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Bechdel's narrative carries inventive book

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This article was published 1/6/2012 (2824 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Alison Bechdel: range of literary references.

ELENA SEIBERT

Alison Bechdel: range of literary references.

American comic-book star Alison Bechdel's new graphic memoir is a sequel to her 2006 debut, Fun Home, which turns to her complicated relationship with her mother.

A born actress, avid reader and talented musician, Helen Bechdel gave up her professional ambitions to raise her children and become a high-school English teacher. Her many sacrifices were never far from the family dynamic, however, as Bechdel describes her mother's withdrawal into her private world as a kind of "Plexiglas dome" around her.

Are You My Mother? is also a meta-fiction about the process of writing a family memoir, as Bechdel depicts her anxieties about reading her mother's responses to reading her work. A somewhat detached critic of their family's stories, Helen thinks little of such confessional writing. She even tells her daughter at one point: "The self has no place in good writing."

Bechdel, of course, is a big deal. She has gone from producing a weekly comic strip for alternative newspapers, Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2008), to writing the groundbreaking bestselling graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), to being recently profiled in The New Yorker as "an intellectual populist and a pioneer."

Along the way, she has gained a wide and diverse audience for her highly personal comics about being a lesbian and growing up in a family of thwarted artists with skeletons in the closet. Ironically, this unhappy climate of artistic and personal repression has proven fertile ground for Bechdel's own form of artistic expression, the graphic memoir.

Comics have long focused on fraught father-son relationships, but Bechdel queers this tradition. Fun Home is a non-linear story about her closeted gay father's suicide four months after Bechdel came out as a lesbian. It is also a brilliant study of his mercurial personality and a tragic depiction of his generation's repression of gay identity.

She now lives with her partner and dog near Burlington, Vt., but grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, where her family inherited the local funeral parlour (the "fun home" of her first book).

That Bechdel inherited some of her mother's love of "good writing" is evident in the range of literary references woven throughout. Even more so than in Fun Home, here Bechdel folds in other writers and occasionally reproduces their pages in her panels. She continues to see aspects of her life in the fiction and diaries of Virginia Woolf, but whereas the towering male writer woven through Fun Home is James Joyce, here it is the British child psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott.

Winnicott, who circled the edges of Woolf's Bloomsbury Group, informs Bechdel's self-understanding and becomes the third major character in this mother-daughter memoir. In addition to his illuminating theories of mother-child relationships, Bechdel is drawn to Winnicott himself and imagines scenes from his life at work and at home.

One reason for Bechdel's popularity and acclaim is the richness of her writing and drawing. Her narrative voice carries the complicated structure of the book in beautifully composed reflections that frame the more expository dialogue of the flashback sequences.

Likewise, Bechdel's care with her drawings is evident throughout and this book demands re-reading since the visual details reveal as much as the words.

Are You My Mother? is therefore many things at once: a personal exploration of family history and a literary analysis of the creative process; an introspective autobiography and an imaginative group biography; a heart-wrenching depiction of a difficult maternal relationship; and an ironic, even comic, take on the surprising gifts that come out of this relationship. Ultimately, this inventive and intimate book itself is the most important gift Helen gives her daughter and, for that, readers can be very grateful.

 

Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and comic books in the department of English at the University of Winnipeg.

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