Virginia Woolf wrote that she wanted to go beyond the “formal railway line of sentence” to depict how people actually feel, dream and think — “all over the place.” Bechdel is so associated with her material — her father’s possible suicide; her coming-out story, which she juxtaposed in “Fun Home” with her father’s furtive affairs with men — that her artistic and technical ambitions are often overlooked. Like Woolf, she is preoccupied with depicting the texture of thought and memory — their ambushes and heretical swerves.
She is always annotating the very story she is telling, a metacommentary that the graphic form seems to invite. (Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” is an important influence.) In her crowded, clamorous frames, the mind is portrayed as a womb, a warmly cluttered studio, library stacks, a dungeon. “Are You My Mother?” begins with her anticipating telling her mother that she is writing a book about their family — the book that would become “Fun Home.” In captions, she comments on the difficulty of writing this section: “The real problem with this memoir about my mother is that it has no beginning.”
The real problem of this new memoir is stranger: How does a writer so fond of depicting thought and argument, dreams and recursive therapy sessions depict what lies beyond the mind? How does a writer with such an intricate visual and narrative style unravel her attraction to exertion and difficulty?
Bechdel writes that fear of falling made her a rigid skier. She began practicing falling, then letting go at full speed: “Instantly I began to ski with a new and liquid ease.” It’s that accumulating ease we feel in this book — a supple, loose-limbed grace; an absence of fear that translates into simplicity, discipline and modesty. Ten years ago, Bechdel might have expanded her story into a sprawling cultural history of exercise and self-improvement in America. (I half suspect there was once such a draft — part of me wants it still.) What we have instead feels culled, distilled, full of mountainscapes, waterfalls, silences.
There are admissions here about drinking too much, using sleeping pills, learning to combine drinking and pills. The real recovery memoir aspect, however, has to do with shedding a harrowing artistic process. Bechdel has said that she experienced the painstaking work of memory upon which her books are based as a kind of penance — she recreated her childhood home down to the wallpaper designs and transcribed her parents’ love letters.
Penance but also preservation. I think of the novels of Yiyun Li that feel like collaborations with the dead, long contentious arguments to keep them alive, keep them close.
After writing “To the Lighthouse,” Woolf wrote that she was no longer haunted by her mother. Bechdel has devoted a book to each of her parents and outlived them both. She works in color now. Her parents are small presences in this book, and shockingly benign. It is her own mortality she turns to, and all the questions that work and exercise have helped her evade. “The only thing to transcend is the idea that there’s something to transcend,” she says at the book’s conclusion, standing in the snow with Taylor. “Onward to the grave!” But her posture doesn’t suggest resignation. She looks up, registering a bird on a high branch. Her head is bared to the winter sky, cocked a bit as if to say, “Now what?”