Ester Bloom is a monthly columnist for Cheek Teeth. She blogs at Full of Pith and Vinegar.
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel is the second best graphic memoir about sexuality and relationships, self-reflection and identity, children and parents that I've ever read. But Bechdel shouldn't feel bad for not making it all the way to the top of my list: She is facing very stiff competition in the form of her own Fun Home, which came out five years ago and immediately became a literary phenomenon. Bechdel's trying to recapture the magic is like Michael Phelps returning to the Olympics after Beijing 2008.
Both of Bechdel's memoirs are about her parents and how they failed, whether primarily as parents (her mother) or as people (her father). The reader accompanies her as she recounts pivotal events from her early life and adolescence, and from her current situation as a professionally successful but romantically flailing neurotic intellectual. Over the course of her narration, which she entangles with related episodes from history and literature, she tries to come to terms with how her past shaped her present, and, most importantly, whether she can ever transcend her complicated, unhappy childhood.
The stakes in Fun Home are higher, in part because death lurks behind every panel. Much of the action takes place in the family funeral home (hence the book's title) and is framed by Bechdel's father's suicide. For all the ways that Fun Home represented something truly novel on the literary scene at the time, it is also rather traditional: it travels a more-or-less steady linear path from Point A to Point B; it involves a handful of central characters, almost all of whom are in Bechdel's immediate family; it has a plot, complete with climax and resolution; and it tells the story it sets out to tell. At heart, it's a Victorian novel, though one with plenty of modernist elements.
By contrast, Bechdel's follow-up Are You My Mother? has no plot and tells no story; it is better described as modernist fiction, though with post-modern elements. Appropriately, and perhaps not coincidentally, one of the masters and originators of modernism, Virginia Woolf, figures prominently in the book. She and the other characters--some living, some dead; some contemporary therapists, some early 20th-century psycho-analysts you've never heard of; some feminist writers and icons; and lots of ex-girlfriends--range widely through time and space. It helps to try to keep track by the haircuts, or, in the case of one therapist, the earrings.
Bechdel is the maypole around which all these characters dance, and as she comments on the action, she also despairs of her ability to manage or record it. Throughout the book, she challenges the reader to look on her with impatience, even disgust, as she details her dreams, her writer's block, her therapy sessions. Fearlessly, she lays out her own failures as a girlfriend, an artist, and, perhaps, as a person--everything, in fact, but the exact dimensions of her belly button. Like Woody Allen, a similarly anxious, over-educated modernist/post-modernist pop cultural creature who creates visual and verbose universes that revolve around himself, she seems to find herself fascinating and repulsive. Can you love me, even with my flaws? she asks the reader, time and again in different ways. How could you when even my mother couldn't?
That question is the subtext of all of her intense personal relationships, too, with her (all female) therapists and her girlfriends. But Bechdel portrays her own raw vulnerability with such precision that she wins her readers to her side. What could be exhausting becomes exhilarating, like nothing you've ever encountered before. Bechdel's talent for storytelling--especially in this elaborate, layered medium, wherein she juxtaposes images with more images, and text with more text, including dialogue, quotes from books, and her own voice-over narration--are singular. Moreover, like Jeannette Walls, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr, and other maestros of memoir, she never tips over into self-pity or asks more from the reader than the reader is in a position to give.
In several of Bechdel's transcribed conversations with her mother, Bechdel's mother puts down confessional writing. Her own journals, we learn, are dry and unemotional, and she criticizes certain poems in The New Yorker for being "too personal! ... Who cares about the fellowship [the poet] didn't pursue when she was twenty because she got married instead? It's too specific!"
Bechdel responds, "Um ... I dunno ... Can't you be more universal by being specific?"
Her mother doesn't buy it. "I just don't know why everyone has to write about themselves. The self has no place in good writing," she says.
Whether Are You My Mother? will do anything to convince her to rethink that position or, instead, merely reinforce it, can't be known. But Bechdel's effort is a complicated, heartfelt attempt to prove her mother wrong--and, in the end, to forgive her.