Monday, October 01, 2012

Review: Are You My Mother?

[Alison Bechdel. Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.]

I don't remember how I first encountered Alison Bechdel's work. The compilation of her long-running comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For and her graphic novel-style memoir (graphic memoir?) about her early life and her late, closeted, bi father were published at around the same time, and I was already long aware of her awesomeness. It is....oh, four or five years later, and it was a no-brainer to bust through a tenuously holding "no new books until you've read the ones you've got" injunction to get this one -- a very different sort of graphic memoir focused on her relationship with her mother -- when I stumbled across it in a bookstore.

In telling the story of herself and her often difficult but funny and fascinating mother, Bechdel puts a great deal of effort into exploring ideas from psychoanalysis, particularly the work of Donald Winnicott. She puts it all together into an incredibly complex story that weaves frequently but smoothly across time, across ideas, and across lives -- hers, her parents', Winnicott's, Virginia Woolf's, and others. She has her mother in the book itself describe it as a "metabook," and that fits. In fact, reading this book as a writer, it was worth giving it a second read right away to better appreciate how she managed to do something so complex and yet get it to work. Mind you, I wouldn't be surprised if not everyone agrees that it works, as the overall impact, despite no lack of emotionally intense moments, is quite a bit more cerebral than the memoir focused on her father. For me, beyond an appreciation of the overall craft involved, I was also happy to learn from her experiments with inviting other voices and sophisticated ideas into a book about her life and connecting them to her life in a way that felt smooth and organic.

The focus on psychoanalysis is a potential point of ambivalence for me, given its importance in the book and my reservations about the ways that it gets used by some writers. Thankfully, the way Bechdel employs it keeps my concerns to a minimum. In general -- and I acknowledge I am no expert, and welcome correction -- my impression is that psychoanalysis and theory that derives from it at times presents as known and firm things that can only possibly be speculation, and at times presents as general features of humanity things that, if they are true at all, are likely to vary considerably. There are a small number of things in this book that are over the top in the former sense, but basically none of the latter. In the book, psychoanalysis is mostly used in the way that makes the most sense to me -- as a source and focus for exploration of how one person is put together, where the criteria for evaluating a given idea is whether it is useful in that specific case, and there is no attempt to extend it any farther than that. That kind of artful mix of the analytical, the instinctive, and the creative is where the strongest part of psychoanalysis as practice is rooted, I think, and it is a professionalized version of something all of us do and that I quite enjoy doing both for myself and with others in an untrained, mutual aid kind of way. That's how Bechdel uses it, for the most part, and that seems eminently reasonable to me.

One slightly strange-to-me aspect of the book's emphasis on psychoanalytic ideas was the limit of what it actually made available for uptake and use by the reader. It is clear that Bechdel, though she has no formal training in the area, has spent a lot of time and effort learning about it. She knows her stuff, or at least so it seems to to me as someone who knows little. These technical, and sometimes I would even say obscure, ideas are integral to the story she wants to tell, so she has to explain them in enough detail that she can convey what she wants to convey, but she has to do so without disrupting the flow of the story through excessive digression or by wandering into territory that is boring or confusing for the reader. And she manages to do it. The thing is, that meant, for me, running across plenty of instances where I thought, "Huh, that sounds like me..." or "I wonder if that might be relevant to person X..." but the book didn't actually provide enough depth for me to make even a superficial assessment of whether those impressions were accurate. And it shouldn't have done so, given its mission -- it was just a weird intermediate scale of persentation of ideas, where they were employed in a satisfying and sophisticated way in the context of the narrative but not in enough depth that I could hope to make my own use of them.

In any case, this is a masterful book. If it is perhaps a little less gripping than her graphic memoir about her father, it is nonetheless a remarkable demonstration of writing (and graphic storytelling) craft. I can't wait to see what she does next.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here. To learn about Scott's forthcoming books on Canadian social movement history, click here.]

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