’t get in), or the aforementioned textual evidence of character motivation, the sense of forward motion is built into the diegetic space itself. Okay, while some of the action takes place in environments synonymous with home, in bedrooms, curled up on Granny’s lap or in front of the telly, the vast majority of the text occurs in third spaces, the street, in cars, carbon cut-out diners, coffee houses and supermarkets. Like Edward Gorey’s crumbling windswept lawns and fading stately homes, Enid and Rebecca’s lives play out in an inbetween, unmoored world, as insubstantial and transient as the rapidly accelerating summer. This isn’t a town to live in, it’s barely there. Go back and read the comic again – the place isn’t even named. It could be anywhere, we’re not just relegated to America here, this is the ultimate shell of a town, the place with nothing there and no identity that you have no choice but to leave. You almost get the feeling Clowes intends you to confuse the injection moulded chairs in Hubba Hubba’s with the seating in an airport departure lounge. As the graffiti which haunt the windows, walls and garage doors reminds us, this is a soulless Ghost World where authentic experience is impossible and there’s nowhere to settle, except, perhaps, in the world whizzing by in the rear view mirror. No wonder Enid and Rebecca spend so much of their time reminiscing and playing imaginary, schoolyard games with the lives of the locals.
Ah, but what of their memories? Is the past really a refuge? Well, let’s return to the Enid’s quest to obtain her favourite childhood record, ‘A Smile and a Ribbon’. She eventually finds it, or, more precisely, her Father does, and, sure, it fends off the present for a few hours, it steadies and settles her, but the summer keeps marching on regardless. She still has to make the tough decisions, the future is still on her doorstep, and while the past is sweet, sweeter than ever in fact, it is so because it’s gone and she and Becky aren’t the same people anymore. Sprawled out on Enid’s bed they toy with the idea of leaving together, freezeframing thier lives like a photograph, but the photographs in the albums are yellowing and curling round the edges, and they know their scheme’s a non-starter as soon as they’ve given utterance to it.
The text confirms this for them in other ways too. To begin with there’s the tale of how Enid lost her virginity; the traditional pass-the-parcel of first time sex stories reveals, not a life transforming, defining communion of souls, or even the more likely triumphant, post-pubescent unmasking of these myths, but a washed out shaggy dog story of two young people fumbling their way through their first time and immediately afterwards drifting apart in a spectacularly anti-climactic fashion. No lessons are learned, there’s no denoument, it’s not remotely interesting as a piece of gossip, or even as a cautionary tale. No, it’s a story characterised only by its torpidity and an ambient atmosphere of pointlessness. There’s no reason to linger. Move on. To…. A theme park. Let’s try that out. Afterall, Enid’s on the cusp of leaving. It’s the time to cling to those old toys, isn’t it? Maybe the girls will lose themselves in the snaking pathways between the rides, or the park’s train tour will branch off down some secret cul de sac where the future and responsibility can’t reach. Enid’s attempting to bury herself under a ton of memory, but the little girl who once ran screaming from the towering caveman statues is now nearly level with them. Everything’s shrunken and absurd. Move on! What about the photos? Aaah, but they’re plagued by the evil second wife, who, get this, suddenly appears back on the scene, hijacking the safest spaces of all, home and Enid’s father. The past always resists our fictions. We can’t trust stories or storytellers. Clowes is at great pains to hammer this home, actually. Just take another gander at all that David Clowes stuff. One could accuse the author of being a little to heavy handed there! Regardless, though, everything is soured. Perhaps everything always was soured. Always ending, always rounding the corner. Always shrugging off sentiment and a green and pleasant world.
The past will seduce and then reject us. Ghost world is all about this tension. It recognizes the sweetness of memory – or the idea of memory – inspite of its ready willingness to undermine it. And that’s why it’s a truly romantic work, because nostalgia is always bittersweet.
I have a friend who’s a designer, mainly working with text and font, and occassionally he’ll give me a bell or we’ll pop down the pub so we can brainstorm his latest project. Recently he’s been working on a brief asking him to combine elements of utilitarianism and romanticism. He’s all good with the utilitarian stuff – modernism has been a hobbyhorse of his for years – but the romantic stuff was a bit trickier and he knew a wet blanket like me would probably be able to help. So a couple of days ago, on the way to work, I stopped off at his studio and we kicked a few ideas around. O, my mate, was, I thought, being a little too intellectual – a little too theoretical – in his approach and I suggested that what was required wasn’t necessarily an understanding of romanticism as an historical artefact but as, well… a feeling. I’d bought along some images of old ‘Lizzy, Sid, Guggums….or just plain Gug’ (the Pre-Raphaelite’s muse Elizabeth Siddal) and a book of victorian fairy paintings and we tried to tease out the work’s essential elements, both thematic and visual. So many of them we’ve hit on above; the belief in a more perfect world, perhaps residing in prehistory or in some secret glen or hidden pool, a desire to ferret oneself away from the future, but in the works frantic desire to return an implicit acknowledgement that one cannot, that it is impossible. These themes are obvious upon a quick glance at the subject matter, but it occurred to us that this atmosphere is conveyed most powerfully via the artist’s use of light.
(Hey, look, this isn’t meant to be an art lecture. Nothing I’ve said above will be news to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of romantic art, but it’s worth noting that Ghost World draws upon this grand old tradition, only to observe that it then moves on to actively challenge it. And in Ghost World, as we have has observed, this is an explicit as opposed to an implicit quality of the work. Enid’s confused. Ghost World is confused.)
Back to the light.
