Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
It's a very meta-literary distinction, which probably goes a long way towards explaining why I enjoyed Alison Bechdel's new graphic novel memoir Are You My Mother?
Bechdel is the author of Fun Home, one of the books that was foundational in changing my view of comic books as a thing for kids, a lesser art form, to a form of expression as elegant (in some ways more elegant) than prose. To say I adore her work is an understatement; when friends tell me they never really got into graphic novels, I buy them either Fun Home or Will Eisner's A Contract with God.
In both of her books, Bechdel dissects her parents, exploring their actions and motives, searching for their true self that has lurked unexpressed through all the years of her childhood and adult life. In Fun Home, she grounded this search in reference to some of the most famous themes of literature. The story of Daedalus and Icarus defined her relationship with her father, who also attempted a self-transformation paralleled by Jay Gatz from The Great Gatsby. Proust, Woolf, Joyce and Camus all receive more than a passing glance.
Are You My Mother? took longer for me to warm to, largely because in this book, Bechdel grounds her work in psychology. I took a psych class in high school- Freud means sex, Erikson had a bunch of stages that we grow through, Pavlov measured doggie drool. It was a less natural medium for me.
But as the book progressed, it became less about Bechdel's struggle to be an active participant in her psychoanalysis, and more about her struggles as a writer of memoir. How true is too true? How and when to streamline the narrative? How to avoid destroying her relationship with her mother, an unwilling participant in the public deconstruction their family life?
At the end of Fun Home, Bechdel had resolved or come to terms with many of her father's failings- his repressed homosexuality, his violent rages, his maniacal dedication to restoring and curating their family home. Unfortunately, she doesn't resolve any similarly weighty issues with her mother in Are You My Mother? Her father was a force of nature, mysterious, unstoppably meticulous, intriguingly alien. Her mother is merely less; perhaps she subconsciously truncated her relationship with her daughter because children represented the end of her career as an actress, but she was not a mother who stands on even footing with the great mothers in literature.
At the end Are You My Mother? Bechdel and her mom are getting along because they are still learning to get along. And maybe that's what leaves Are You My Mother? an unsatisfying memoir (especially when compared to Fun Home), maybe it's just too much like real life.
Book #38 of my book a week challenge.