reviewed by Kristian Williams | Friday, January 29th, 2010

Awkward and DefinitionAwkward and Definition, Touchstone, 133 pages,  softcover, $15.00
Potential, Touchstone, 224 pages, softcover, $15.00
Likewise, Touchstone, 359 pages, softcover, $16.00

In the summer of 1995, at the age of 15, Ariel Schrag decided to make a comic about her life. As she explained in her diary:

“This summer is gonna be cool! I AM GOING to write a comic book…and it’s going to be about my first year of high school with Meg and Michael and cool stuff like that…And I will be very proud that I didn’t spend my summer lazing around with the same 2 other girls smoking a lot.” (Likewise, 309).

And so she drew a 49-page comic titled Awkward. Its 16 chapters are episodic, with little in terms of continuity or development. The closest thing to a plot line is a weird love triangle between Ariel, Michael, and his ex-girlfriend, Margaret who positions herself as Ariel’s “guiding sister.” Aside from that, there’s a series of crushes, small romances, and rock shows, plus hanging out with friends and obsessing about L7 and Juliette Lewis. The art is extremely simple, almost childish, but competent, and the narration reads like it was written by a 15-year-old girl — which in another context might be unbearable, but here only lends the book a sense of authenticity.

The next year, Schrag decided to continue the project, this time documenting her sophomore year. The resulting volume, Definition, is almost twice as long and considerably more serious in theme. The book begins with an unwelcome outing. “You’re a DYKE!!!” a classmate shouts at Ariel. “Welcome to queer nation.” Schrag considers the question uneasily and decides that she’s more comfortable with “Bi” — though her strong preference is to stay in the closet:

“I mean, OK. Maybe I do think about girls sometimes…and maybe I do draw naked pictures of that cute little girl from camp, and maybe I do dream about girls…a lot…
But that still doesn’t deny my love for boys
So what option does that leave? Bi…
Strangely enough, I was not too enthralled to take on the title. So as far as I and the rest of the world would be concerned — I’m Straight.” (Definition, 2-3).

Compared to what she was doing just a year earlier, the art and writing in Definition show surprising growth. The art is more confident, with bold lines and more detail. Her figures are more individual, yet retain their big-head, big-eye, oversized-toddler, cartoon-character look. Variations of style are introduced to illustrate different mental states — depression, fear, drunkenness. There is even one glorious moment, as Ariel kisses the fabulously 20-year-old Rosary, where she forgoes the cartoon aesthetic altogether, for a richer, more realistic illustration. We can see, in that image, the artist that this young woman might become. It’s truly beautiful.

The writing in Definition demonstrates a similar development. The prose retains its adolescent qualities — both good and bad. It’s fresh but undisciplined. Here’s a sample, from the frame immediately following the picture I just mentioned:

“It was as if suddenly everything about kissing made sense and all those other awful bland boring kisses I’d had vanished away with unimportance and insignificance all the doubts and wonders about kissing thrust aside with a laugh because now I knew, it seemed like it lasted for hours and hours as I treasured every second taking in everything, every move of her tongue, every clank of her tongue pierce against my teeth, every press of her fingertips against my neck as my mind repeated over and over what was happening I can’t believe this is happening.” (Definition, 13).

I suppose that’s fine once. (And, all right: it is a bit like how it feels the first time you kiss someone you’re really excited about.) I just don’t want much more of it.

The real area of progress, in terms of the writing, is in the plot, and with plot, both character and depth of theme. The story driving Definition is that of an ambiguous friendship/romance between Ariel and her friend Leonard. At first he’s obsessed with her, and she’s obsessed with girls. Still, “he’s pretty amusing company. Kind of obnoxious, but it’s always fun to have someone who worships you around.” Sometimes they make out, usually not. But as Leonard starts to pay attention to other girls, things get strained, and Ariel finds herself becoming increasingly possessive. As this transpires, Ariel is also occupying herself with an obsession with the ska band No Doubt, going to all of their shows. By a kind of narrative alchemy, these two plot elements intertwine perfectly, and a music-based realization leads Ariel to let go of her jealousy over Leonard. After a run-in with a bunch of “stupid fucking pre-teen ‘Just a Girl’ trendies,” she reflects:

“It really was kind of ridiculous though. Hating someone because you agree on what’s the best music…not to mention the fact that getting mad about No Doubt’s fame is completely hypocritical to being a fan when it’s something they’ve deserved for so long. To actually be possessive and angry over someone else’s happiness. Definition ridiculous.” (Definition, 80-81).

She stops mid-thought, looks over at Leonard and his date, and in that moment grows up just a little.

Remarkably, this realization comes as a complete surprise both to Ariel and to the reader. Yet it develops from the story in a perfectly natural manner and doesn’t feel forced. It’s a genuine discovery, reported honestly — hence, its power and its charm.

Schrag may have been well-advised, at this point, to take a break from the autobiography — to let up on the obsessive self-documenting and just live her life for a while: to go ahead and do all the things she did — go to parties, get laid, finish school, worry about her weight, struggle with her sexual identity, endure an agonizing breakup, and all that other dumbass/awesome stuff that kids do — but to do it for herself and not worry about how it will look in comics form. And she would have been equally well advised to keep writing and drawing, but to find something else to make comics about: vampires, politics, botany, surfing, porn — really, anything else.

Instead, Ariel proceeded to embrace her lesbianism, fall in love with a girl, lose her virginity with a boy, go to prom with the girl, and yes, get her heart broken — and she does it all, engaging in the whole series of disasters, as it were, on stage. She outlines this classic teenage heartbreak story in Potential.

