Alison Bechdel was a favorite of mine for her Dykes To Watch Out For strip as well as autobiographical appearances in other venues. While her tone was occasionally lecturing and even hectoring, she was able to check this in her strip by presenting a variety of viewpoints. Her line was loose and spry and expressed her wit and ability to wring humor out of any number of dramatic situations. That's why I found her much-lauded memoir Fun Home to be so disappointing. I appreciated that this was a difficult subject that she felt she needed to take seriously, but the weight of the literary allusions she threw at the reader in connection with her father's apparent suicide dragged the book down. Her line felt dead, drowned in the blue wash she used in the book that rendered her images sterile. Where was the witty cartoonist whose work I admired? Her reworking of her coming-out story was somber and dull compared to the earlier version I had seen from her years earlier. Perhaps that wit was a mask concealing her grief and her own neuroses, but the Serious Artist she had become in this book felt like a different kind of mask (and to this reader, a suffocating one).
I approached her latest book, Are You My Mother?, with some trepidation, fearing more of the same level of pretentiousness. Instead, what I saw was a sloppy book that was all over the place, desperate to find some kind of structure in the work of child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott as she plunged into the relationship she has with her mother. Of course, the book is only about her mother in an incidental fashion. Bechdel herself admits it in the text--while she tries to understand her mother from afar and explores a variety of key events from her life, it's only the most cursory examination of dates, names and events. The book is really about Bechdel's struggle to create, love and fix herself. Here are a few bullet point thoughts I had about the book.
* The dominant color here is pink, or shades thereof (coral, salmon, light red). I wonder if this was a conscious choice--to make a book about a woman pink after making a book about her father blue?
* Bechdel reveals that Fun Home was a kind of desperate maneuver for her. Her income was drying up from alt-weeklies closing down or consolidating and Dykes To Watch Out For was no longer a viable way for her to survive. Reading Fun Home to me revealed an artist who was simply trying too hard. There was no joy in creation on any of the pages. As an artist, it felt like she was trying to draw something in an idealized form she simply didn't have the chops to do. The result was something that looked workmanlike at best, boring at worst. This wasn't helped by her attempts to tighten her web of literary allusions and apply them to her father and family. That said, the dense, literary nature of her book is what helped her gain so much acclaim from mainstream reviewers, many of whom had never read any of her other work.
* Are You My Mother? seems to put her on more friendly ground. Adapting the device of starting each chapter by recounting a dream was a brilliant move. It gave her the opportunity to introduce and then expand upon the psychological idea she introduced in each chapter in a direct and powerful visual manner. Bechdel also references Adrienne Rich and Virginia Wolff and meaningfully connects their work to both her mother and herself.
* This is a work of self-analysis, trying to fulfill her fantasy of analyzing and fixing herself. In the parlance of Winnicott, the subject (the analysand/the baby) must destroy the object and then see it survive in order to see it as separate from the object that it has instilled with cathectic/libidinal energy. In other words, one must destroy one's idealizations of others in order to see one's mother/loved one as a person and deal with them on that level.
* Fun Home revealed an artist whose repression was palpable. Perhaps this was mirroring her own father's quite literal repression of his own homosexuality, but the lack of emotion in the book was off-putting. Are You My Mother? is quite the opposite, as Bechdel grapples with her incessant need (instilled from childhood) to not be a burden to her mother while being told she was the family's bad seed. It lays bare her anxieties on the page, including her jealousies (always a difficult thing for any person to admit), her creative blocks and her many false starts at creating this book.
* My favorite scenes are those with her analysts, both of whom challenged Bechdel by liking her and pointing out her many positive qualities--precisely what she couldn't bear to hear. Because if she was kind and adorable and worthy of love, then the fact that she didn't get all that she needed from her mother brought up the kind of negative feelings she couldn't process. The chapter titled "Hate" is especially interesting in relating this. I honestly could read an entire book that was solely about her analysts, going into more detail.
* I couldn't help but laugh when Bechdel ignored her analyst's advice and closely recorded the details of a visit with her mother, claiming that "by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we aremost present..." She's a writer and so is her mother, and they are people who have real difficulty engaging events as moments of sensation rather than events to capture, pin down or note.
* Her mother describes this as a "metabook", and that struck me as especially apt. It's a book about writing. It's a book that doesn't really have a beginning or end but rather sort of picks up in the middle and swings back and forth. The end, such as it is, is more an epilogue or afterword than a real ending. After all, the relationship she shares with her mother is still ongoing, even if the way she looks at it is different. (In a sense, the relationship she has with her father is also ongoing, despite his death. I'd love to see Bechdel re-address him and her feelings about him again one day.)