Information Brushed Against Information: Phoebe Gloeckner's Diary of a Teenage Girl
Diary of a Teenage Girl is a fairly unique example of intermedia. As the title implies, the main text of the Gloeckner’s book is not written in a traditional literary prose style but as an imagined diary “written” by a teenaged Minnie. In actuality, the diary is based on Gloeckner’s own teenage diary, though for legal reasons the book has been labeled as fiction and will be examined as such. What’s important is that the diary is meant to be read as if actually written by a teenage girl.
The diary medium, a form of ephemera, automatically hints to the reader a certain way of examining the work because of the way a traditional diary is created. That is, entries are written at intervals, such as at the end of each day, and are primarily a personal record of one’s life in that period of time. Generally short, immediate, spontaneous, emotionally raw, secret, and private, a diary entry will have only have shortest of short-term reflection in regards to the events of the day, even when written in past tense, but the reflection compounds as more entries are written.
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Minnie’s diary, which consists of a binder full of typed pages, begins because of a peculiar incident in her life—her first sexual encounter, which occurred two weeks prior to the beginning of the diary—that she inexplicably feels will change her life. The opening entry, therefore, is longer than her usual entries, as it recounts that whole period of time and brings the diary up to the day she begins it. At this point in time, she barely has any inkling that this affair is wrong; instead, she finds herself madly in love with Monroe, her mother’s boyfriend: “Monroe Rutherford is the handsomest man in the world” is the first line of the second entry.
Opinions change quickly in diaries, often flip-flopping back and forth. On page 71, there are two entries that take place a day apart, one praising Richie, a classmate she’s been sleeping with, for his beauty, the next condemning him as “superficial,” “self-centered and inexcusably vain.” Also, because a diary exists in the diarist’s world, it can be read and reread by the diarist and commented on. On page 65, Minnie notices that her writing and typing skills have improved from the habit of working on her diary so often. Near the end of the book, Minnie discovers that Pascal, her ex-stepfather, had slept with one of her friends. Because she has kept the letters he sent her in her diary, she’s able to reexamine her relationship with him and realizes that his reasons for wanting her to move to New York to be with him were not out of any kind of fatherly devotion:
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The other aspect of a diary is that it is inherently an object in the diarist’s world, something that can be discovered by parents, siblings, friends, etc. Minnie is aware enough of this to have a warning in front of her diary. Monroe, the boyfriend, knows about the diary and repeatedly insists that it be destroyed, seeing as it could implicate him on some serious criminal charges. Minnie decides to change the hiding place of the diary every few days so that he can never find it. Inevitably, though, her mother discovers the diary and learns about the affair between Minnie and Monroe, which in the end brings the affair to an unexpected close (no spoilers yet).
There is a limited amount of poetry in Diary. There are a few “written” by young Minnie with lines like “I saw the vomit on Polk Street / Young boys arm in arm / Their eyes wide and rolling / Hands in each other’s pockets / Laughing hysterically at the vomit." It's the kind of poem one expects a teenager to write, slightly melodramatic but also raw with emotion. A few others are written by other characters or are anonymous poems.
In the performance category, Diary has a transcript of a self-help, motivational recording that Minnie steals from Monroe. It is coupled with comic strip images of Minnie getting ready in the morning. What this allows the author to do, as shown in the final page of the sequence shown here, is to show Minnie’s reaction to the recording as it is “playing” in an almost cinematic way.
There are visual elements on virtually every page of Diary. Minnie is a budding comic artist. There are a number of doodles throughout, as well as a few examples from her favorite artists— including one made specifically for her by Robert Crumb himself, in which he humorously threatens to sue her for plagiarism after seeing her sketchbook.
Also within the diary are Minnie’s first crude comics— three single page strips in the vein of underground comic artists like Crumb and his wife Aline Kominsky. None of them are directly autobiographical, but they are emotionally resonant to the story. One is about a woman climbing a hill so steep it bends her over trying, but in the end, she succeeds. The second is about a girl (naked in every frame) that’s forced to play a part for everybody in her life, but who hides her real self from everybody. The third is a humorous (and graphic) depiction of Jesus catching adulterers in the act and punishing them. All three are drawn in a much different style than the non-diary illustrations and comics.
There are also many straightforward illustrations, the kind of single-frame still images that visualize an actual piece of text that you might find in any number of books. The main purposes of these are to differentiate the characters visually, prior to seeing the actual comics; to illustrate something that can’t be described verbally, such as the illustration of the cats riding the donkey; and to shock the reader with the sexual elements.
The final, and perhaps most important visual element of Diary is the inclusion of a number of comic book scenes, drawn with a more modern sensibility—less grotesque than the 1960s underground comix that inspired her and more in line with today’s autobiographical comic artists. These can be as short as half of a page, or several pages long, and are rarely more than hinted at in the diary. For example, Minnie writes less than half a page about her mother finding the diary and the decision to try to force Monroe to marry Minnie, but the corresponding comic is nine pages long—nearly a hundred cels—and goes into much more detail about the consequences.
The comic scene on pages 19-20, between Minnie and her friend Kimmie, gives different information than the corresponding diary entry on page 21. The comic shows the way Minnie has to hide from her sister when she talks with Kimmie on the phone and focuses on Kimmie’s disapproval, while the diary entry merely summarizes the reasons for Kimmie’s disapproval before segueing into an anecdote about Kimmie’s curiosity regarding Monroe’s penis, a fact ignored by the comic section.
The comic that begins on page 38 has no correlating entry in the diary, though the instigating event was hinted at in earlier entries. What’s interesting is that she is shown being interrupted as she’s trying to jot down something in a separate Hello Kitty diary, which could be a sign of a never-completed, never-typed diary entry that Gloeckner is trying to reconstruct from memory. The ending of the scene is also interesting. As Monroe lays on top of her in an awkward prelude to sex, Minnie asks him why he never tells her anything about his life, when he knows everything about hers. It is a moment of self-awareness of her position in the relationship that was mostly absent in the earlier diary entries but that hints at her future exploration, and questioning, of their relationship.
Because these comics tend to fill in the gaps in the diary and occasionally dispute the diarist Minnie’s unremoved observations, the comics give the impression of a distance-remembering narrator, one more mature and wise than the young woman writing the diary. This is backed up by the real-life origins of the diary, written by Gloeckner as a teen, and is also evidenced by the changes in Gloeckner’s art style, from her Zap! Comix inspired early comics through her purposefully-disproportionate characters from A Child’s Life to her present, naturalistic style that’s more akin to Terry Moore or Adrian Tomine. Through this mixture of styles and media, Gloeckner is able to tell a compelling, though somewhat disturbing coming of age story in an interesting way.