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Fun Home is one of my favourite books, which will come as a surprise to absolutely no one. It’s a deeply introspective graphic memoir about books, coming out, and lesbian books. What’s not to like? While Fun Home is suffused with literature references, though, Are You My Mother? is equally concerned with psychoanalysis, which was a lot harder for me to relate to. In Bechdel’s newest graphic novel, she examines her life-long love affair with various exercise phases with references to transcendentalists and Buddhism.
There’s something comforting and familiar to me about reading an Alison Bechdel book. Her thoughtful introspection and constant ruminating about how best to live in this world feels like a mind I can relate to. While her previous graphic memoirs focused on her father and her mother, this one takes a long range look at exercise as a coping mechanism through her whole life, separated into decades. As a child, she saw an ad in a comic book that promised the “secret to superhuman strength.” It turned out to only be an inaccessible Jiu Jitsu pamphlet, but she continues to look for this secret her whole life: through running, karate, skiing, cycling, yoga, and more–always in the hopes of escaping the inevitable conclusion that she is interdependent and mortal.
Alongside this journey of physical transformation–always looking for more strength and inexhaustible endurance–Bechdel also goes on a spiritual exploration of the self. She tries to grapple with this question by looking at artists and writers through history, including Jack Kerouac, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Perhaps the appeal of these exercise regiments, though, is that she can track notable changes, while the psychological and spiritual journey feels more like one step forward and two steps back. In one striking panel, Bechdel realizes she only though she’d been dealing well with her father’s death because she hadn’t dealt with it at all; she hadn’t allowed herself to feel anything. She approaches fitness and her work with the same intensity, damaging her body and her relationships in the process.
Aside from following the fitness fads Bechdel has participated in over the years, this is primarily a story about yearning, a striving for transcendence, for finding the secret to living well. It’s about not just physical strength, but also the emotional endurance necessary to be human. It’s about looking for the secret of how to best live–so there’s no real neat conclusion possible. This is a story still in progress.
I didn’t feel the same way about The Secret To Superhuman Strength as Fun Home, but that’s an impossible hurdle to clear. I did connect more to this than Are You My Mother?, despite being as far from a fitness fan as possible. I also appreciated being to able to get a wider scope of Bechdel’s life, including how the publication of her graphic memoirs (especially Fun Home) changed her everyday reality. It’s at times painful to read, because I feel so much sympathy for her, but that just shows how effective it is.