Lauren R Weinstein's Girl Stories (Henry Holt) is a marvelously all-over-the-place collection of stories done over a seven-year period that somehow manages to cohere into one hilariously painful whole. Weinstein accomplishes something remarkable here: writing a book as though it were written by a typically self-centered 14-year old girl but with the wit and self-awareness of an adult. Weinstein makes sure that the point of view of young Lauren is not infringed upon by her current experiences. There's also no nostalgia or lessons learned in each episode; Weinstein lets them speak for themselves. The result is an unflinching, laugh-out-loud, and above all, honest look at one's teen years in all their immediacy.
The book reads a bit like a cross between a diary and an art project. Weinstein reveals at the beginning that the book reflects her experiences as a growing artist, experimenting with different styles. Some pages are heavily cross-hatched, while others reflect her ventures with digital coloring. The end result, consisting of exaggerated and slightly grotesque figure work and sometimes garish colors, somehow fits together so seamlessly that one would think that it poured out of her in a brief period of time. There's no question that it's a strong candidate for best comic of the year.
Anyone can write about the melodrama of one's teenage years. Indeed, Girl Stories makes an interesting companion piece to Ariel Schrag's comic book accounts of her teenaged years. The difference is that Scrhrag actually wrote them while still in high school, and while her self-awareness is far greater than the average person, there's still a certain melodramatic resonance present in her work. The temporal distance in Weinstein's comics allow her to mine the most laughs possible from any given situation, while still letting the pain and awkwardness take center stage. Still, the fact that Weinstein has one of the most warped and delightful senses of humor in comics (do yourself a favor and get your hands on her first collection of strips, Inside Vineyland) is what makes this book so successful. Weinstein encourages the reader to laugh both at her own teenage foibles and with her at those around her.
The collection gets off to a bizarre bang with "Barbies", Weinstein's story of her stockpiling a huge number of the famous dolls. Of course, the slightly askew Lauren would "recondition" her Barbies, repainting each one and altering their hair to create a whole host of different characters: cave girl, android, "fabulous vampire superstar", etc. It's topped off by her writing a letter of complaint to the "makers of Barbie", and then a letter of complaint to herself for writing about something so superficial when there's so much suffering in the world. The story perfectly encapsulates a teenager's sense of righteous indignation over tiny details coupled with crippling guilt and feelings of worthlessness. In "The Tub", the use of almost nauseating greens and yellows highlight Weinstein's feelings of alienation.
Weinstein then pricks the balloon of her own melodrama with perhaps my favorite story in the whole collection: "Morrissey and Me". There's something about certain teenagers and Morrissey (former lead singer of the Smiths): his tortured singing and lyrics have inspired a couple of generations to think that he's singing Just For Them, and Weinstein takes this idea to its logical end. In a hilarious "dialogue", Lauren reveals her special and mutual bond with him, and he agrees, saying "...even though I am really busy and having many other fans, Lauren means the most to me." As we see Morrissey "saying" this, we see that he has a photo of Lauren hanging up in his room! When a boy who is torturing Lauren is cursing at her, a horrified Morrissey looks on, saying "He's more of a tyrant than Margaret Thatcher!" The strip ends with Lauren proclaiming that she'd be celibate like her hero forever, as she wishes he would kiss her...and our boy nervously thinking "Uh-oh".
Weinstein in no way presents herself as noble or heroic. She wants to be popular and cool, and is cruel to a lower-caste friend of hers named Genine. When she finally finds a boyfriend, she realizes they have nothing in common and dumps him unceremoniously (after having given him a bag of dirt as a present) and doesn't really feel bad about it. Indeed, the idea of breaking up with him is almost exciting, as she starts to wonder what people wear to break-ups. When a former best friend starts to date him shortly thereafter, this leads to a hilarious story where she imagines her friend as successful and saving starving African children while Lauren is working in a tollbooth and living at home. At the same time, she wants to be bad-ass and punk, as when she goes egging on Halloween. Of course, that plan blows up in her face when she and her friend are caught by tougher kids, and when they douse her in shaving cream, she screams "We're just two little girls!"
The exaggerated and heightened drama of being a teenager is matched by Weinstein's exaggerated figures. She frequently has eyes bugging out, distorted faces and those dominant colors that dictate so much of the meaning in her strips. And of course, the absurdity of everyday events propels everything along. My single favorite sequence in the book finds Lauren with her first boyfriend. Making out in front of a movie theatre, they realize that her dad is standing there waiting to pick her up. He doesn't say a word to her about what he say until he asks her "So...is he your hero?" Lauren (and all of those reading) thinks: "What the hell is that supposed to mean? Poor Dad."
Weinstein's bonus strips about such subjects as fat, building a robot boyfriend, Valentine's Day and how to "really" get a boyfriend are also quite amusing. While they don't strictly fit into the narrative timeline of the rest of the book, they certainly fit in with the book's feel. Weinstein manages to be simultaneously cruel to her past self and feel a tremendous amount of compassion for those experiences, not just for herself but for all young people. Teenagers in particular tend to have a heightened feeling of alienation, as though they are the only ones who feel such a strong sense of worthlessness, that their problems are unique and insolvable. Weinstein's genius is that she not only recognizes this tendency in herself, but also understands the irony and ridiculousness of this stance and finds ways to make her audience revel in this realization as well.