The worst part about waiting for the artist behind your favorite graphic memoir to make her magic again is, unfortunately, reading the new release when it finally happens.
So. I didn’t like Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel. This comes after loving, seriously loving Fun Home so much that I can’t stand that idea that I would never again read it for the first time. For me it was, and still is, the gold standard and the perfect 10. It stands alone as a novel; It stands alone as illustrations. It is as good as it gets.
Bechdel aired the family’s multi-layered laundry in the coming-of-age debut. Her father had secrets — including, possibly, flings with teenaged boys and a death that might have been on purpose; her mother was emotionally distant. In the follow up, Bechdel grabs her microscope and considers her relationship with her mother. The lack of hugs, the there-but-distant, the seeming lack of curiosity her mother seems to have for Bechdel’s life.
The result is a circular and clinical evaluation of Bechdel’s life and relationships with not so much the navel gazing that goes with memoirs, but a navel poking, prodding, and dissecting. She takes the words of her two favorite therapists, as well as Virginia Woolf and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott as a sort of decoder ring for solving the mysterious case of Alison and her mother. And, in turn, the universal experience of having a mother.
It’s super boring. Like restless reading, big sighs, annoyance. Itchy brain reading. If this book had anyone else’s name on the cover, I wouldn’t have even finished reading it.
Bechdel’s mother is a chilly character, short on hugs and long on conversations filled with the nitty gritty of her days. She’s smart. She reads a lot. Any affectionate inkling is locked in a vault. She seemingly forgives Bechdel for Fun Home. She’s also cute the way moms are cute. She’s just a person in the way we are all just people with blisters and bumps and bruises and failings and quirks. While their relationship isn’t what Bechdel specifically wants, this barely seems like something that needs to be dissected as much as it just needs to be understood: We’re all just people.
Bechdel chooses scientific evaluation over cohesive narrative. And while her study is thorough and she finds some sort of resolution, she buries the narrative. I really wanted the narrative. She’s good at narrative. Her last narrative was super great. There are glimpses of story here that she doles out occasionally, then rips out the rug when things start to get interesting.
This is worse than having someone tell you about a dream (which Bechdel actually does on a handful of occasions). This is having someone tell you about a dream and then analyzing the dream for you. Oddly, this book feels like the most personal of memoirs, but it also feels like it dances around any sort of intimacy. It’s like sitting down to meet someone and instead of starting with small talk and burrowing deeper, Bechdel just unzipped her chest and splayed her organs on the table.