Alison Bechdel’s first book, Fun Home, enjoyed great acclaim: a memoir presented in comic-strip form, it described her father’s suicide and hidden homosexuality, her childhood visits to the family funeral home and Bechdel’s dawning realisation of her own lesbianism. The comic book does not immediately suggest itself as the ideal format for material of such intimacy and intermittent gruesomeness, but it worked. The dark humour of Charles Addams subverted the misery-memoir: Fun Home was hilarious, fascinating and very clever.
Are You My Mother? is made from less gothic material. Where its predecessor brilliantly and unexpectedly wove Proust into the narrative, the current volume quotes a lot from Virginia Woolf and Freud. It is much concerned with psychoanalysis; and the life and work of object-relations pioneer Donald Winnicott intersperses Bechdel’s recollections of her own two forays into analysis. A large part of this book is taken up with drawings of herself on the couch, or puzzling over books on psychoanalysis, and each chapter begins with one of her dreams.
As is well known, someone else’s dreams are only of interest during the very early stages of a love affair with that person. It is tempting, therefore, to skip the dream sequences, except that the rest of the story doesn’t make much sense without them. This makes the book heavy going until, perhaps a third of the way in, Bechdel’s endearing personality and sly wit become irresistible. The juxtaposition of drawing with text creates one sort of humour, and the further juxtaposition of content with language another. Thus a drawing of Bechdel and a new girlfriend in the throes of rapture is captioned, deadpan: ‘I began seeing her every week or two, between her stints at the peace camp and her relocation to Western Massachusetts.’ No other writer could make narcissistic cathexis a running joke (or, come to that, explain what it is). And who else would write: ‘The fact that the mother is the original love-object for both males and females presents Freud with a sticky wicket’?
Fun Home was partly about the author’s relationship with her father and partly about him as a distinct character. Here, Bechdel’s mother is represented almost exclusively in relation to her daughter. It is reasonable to suppose that someone happy with the mothering they have received will not undertake one bout of psychoanalysis, let alone a second. And indeed the author’s mother comes across as disapproving and extremely undemonstrative; quick to chide and slow to bless, to invert the words of the old hymn.
What makes this book not just funny but also in the end moving, is that Bechdel is able, at last, to find good in her mother and in their restrained accord. Are You My Mother? is not quite as enjoyable as Fun Home, but it is very original and arresting nonetheless. Rumour has it that Bechdel is currently at work on a third memoir, a history of her love life. Now, that will be worth waiting for.