guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

September 2006

Lauren R. Weinstein, Girl Stories (Henry Holt & Co., 2006). 240 pp. (paper) $16.95

By Beth Hewitt

I was favorably predisposed towards Lauren R. Weinstein’s Girl Stories before I even opened the pages given the accolades offered by Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti on the back cover describing her book as “hilarious” and “really funny.” I wondered what kind of work could compel appreciation from two comic artists who I don’t necessarily think share the same sense of humor. As it turns out (and as their little blurbs telegraph), what they both admire is her capacity to depict adolescent awkwardness—the strained and strange speech of girls as they try to make themselves comfortable in increasingly complicated social worlds. This is the stuff of Weinstein’s book, which autobiographically chronicles her entrance into high school. Weinstein either took really good notes as a teenager or she has a fantastic linguistic memory, because the book is almost alarmingly accurate in its representation of girl diction from the 1980s.

The gossamer “plot” begins with 8th grade Lauren’s Barbie adventures as she makes her dolls speak the language she knows she will soon be learning. But as soon as Lauren is able to invite the “cool” kids over to her house, where she has her first kiss, the Barbie days are mostly over and the remaining pages are devoted to Lauren’s negotiations with non-plastic people. As my description makes clear, there is nothing especially thematically original about
Girl Stories. Indeed, were I more of a diehard Lynda Barry fan, then I would be predisposed to dismiss the book as Lynda Barry lite. And I will confess that it sits right next to Barry’s One Hundred Demons in my thematically organized library. (Additionally, the books are exactly the same size). In a more generous spirit, however, I think that this conventionalism is precisely what Weinstein is going for: although the mode is autobiographical, the impulse is generic. If you are a girl, born sometime between say 1965 and 1980, and lived in some eastern suburb, then this story (give or take some details) is yours. The pleasure of her book, then, is the subdued chuckles of recollection—the recollection of first French kisses, of furtive movie theater fondling, of breakups, of jealousy. It is not a book of guffaws—although I’ll confess a loud chortle at the moment the pus dripping from Lauren’s recent bellybutton piercing assures her, “Don’t worry, you made the right decision.” And it isn’t a book that slays you with its emotional intensity. Although Ware compliments Weinstein for her ability to capture “those awkward moments,” she doesn’t force us to experience the shame of such moments (as Ware himself does). But the production of such pathos isn’t Weinstein’s agenda, and in interviews she confesses that her business is the recording of silliness. Silliness is not, however, insignificant, and Weinstein’s visual documentation of adolescence without the angst is really quite charming.

Some of the sections included at the end of the book, however, do seem insignificantly silly and they disappoint. Immediately after the conclusion to the main narrative of the book, we read “Am I Fat?” and “I Really Want a Boyfriend,” which, although they are proffered to us as “Bonus Comics,” are something of a letdown. Here, for example, is a predictable little treatise on how all women obsess about their weight. In some ways this sketch follows the same formal pattern as the girl stories that precede it, but I found the effect entirely different. Where the others were charming in their representation of a representational girl, this was only generic. And frankly, this particular genre is boring. In an interview, Weinstein notably confesses that she had planned to excise “Am I Fat” from the published collection, telling herself “Chris Ware wouldn’t put ‘Am I Fat?’ in his comic book,” but then changed her mind because even though “[it is] shallow . . . it’s something that affects people and is real.” But the problem with this section is not that the topic is shallow. The problem is that here Weinstein abandons what makes the rest of the comic so delightful: she loses the details, and with this loss the book becomes merely dull caricature. I wish she had been less generous and held back the bonus.