If one is at first glance tempted to dismiss Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? as a glorified comic strip, one would be wildly and woefully misguided: It is as complicated, brainy, inventive and satisfying as the finest prose memoirs.
Bechdel’s previous book, Fun Home, told the story of her father’s secret homosexuality, thwarted artistic expression and ultimate suicide, and of her own coming out in college. Her new one delves into her troubled relationship with her distant, unhappy mother, and into her own difficulties connecting with a series of long-term girlfriends. As she confides her tale, she also addresses her mother’s bluntly conflicted reaction to her art and folds their struggle into the writing of the memoir itself. “I would love to see your name on a book,” her mother says. “But not on a book of lesbian cartoons.”
Bechdel weaves emotional honesty with highbrow deliberation in a way that is never burdensome: the tragedy and the comedy are so consummately entwined, so gloriously balanced, the reader can’t help being fascinated. Are You My Mother? manages to incorporate complicated references – to psychoanalysis and the theories of the paediatrician and psychiatrist Donald Winnicott, to the work of Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich – into a story that is gripping, funny and radiantly clear.
In a sense, Bechdel’s innovative form lends itself to the subject: the graphic memoir can reproduce the layering of thought and mimic strands of simultaneous life – the bursts of insight and memory that coexist with a humdrum moment like reading in bed with your lover, or arguing in the kitchen with your mother – in ways that pure prose cannot. Things happen at the same time. Associations are made. The past is superimposed on the present. Thought bubbles and squares complicate and illuminate unobtrusively. There’s electricity to the form, to the interaction between pictures and words, between feeling and event, that gives Bechdel’s cerebral introspection an immediacy and drama it wouldn’t otherwise have.
Throughout, there are magnificent feats of connectivity, startlingly complex internal monologues that unfold with perfect simplicity. On a two-page spread, Bechdel parses a Dr Seuss drawing, overlaying letters from her father to her mother; a quote from Seuss’s Sleep Book, a remark about retreating to her “office”, a barricaded closet or corner, in her youth; a quote from Winnicott; and an evocative analysis of her childhood relation to family life. In other hands, this might collapse into something maddeningly clunky or overelaborate, but Bechdel’s structure sustains it.
Bechdel also captures the rhythms of family communication. She recounts a phone call with her mother: “Hey! I got papers in Philadelphia and Chicago to carry my comic strip,” Bechdel says. “For money.” Her mother answers: “Hmnh. I have to get the plumber to come back, that pipe is still leaking.” Bechdel: “Plus I met with that publisher. I signed a contract to do a book of cartoons.” Her mother: “You mean your lesbian cartoons? … But … what if someone sees your name?”
Are You My Mother? is among many other things a nuanced, sophisticated investigation of the impulse to write or create, the desire, shame, guilt, excitement and shadiness of the process. Bechdel, unremitting in her exploration of her motives, pins down and examines the moral ambiguity of the venture, the detachment and ruthlessness and terror inherent in exposing those close to you, along with the mysterious compulsion to do so. It is, as Bechdel’s mother says, a “metabook”. But unlike most metabooks it isn’t tiring or draining; it’s exhilarating.
On a purely human and unliterary level, one has to admire Bechdel’s largeness of spirit. She is sharply, intelligently, brutally critical of her mother’s failings – her remoteness, her chilliness, her uninterrogated favouring of Bechdel’s brothers – and supremely generous, compassionate and unbitter. She quotes Virginia Woolf saying that as soon as she wrote To the Lighthouse, “I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her… I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” Surely something similar is at work here.
I haven’t encountered a book about being an artist, or about the punishing entanglements of mothers and daughters, as engaging, profound or original as this one in a long time. I walked around for days after reading it seeing little bits and snatches of my own life as Alison Bechdel drawings.
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