Sunday, May 20, 2012

This Week's Good Read

A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel

Six years ago, Alison Bechdel published "Fun Home," a memoir in comics form that centered primarily on her father. That book caused something of a sensation. Now she has come out with a companion piece of sorts, a memoir that focuses on her relationship with her mother.

Except it's not really a companion piece at all. The two books are quite different. The earlier book is more focused and coherent. Of course, the dramatic nature of Bechdel's father's death helps make it a compelling narrative. This book has no such built-in hook. Bechdel's mother is still alive, so the story has neither a real beginning nor nicely wrapped up ending.

This book starts with Bechdel trying to figure out how to tell her mother about the other book. Actually, it starts with a dream. The book is in seven chapters, and each of them opens with a dream. On the next page, she says "I had the dream about the brook right before I told my mother I was writing a memoir about my father." Bechdel presents herself driving in her car, alone, imagining scenarios, how she might tell her mother, how her mother might react. A few pages later comes the actual revelation.

So one of the things this book is about is writing the earlier book and how that affected her relationship with her mother. It is also about Bechdel's history of psychotherapy, particularly her relationship with two therapists, here called Jocelyn and Carol, and about how her attempts to understand psychotherapy also led her to reading everything she could about the subject. She shows herself reading - and presents excerpts from - Freud and Jung, for instance. She also is quite taken with a book called "The Drama of the Gifted Child" by Alice Miller. It is through Miller she discovers Donald Winnicott, whose ideas about the relationship between mothers and their children become one of the foundations of the book.

The book is also a continuation of Bechdel's own autobiography. If the ealier book concentrated primarily on her childhood, this book presents her young and middle adulthood, including her three longest lasting romantic relationships.

And the book is also about its own writing. Bechdel makes frequent references to it, and it is of course a frequent topic of conversation between her mother and her whenever she presents meetings between them that took place during the writing of it.

That's a lot of topics for one book, even a book of dense prose, much less a book presented in comics form. In the first section, she tells her mother that she has to rewrite the book, start over completely.

"Ha!" says her mother. "You have too many strands!"

"I do," Bechdel agrees. "I just need to tell a story."

"Yes. Narrative is what they want."

"But it's hard to figure out what the story is."

Near the end of the book, Bechdel's mother responds to the first four chapters of the book, which is all that Bechdel had managed to get drawn at the time. She thinks it coheres, and has clear themes. Her final pronouncement is: "It's … it's a metabook."

This strikes a resonant chord with the author, who presents herself saying "Yeah! It is!"

This conversation is introduced with the following note:

"The story has no end. But now it's five years later, and I must manufacture one."

It's a valiant effort, and the book does cohere, in its own way, and it does have clear themes. But it's not really a story, not the way the earlier book was a story. And frankly, while it's well worth reading, "Are You My Mother?" is not, finally, nearly as good a book as "Fun Home." If you haven't read that earlier book, go out and find it now and read it. If you loved it and are looking for more of the same, this isn't quite it. But it is engaging and thought-provoking and well worth your time and money.