Potential is, technically speaking, her best book. For the first time, Schrag’s memoir functions as a novel, with a single narrative comprising its 224 pages. The sense of story is clearer, and the lurchy, sporadic feel of the earlier books is gone. The few superfluous scenes or brief digressions don’t distract, but add a sense of verisimilitude. And the art has improved almost startlingly. The characters are more distinctive, their faces — in fact, their bodies — are more expressive. Schrag’s style is more clearly her own, yet it is also more flexible and varied. And the pure artistry that we glimpsed in Definition appears with greater regularity, and to more powerful effect. Potential is wonderful, painful, and honest. It captures the emotional arc of defeated love perfectly, and practically vibrates with the intense awfulness of the associated feelings.

But, after Potential comes disappointment.

By senior year, Schrag’s life was a mess, and she seems to have decided that the best way to capture this sense of chaos and dread was to make her comic a mess as well. So, Likewise is a sprawling, jumbled, unfinished-feeling collision of post-breakup depression, parental divorce, uncertainly about the future, existential questions about sexual identity, and adolescent philosophy. This should make for quality drama, even if it is a bit soap-opera-like, but instead it’s plain annoying. Ariel spends an entire year (and 359 pages) simply moping around, agonizing over lost love, and — for some reason — desperately searching for a biological explanation for homosexuality.

The best thing that can be said about Likewise is it shows Schrag’s expanding range as an artist. Unfortunately, where her earlier volumes used changes in style and technique sparingly to create mood or convey information about the character’s subjective experience, here the style changes frequently, sometimes for no apparent reason. It feels like Schrag just periodically got bored with what she was doing, and decided to try something else, often mid-page. In fact, dozens of pages are left un-done, with polished panels appearing alongside sketches of barely-humanoid blobs with speech balloons tacked to them.

The writing is similarly uneven, marred by long stretches of unstructured, unedited stream-of-conscious tediousness. This is bad enough at the level of a sentence, much less a chapter. But the overall narrative strategy of the book seems to have been assembled according to the same plan. The story starts at the beginning of senior year, and it ends just after graduation, but in between it becomes completely unmoored from linear time. It shifts backward and forward within the year, and back to previous years, and between narrative levels, and it does this so frequently, and so arbitrarily, that it becomes exceedingly difficult to place the events with any certainty in their proper sequence. Without time, causation and character development become impossibilities as well.

Some of this confusion is surely the result of Schrag’s efforts to account for the process of documenting and writing about her life (for Potential) in course of the very story she is trying to write (as Likewise).

“You realize you’re going to be working on it all of next year,” her (ex?) girlfriend Sally says on the very first page. “You might as well just call the next book ‘Writing Potential.'” As the writing comes to occupy a larger and larger portion of her attention, the writing process becomes increasingly prominent in the story she’s telling about herself. The book takes over her life, and so the book takes over the story of her life. The border between the story and the life blurs, producing a confused life and a confused story. And given the nature of autobiography, Ariel — writing the story of a relationship that’s still somewhere in the process of collapsing — ends up living a lot in the past.

Sure, I get it. But it still reads like somebody knocked the manuscript off the desk, and just didn’t bother to get the pages back into the right order.

In fact, I would find it a lot more forgivable if I thought that Schrag just sort of gave up on the book and turned in her notes. But the periodic references to Joyce’s Ulysses suggest something worse: that she did this on purpose. The saddest part about that is, with a devoted editor and 200 fewer pages, Likewise could have been a pretty good book. Schrag just needed to go back to the format of Awkward. The story of Likewise is not well suited to the novel form; it would work better as a loose series of vignettes that show us pieces of the life of a young girl, without any grand claims about Life, Love, Art, and the rest of it. Perhaps Schrag wanted to push her talents to the limit. The problem is, she found it.

And I suspect she knows as much: The cover of Likewise shows Ariel’s room, portrayed in deliberate but unobtrusive detail. She faces away from us, sitting at her drawing board, working. Beside her is the tape reorder she uses to document her life, and a notebook titled “Sally.” Next to the desk on the one side are her own earlier books, Awkward and Definition, next to a massive biology textbook. On the other side are the files she keeps on all of her friends: the one in front is labeled “The Truth.” Elsewhere in the room we see No Doubt, L7, and Juliette Lewis ephemera, a bottle of vodka, and the normal debris of adolescence: a backpack, a guitar, sneakers, laundry, a (presumably stolen) No Parking sign. At the margins of the picture, there are collections of books — Madame Bovary, Berkeley High School yearbooks, Queer Science, The Science of Desire, The Sexual Brain, and, of course, Ulysses. And high on one shelf, there’s a collection of other books. Written along their spine, in tiny letters, one finds a quote from Robert Browning: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Schrag’s first books — Awkward and Definition — have a sweet naiveté, and they’re full of promise. The art is crude, the writing is clumsy, and the characters are shallow in their gossipy drama and their obsessions with cheap alterna-pop culture. But Awkward and Definition also convey the feeling of newness and enthusiasm and hope. The sense of exaggerated importance that attaches to everything is both the blessing and the burden of youth, its charm and its vice. The series peaks with Potential. The character Ariel finally finds a story — a very minor tragedy, which is, like the best tragedies, at once individual and universal. The last book, Likewise, becomes the fourth act of a three-act play. The naiveté has gone, but the potential — which seemed so powerful before — hasn’t had a chance to develop into anything. Perhaps that’s the difference between adolescence and adulthood.

Kristian Williams is the author of American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (South End Press, 2006). He is presently at work on a book about Oscar Wilde and anarchism.

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