August 2004

Bryan Miller


Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner

Phoebe Gloeckner's work is hard to read. Which is not to say that she is inaccessible, because she isn't. Nor is Gloeckner impossibly erudite, ponderous, or dull. She certainly isn't untalented. The difficulty in reading Gloeckner comes in forcing one's self to face up to certain brutal realities, all of which are displayed in her work in the kind of unflinching, absolute detail that could be categorized as lurid if they weren't so honest and troubling.

Gloeckner's Diary of A Teenage Girl is a startling portrait of a young girl caught between childhood and adulthood during the death throes of the sexual revolution. After the togetherness of the '60s faded into the hedonism of the '70s, Gloeckner's protagonist Minnie, a thinly veiled version of the author, finds herself growing up in San Francisco. Her artist father lives on the East Coast while she and her sister Gretel live with their irresponsible mother.

As the novel opens, Minnie has been forced out of one private school and is starting another. She's bright but unfocused and emotionally unstable. She consistently wins awards and contests for her artistic abilities, but in other academic endeavors she flounders. At the behest of an English teacher she begins a diary for the entirety of the year of 1976.

The single unifying plotline of the diary entries is Minnie's relationship with her mother's thirtysomething boyfriend which begins not-quite-so-innocently and quickly evolves into a sexual liaison. They hide their relationship from Minnie's mother for some time, but their behavior grows increasingly reckless. As suspicions arise about the two, Monroe pushes Minnie away. Alone, she begins seeking new friends and experiences on the streets of San Francisco where she finds stronger drugs and men and women even more dangerous than Monroe.

The real through-line of Diary of A Teenage Girl is Minnie's increasingly isolation. Her attempts to find more permanent bonds with other people and her increasing sexual confusion lead her into a series of harmful relationships. Her most trustworthy friend is Kimmie, an equally troubled young girl. The rest of her pals, met during brief tenures is various schools and in cafes and showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, are meth dealers, pimps, paranoiacs and sadists.

Diary of A Teenage Girl would be harrowing fiction, but unfortunately it is not. Gloeckner's first novel is a reworking of the actual diary she kept for two years. The finished product of the novel is a condensed version of her teen years, altered in places to combine characters and give it a stronger narrative arc. Gloeckner, after editing and rewriting the diary, inserts a series of illustrations and graphic sequences into the book. She's a successful cartoonist whose work has received high praise by the likes of Robert Crumb (who is both an acquaintance of Gloeckner and a character in the novel). Her other published work is a collection of twenty years worth of underground comics, A Child's Life.

The illustrations and cartoon sequences tie in nicely to the prose segment of the novel as young Minnie, like Gloeckner herself, had an early interest (or recreations of them, anyway) which show her as a blossoming artist. Even those first drawings show a great deal of emotion and artistic flair, although most of the highlights in that arena are Gloeckner's beautiful modern-day sketches, portraits of Minnie scrutinizing her body in a mirror or Monroe stalking down the street, illustrations of her family and friends and the denizens of San Francisco's seedier districts.

Thanks to the established interested in art and the illustrations, the sequences that shift from illustrated fiction to graphic literature are seemlessly intertwined and serve as a breather from the often intense prose. For a few moments one is allowed out of Minnie's head and to take a more removed role as observer; this is often a welcome breather.

Several illustrations in A Child's Life show half-transparent figures whose inner anatomy is visible through their skin and clothes. Gloeckner's interest in the medical details of a person are a nice metaphor for the workings of her prose which strip her characters naked down to bare muscle and nerves. The raw power of Gloeckner's work comes from her apparent fearlessness at revealing details that could easily be considered damning or exploitative. Initially these passages come as a shock, but gradually stories of Minnie's relationship with Monroe and her descent into drug abuse come to seem somewhat normal, which is when the real horror sets in.

Which is not to say that Gloeckner's writing is not often beautiful. She often writes precise and compelling lines like, "All the clouds were pulled down from the sky and sucked in through my window. Some clouds melted and I am covered with dew. Wisps of fog entangle the chandelier. Bows and flows of angel hair are thick and smothering." The novel is filled with nicely observed and precise observations, sometimes beautifully rendered fantasy sequences such as her dream of drowning in the canals of Venice. These moments are as elegant and haunting as the more startling material is abrasive and gritty.

Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner
Frog, Ltd.
ISBN: 1583940634
312 Pages