[This essay originally appeared as part of a roundtable over at The Hooded Utilitarian.]
Reading Daniel Clowes' Ghost World again got me to thinking about John Barth’s nihilist novel, The End of the Road. The latter begins at a bus station; the former ends at a bus stop. And much like Barth’s protagonist, Jacob Horner, Enid spends the duration of the story searching for an identity, but only succeeds in finding what she’s not. Horner is a middle-aged academic type who’s managed to think himself into a hole, not seeing any potential action as better grounded than another -- sort of an infinite regress of self. Thus, he’s sitting in a bus station in a state of existential paralysis, not able to even come up with a good reason to get on a bus and leave his former (non-) life behind. The abiding gloom that pervades all of Ghost World's vignettes -- undercutting Enid’s hipper-than-thou detachment from those around her -- is a sense that she’s headed to the same destination as Horner: nowhere.
I figure there must be some consilience here, since kinukitty’s main reason for not liking Clowes’ book -- that it’s neither real nor funny -- reminds me of Barth’s prefatory defense of his story:
Jacob Horner […] embodies my conviction that one may reach such a degree of self-estrangement as to feel no coherent antecedent for the first-person-singular pronoun. […] If the reader regards [this] egregious [condition] (as embodied by the [narrator]) as merely psychopathological -- that is, as symptomatic rather than emblematic -- the [novel] make[s] no moral-dramatic sense. [p. viii]
I realize that if one has to defend something as funny, it’s never going to make it so to those not laughing. This is particularly true of existentialist humor, since it’s kind of the obverse of prat falls, namely only funny when it happens to me. So I’m going to stick to the reality of Enid’s predicament. The End of the Road is a bit abstract, where Horner goes through a series of fanciful psychotherapeutic treatments in search of a cure (the search is, of course, at the insistence of a psychiatrist). The most relevant of these is mythotherapy, which involves acting in a chosen character role with the purpose of having it stick through habituation -- an irrational solution to a rational psychosis. Clowes treats the identity formation of teenagers in much the same way, but with a recognizant teen who, like Horner, can’t ignore the ontological arbitrariness undergirding the whole process. Just because teens regularly slip into an adult role without much of a hitch doesn’t mean that there’s not a good deal of truth in her depicted inertia.