REVIEW: Are You My Mother? (Alison Bechdel)

are-you-my-motherIt’s completely accidental that I’m writing a second review about a graphic novel–for reasons that seem a bit silly now, the manner of Are You My Mother?‘s publication made it seem as if it was a novel and so I assumed that Alison Bechdel had laid down her pencils. This was a nice surprise, as one of Fun Home’s great selling point was the uniqueness of the comic as memoir.

I read Fun Home at university, having an intellectual crush on the lecturer who talked about it in a series of seminars on comics whilst we studied Kavalier and Clay. It’s a superb book, about, superficially, growing up in a strange household with her father, an angry man who it is revealed had several homosexual affairs leading up to his eventual suicide. The book elegant and subtly navigates family relationships, the turning points of childhood and the distance and understanding that adulthood can bring of your own parents. As in a point that is raised in Are You My Mother?, the focus on the specific allows it to become universal, and hugely relatable.

So, to be a bit reductive, Are You My Mother? is basically Fun Home II, this time focussing on her relationship with her mother. Of course, this is much thornier: her mother is still alive, and a great deal of the book is actually taken up with her discussing the process of writing the novel and the tension that creates with her mother. It’s all very meta-fictional. Her characters are pin-sharp; she does an amazing job of creating living breathing people with her images and dialogue, especially her mother, whom has terrifying shades of my own. Bechdel as a character is endearing (which is quite a feat given the number of instances in the novel in which she could be interpreted as incredibly self-involved.) The narrative goes in constant circular motion, skipping back and forth between the past, the further past, the present, the writing, and the time of writing Fun Home. It works fantastically as a narrative structure, but it does contribute to the one huge problem I had with the book, which I’ll talk about below.

Fun Home felt like a story–a memoir, and a diary, but also a story. Are You My Mother? does not. Instead, it feels like an essay. Bechdel throws all sorts of extra pieces in to the mix: Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich are two major elements, but the most alienating part is use of therapy and psychoanalysis. Sixty per cent of the novel is narrated using quotes from Freud and more frequently the analyst Winnicott. I’m torn with how to describe my feelings towards this: in many cases in point, this is fascinating, especially when catching a strand that you can painfully recognise in yourself. Unfortunately it simply makes the story incredibly distanced, and even Bechdel herself, leaving me with the feeling of a set of characters that are unexplored precisely because they are so deeply probed with the jargon-heavy tools of psychoanalysis. In the end, this becomes not a story, but an essay.

And it does have worth, and it has more than enough idealogical discussion to support close text analysis and an entire feminist movement no doubt, but unfortunately I just didn’t connect. There were moments of intense recognition and emotional heft, but for the most part, I felt like I was just appreciating. Unfortunately, this makes me feel terrible as a reader, as Bechdel paints herself in the novel to be acutely sensitive to criticism of her work and in a strange metafictional catch-22 I feel bad for not enjoying Are You My Mother? as much as Fun Home.

So would I recommend it? Oddly–despite the tone set above–probably. It’s style may appeal to others, and it’s merit for me really latched on the degree to which I understood and felt a connection to the therapy talk. Just maybe read Fun Home first.

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