The light in the works mentioned above is designed to invoke dawn or the twilight hour, provoking feelings of loss and longing, but the light in ghost world is an altogether different beast. ‘What light?’, i hear you scoff, ‘the comic’s in black and white!’. Well, yes, but that’s partly the point. In Ghost world everything is washed out – take a look at the skylines, they’re frequently overcast – and this effect is amplified by the stark geometric precision of Clowes’ environment and the way in which the text, as it progresses, bleeds into and through itself: scenes of little duration and abrupt transitions possessing the quality of shifting clouds. It’s a sad light, but also a lacklustre one. If the twilight hour is all about our distance from the source, then the atmosphere of Ghost World is one step further removed – the source occluded. Sure, the sun might emerge or the rain come tipping down at any moment….
Only they never do.
Nothing happens here. Nothing negative, nothing positive. No conclusions.
And eventually Enid does. The bus stop reactivates – a more perfect concretization of the idea of the shifting street I mentioned at the beginning I can’t imagine – and suddenly there’s movement. Norman, good old, ever reliable Norman, has gone. It’s one of the few moments of change, one of the only real happenings to occur within the pages of the comic, and in that it takes on an extra degree of significance, to the point that it feels like an omen. The choice is taken out of Enid’s hands. Clowes works hard to give the impression the universe is conspring against Enid’s procrastination. In the end even Becky and Josh *abandon* her for each other, and by that time we know it’s sealed. The same day (or is it? It’s so hard to tell towards the end) she meets the Don Knotts lookalike, Bob Skeetes, on a suitably autumnal, windswept beach (complete with mother and child who Enid responds to with a jealous ‘you little fucker….’, to you know, just drive the point of all this home), who, clasping her palm, begins to psychically trace the contours of her destiny.
Of course Skeetes doesn’t know who the woman from the 1930′s he describes is, but Enid does. She decides to go the whole hog and embrace one look, something, she warned earlier, which
means commitment – the right car, the right clothes and attitude. This is Enid’s back door, her way out. This total transformation, however, contains a curious tension. On the one hand it suggests Enid has finally grown up, settling on a single, stable, fully realized self image, but on the other we understand this self image is constructed out of dreams, that it is a fantasy, a child’s idea of what an adult looks like, and that, I think, is where the uncertainty lies.
Because Enid is anything but stable.
The comic’s second to last image sees Enid in silhouette, freezeframed in the doorway of the newly reactvated bus-out-of-town. It is the only image of its kind in the entire comic and, because of this, it takes on an eerie resonance. At the end, the book’s principle character has become an absence, swallowed up by herself, or perhaps she’s carved out a tunnel, prison camp style, through the heart of the text. Maybe this sequence can be understood in two ways, either as escape, or, more alarmingly, as self negation, as suicide.
Afterall, Skeetes does tell us the woman in his vision is running away, surrounded by darkness, and Enid is clearly unhappy.
I first came across the suicide idea years ago on a web forum that shall remain nameless, but I wasn’t convinced then and I have to say I find the idea no more persuasive now. There’s no real emotional set-up, the story seems to be pushing in other directions, and, well, it just feels wrong. I do think it’s worth bringing up though, because, as I discussed above, Ghost World does take on this strange symbolic resonance towards the end, and there is the feeling that perhaps there are extra layers of meaning that can be read into the story. And I think this heightened sense of significance, destiny and uncertainty is important because it serves to underline how vast and mysterious the world Enid has finally decided to join actually is. The world of adulthood. If, as the graffiti assures us, this is a ghost world, haunted by the spirits, Enid and Rebecca, doomed to simply repeat the past, unable to grasp the present, then the future is more unknowable still, but at least it contains the possibility of reconnecting, of authentic experience, somewhere out there, beyond the page. The comic doesn’t allow Enid a choice, and in doing so it denies the reader one also, just as our lives do.
Before we close, let’s take another look at that graffiti shall we?
At one point Enid and rebecca, while flicking through their old photos, stumble across a picture of Enid’s garage, which, she explains, she must’ve taken when she was a small child, leading her to exclaim, ‘How long has that been there?’ How long indeed. Because the graffiti is still persisting, popping up, as we’ve already noted, all over the town, randomy, haphazardly, in different fonts and in the most unlikely of places. At one point, towards the end, Enid nearly captures the artist responsible just as he’s scarpering off, the paint still wet on the wall. So who is this vandal? It can’t one individual, can it? An art collective? Neither answer is particularly satisfying or interesting. No, the author of these throw ups feels like a meta-textual force, god-like in its temporal and spatial omnipresence, transmitting a message from beyond, scrawling it across windowpane, photograph, fence, garage and comic book cover, intended as much for the reader as Enid and Rebecca. And in that it’s directed at us, it serves as a reminder that this story of teenage life is a dream, that where we intersect with it, where our memory feeds into and out of it is a dream also. That it is also us haunting the page. That it is all going, going.
Melting. Wet. Like the paint on the wall.
In his book, The 17, Bill Drummond tells how, rather than be a slave to the nostalgia embedded in it, he tore up Strawberry Fields, his favourite ever record, with some scissors. Yeah, death to nostalgia and all, but I think he should’ve buried it somewhere, under a pile of bean tins in a shop, or abandoned it in the vegetable aisle. These things, we need to say goodbye to them softly, always allowing for the possibility that they might be found and be of use to someone else again. Ghost world isn’t a book to buy, it’s a fossil, a time capsule to be unnearthed.
A memory. It has real things to say to us about our pasts.
Next time I go to the pub if I have any balls I’ll leave it there for someone else to haunt.
(*It’s her happening and it freaks her out!)
Aeriel Pink – Evolution’s a Lie