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Review: Tricky dynamics in Alison Bechdel's 'Are You My Mother?'

LiteratureArts and CultureAlice Miller

Are You My Mother?

A Comic Drama

Alison Bechdel

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 290 pp., $22

First things first: If you haven't read "Fun Home," Alison Bechdel's 2006 family memoir in comic form, drop everything and get a copy right away. In its pages, Bechdel does the miraculous: tracing deftly and with nuance her complex, claustrophobic relationship with her father, an English teacher and closeted gay man who died in 1980 (in what was either accident or suicide), shortly after Bechdel came out as a lesbian.

Intricate, layered, endlessly self-reflective, the book is on the short list, along with "Maus," "Persepolis," "American Splendor" and very few others, of the greatest works of graphic literature, portraying Bechdel's childhood home as a fun house of emotions, in which erudition and alienation were two sides of the same coin. The title refers to Bechdel's father's other job, running the family funeral home, a potent metaphor for all the loss and distance, the terminal disconnection, that resides at the center of the book.

I bring up "Fun Home" not merely to praise it (OK, maybe a little) but because it plays a large part in Bechdel's second book, "Are You My Mother?," which turns the lens on her mother instead. In the opening scene, Bechdel is almost killed by a Sunbeam Bread truck, the same kind of truck that killed her father, as she debates how to tell her mother that she is writing about the family. "This story begins when I began to tell another story," Bechdel writes, tracing a link between the two books from the start. Except, of course, that there's a catch in writing about her mother since, unlike Bechdel's father, she is still living, making the dynamic between them ongoing, without a clearly defined beginning or end.

"This is one of my difficulties now," she notes, "… my fear that Mom will find this memoir about her 'angry.' Another difficulty is the fact that the story of my mother is unfolding even as I write it." Add to this both mother and daughter's sense of memoir as a genre defined by "inaccuracy, exhibitionism, narcissism," and you have a potent, if perhaps insurmountable, set of challenges. How does one produce a memoir about the production of a memoir? How interior is it possible for a narrative to go?

Such questions, it turns out, are hardly academic; rather, they frame the book in many ways. This is a mixed blessing for it undermines Bechdel's finest talent, which is to use visual storytelling to take us, somehow, below the surface — to create images that expose the depths of her emotional life. Early in "Are You My Mother?" she builds a two-page spread around a series of five photographs, all vividly re-created, portraying her as a 3-month-old in her mother's arms. The sequence is affecting as they make faces at each other, rising to a shriek of joy. And yet, it goes without saying, this is all illusion; as Bechdel admits, "I don't have the negatives, so there's no way to know their chronological order. But I've arranged them according to my own narrative."

That's what a memoirist does: Take the vapor trail of the past and reconstruct it, imposing meaning on the chaos of real life. Bechdel makes that point explicit with the final image, in which her infant self looks into the camera, laughter fading to a look of fear. "The moment is shattered," she explains, "as I notice the man with the camera. At three months, I had seen enough of my father's rages to be wary of him." The power of this observation resides in both its specificity and its conditionality, the tension between the evidence of the photo and Bechdel's analysis. How do we know anything, she is asking, except through the filter of our own imaginations? And if imagination is the key, how do we ever know what's real and what's imposed?

Were Bechdel able to stay with this, "Are You My Mother?" might have been more compelling: a memoir about questions, about not knowing, about the conditional nature of, well, everything. As it is, however, she does an unwieldy dance around these issues, over-intellectualizing her story, relying on extended interior or critical monologues at moments when narrative alone, she seems to feel, will not suffice.

To be fair, Bechdel did something similar in "Fun Home," developing the book around the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, and invoking Proust, Camus, Fitzgerald, Joyce and the travails of Oscar Wilde. But what felt seamless in that first work (literature was one of the ways she and her father related to each other) comes off here as a contrivance, or worse, a distancing mechanism. Long riffs on Virginia Woolf, on Alice Miller's "The Drama of the Gifted Child" or the psychologist Donald Winnicott, who first conceptualized the transitional object, only serve to pull us out of the narrative about her mother, which sputters, in fits and starts, in the margins.

"The parent who uses the child's false self for structural support, Alice Miller says, prevents the child from building up her own structure," Bechdel writes in a discussion of her transitional object, and throughout the book, she reproduces long passages of psychological theory, while also re-creating her own therapy sessions in detail. There's so much talking here — talking about talking, talking about writing, talking about the dynamics of parents and children, talking about what everything means — that at times we lose the thread of the narrative altogether, ending up lost in the self-referential loops of Bechdel's mind.

Still, as frustrating as this is, it also seems inevitable, given how Bechdel engages with her experience. She is an internalizer, "physically cut off from the outside world," she admits, "but taking detailed note of it," which means there's no other way for her to approach her material, no other language she can use. Again, I think of "Fun Home," with its dual conceits: first, that "my parents are most real to me in fictional terms," and then, immediately afterward, the converse, that "perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison."

There it is, the conundrum in a nutshell, the difficult interplay of art and intimacy, which marks this book as well. The difference is that in "Fun Home," Bechdel had a story to tell, or more than one: the saga of her childhood, of her father's tortured lack of self-awareness, of the tenuous and often treacherous bond between them, a bond defined in equal measure by love and antipathy.

With "Are You My Mother?" there is nothing quite so urgent, just an adult child's feeling for her mother, unresolved, at times unfocused, with, as she acknowledges from the outset, neither beginning nor end. "You can't live and write at the same time," Bechdel notes, which only highlights the impossibility of the task. And later: "The irony of the fact that I'm writing a book about all this is not lost on me. Yet I don't seem to have a choice."

david.ulin@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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