I finished Ariel Schrag’s Likewise earlier last week and finally stole some time to write about it. Though denser and more structurally complicated than the three previous titles of her high school comic series, this one may be my favorite. Oh, who are we kidding? It’s in part because of those things that I liked it best.
Taking her cues from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Schrag attempts her most ambitious work with Likewise, incorporating a stream-of-conscious approach to storytelling and a panoply of writing and visual styles to document her senior year. I was especially interested in this, as I was always jealous of my high school friends a year ahead of me who got to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in senior AP English and write their autobiographies in a Joycean style. By the time I started senior year, the book had been taken out of the curriculum. Since then, I haven’t made time to read any Joyce. Having read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and heard Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, which “likewise” (har har) share Ulysses as an influence, I best get on this.
In Likewise, Schrag incorporates Joyce’s challenging writing style into the graphic novel, using images as a means to anchor the content. Sometimes, events are presented in a straightforward fashion. Some events — particularly mundane occurrences — are retold in painstaking detail, as is the case with the 30 pages used to recount a circular conversation with friends about the elusive “It” factor. Other times, remembered dialogue inspires the narrator to free associate or drifts her off on tangents. Panels may include carefully typed, detailed exposition or notecards scrawled in haste or pictures without captions.
Many of these images are startling, both in the graphic nature of their content and in their matter-of-fact depictions. Recalling Schrag’s rendering of menstruation colliding with virginity loss in Potential, several panels focus on the protagonist’s reflections and engagements with penetration, cunnilingus, masturbation, and bathroom time. Schrag also doesn’t shy from revealing deep feelings, no matter how contradictory or unflattering. For a piece some detractors dismissed as an indulgent vanity project, Schrag isn’t too preoccupied with looking good.
Despite its stylistic departure, Likewise is in many ways a continuation of Potential. The tome to her junior year is released during Schrag’s senior year. As the pressure of its success looms over her, attention is paid toward it in Likewise. She is also dealing with the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, her parents’ struggle to fund her college education upon early admittance to Barnard, her mother’s noncommital hippie boyfriend, and her unresolved feelings for erstwhile paramour Sally Jults, who is ostensibly straight and attending Reed College.
As with Definition and Potential, Schrag lets us in on experiences meant to bolster her writing process, which involves recording friends’ conversations, get stoned with her mother and kid sister, taking head shots of characters, heart-to-heart conversations with mentor teacher Ms. Salt, remembering and forgetting and misremembering Jults, fooling around, entertaining publication interviews, working part-time at a movie theater, going to friends’ concerts, accompanying friend Zally to a strip club for “research,” and jilling off.
She also includes negative opinions toward her work, recounting her father and some peers’ less-favorable attitudes toward the seemingly uneventful (and unabashedly queer) Potential. She herself bristles at the mistakes she finds when revisiting Awkward and Definition, but marvels at her rapid artistic and personal maturation in the two-year interval. While I treasured all of these moments, my favorite might be her stumbling upon the name of her final installment. As a fellow writer, I can relate to the pleasure of accomplishment that comes with settling on the perfect title.
I find it particularly interesting that Schrag continues to question her sexuality in Likewise, noting some of the latent homophobia she may share with Jults. She also grapples with feeling conventionally masculine within a cisgender female body, at times seemingly imagining herself having sex with women as a man. She fools around with a few boys in Likewise, most notably Zally and co-worker Darrek. This doesn’t detract from her attraction in women, however, nor does it build up her tolerance for listening to boys prattle. Toward the end of Likewise, Schrag attempts to document Darrek and another male co-worker discuss why they like Helium’s Mary Timony but makes them stop out of boredom.
My only quibble with Likewise is the omniscience of Schrag’s guitar. Recalling the function of Chekhov’s gun, I waited for the protagonist to pick it up but she never does. I have no problem with how Schrag chose to spend her teenage years — in fact, I marvel at how she used her artistic inclinations toward published manifestations of personal expression. But if she’s not playing it, I know a certain blogger who’d be happy to document putting it to use.