Ghost World: To Avoid Growing Up, Buy More Stuff
Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World is about clinging to a stage of life that is fading from existence. The teenaged lives that Enid and Rebecca have lead are over. Floating from home to the diner to stores and back to home without purpose, they continue to behave as though they are still in high school despite having graduated. And their main method for avoiding growing up is consumerism.
Plans for the future are not discussed outside of Enid admitting that she is considering going to Strathmore, but attributes the ambition to pressure from her father. She does not pursue other options, and neither does Rebecca. Their focus is on novelties and cheap thrills from one day to the next, without making long term plans for the future. Almost all of these distractions from growing up take the form of consumerism, with a pinch of insecurity fueled mockery to boot.
The first page of Ghost World depicts the girls watching a late night talk show. They watch as comedian Joey McCobb performs stand-up, loving every second of his awkward, tasteless act. Meanwhile, Enid reads Sassy magazine in disgust and tells her friend, “Fuck you! I can’t believe you bought this!” and later calls the women featured “stupid cunts.” By viewing the TV show and purchasing the issue of Sassy, they are aiding and abetting the forms of culture they call pathetic.
Enid feigns disinterest in physical objects when it suits her, but her daily life revolves around shopping in stores (whether or not she actually purchases anything), and she places a high degree of importance on what other people buy. She and Rebecca stalk a “Satanist” couple through the Giant grocery store and look inside their shopping cart to find out what they’re buying. It matters to her to know what food they’re buying, because with that knowledge, she will have more insight into who they actually are. After all, you are what you eat. And those two lovebirds are made of Lunchables.
The failed garage sale demonstrates her ability to pretend not to value objects while definitely placing importance on them. “Garage Sale” opens with a man trying to purchase a small doll that Enid has priced for five dollars, but she refuses the sale. She tells the potential customer, “Oh … That’s not really for sale …” and then “I changed my mind … I don’t want to sell it.” Rebecca is surprised to see the doll for sale and points out that it was a gift from David Lipton in fifth grade. Enid assures her it isn’t for sale, going on to say, “I don’t want him to buy any of my sacred artifacts, anyway.” But, moments later the two abandon the sale as she says, “Fuck it—Leave it there! I don’t want any of that shit!” The next panel is a heart-breaking, Toy Story style shot of her childhood toys watching her leave. The panel is sentimental and absolutely nothing she left behind is shit, something she remembers four pages later. Later, Enid rushes back to the remnants of the sale, scoops up Goofy Gus and hugs him tight, saying “Thank God!”
A similar example of Enid’s preoccupation with objects to avoid planning the future is her obsession with finding her favorite record from childhood. She and Rebecca are looking through old photos and Enid zeroes in on a picture of herself smiling next to her record player. Rather than studying for her test to Strathmore (or doing anything else that would be productive), they go to two music stores and Josh’s apartment looking for a copy of the record.
Ultimately she embraces materials and physical appearance as indicators of identity. She shifts appearance in “Punk Day” and pretends to be a punk for a day. She dyes her hair, wears jeans and a leather jacket, and Rebecca lightly teases her about it throughout their walk to Angel’s diner. While eating, she harshly critiques other peoples’ bodies through the windows. Later, they bump into John Crowley, a.k.a. Johnny Apeshit, a punk in a suit with big plans to “fuck things up from the inside as much as I can.” Whether his plan is sincere or not, John is in a suit, and he’s more of an authentic punk than Enid in her get-up. She becomes defensive, changes her clothes, and discusses how she would like to find one permanent wardrobe to wear. Enid finds clothing choices stressful, worrying over what certain people think of her in different looks. What she is searching for is a uniform, an essential look that will define her. The choices are overwhelming, and she is trying as many appearances as possible. Her style shifts consistently throughout the story, while Rebecca is almost always dressed in a solid colored t-shirt and a black or white skirt. She does not consume as compulsively as Enid. This aspect of her character is what allows her to move more easily into adulthood at the end of the book by getting a job and having a seemingly healthy relationship while Enid continues to flounder.
It is Enid’s unspoken belief that the things people spend their money on reflect their identity. In “The First Time,” she purchases a cat mask from Adam’s II. The preceding section (“Punk Day”) ended with Enid struggling to successfully construct a fantasy to masturbate to, and this section kicks off with her manipulating Josh Ellis into going to the sex store with her. She acts as though the store is one huge joke, acting amused with the patrons and its wares. But she has an interest in what the store has to offer or else she would not have suggested going there. She is hiding her curiosity behind ridicule, as she often does with people or things she has genuine interest in. It is a defense mechanism, just like consumerism is a defense against considering her future. Enid convinces Josh Ellis to buy her the leather cat mask, which she wears out proudly. She is disguising herself as a sexually confident woman by wearing a mask meant for sex play, but it is a confidence she does not actually have yet. She is still a kid.
“Hubba Hubba” marks when Enid and Rebecca hit rock bottom. Their scheme to distract themselves through consumerism and ridicule hit such a low that they can only move up from that point: They contact a man that placed a classified and claim to be a woman he was looking for, telling him to meet them at Hubba Hubba. It’s a cruel experiment in social humiliation, and the location they stage it at is in a 1950s inspired diner smack in the middle of a strip mall. Nothing is more depressingly commercial than a strip mall. The prank doesn’t go very well, with the prankee silently waiting for his date and the pranksters too nervous to look at him. When he leaves he stops to say “Very funny.” They are shamed and do not revisit Hubba Hubba for the remainder of Ghost World. That is the climax of their consumer-driven lifestyle. After this, the women expand outside of their role as consumers by joining the workforce (Rebecca) and fleeing their old ways (Enid).
When Enid actually makes preparations to attend Strathmore, she interprets the situation to mean she needs to buy a car. She decides on a hearse, which is her way of making a joke out the fact that she’s moving on. It’s impractical, difficult to drive, and difficult to park. It makes no sense to drive a hearse unless it’s for the novelty or if you’re starting a funeral home business. Her dad tries to talk her out of it, but she responds with, “You’ve tricked me into moving two thousand miles away and ruining my life … Can’t you let me have this one morsel of fun?” Enid does not take college seriously and with that does not take the car purchase seriously. It is another object to amuse and distract her from what’s important. It’s unclear whether she was truly rejected from Strathmore or if she just didn’t want to go, but the hearse is put up for sale. By putting the frivolous purchase up for sale, Enid takes one small step towards responsibility.
Without a job or college prospect, Enid has nothing left outside of visiting her usual haunts. And that is what she is doing. She is haunting the town. She has no purpose being there now that high school is done. It is a place populated with people she used to hang out with and places that have shut down or lost their appeal. There is a possibility to emerge from ghosthood to personhood by evolving and becoming an adult right where she is, but there is another option: to simply leave. Is a ghost still a ghost if it isn’t restricted to one location? Probably not. By boarding the bus with the mystery route, Enid leaves her old life behind and moves on to become something new: a grown up.