The graphic “novel” may be the ideal form for memoir. On the one hand, it offers immediacy, a fusing of reading time and narrative time: We can experience an epiphany at the same moment as the character in the frame, who may break suddenly into a wide-eyed look of surprise. On the other hand, it makes room for a polyphony of time and space and story: The text on a page may be paired with drawings of something else entirely, creating a visual metaphor or, in more discordant cases, mirroring the way the mind can think and feel multiple things simultaneously. And elaborate two-page spreads can foster a suspended momentum, an eddying of time. Even a not particularly dramatic journey of self-discovery can become, in a well-constructed comic, a richly enveloping world.
Comic artist Alison Bechdel achieves this transformation in Are You My Mother?, the follow-up to her addictive and nearly flawless 2007 memoir, Fun Home. That book was about her father, and this one is about her mother. Yet the two projects are far from parallel. Her father’s life had the ready-made arc of a story—from his frequent rages during Alison’s childhood, through his secret affairs with young men, and ending with his apparent suicide. Even though Fun Home was organized by theme rather than chronology, and circled back on itself repeatedly, the book felt somehow linear. As in Moby-Dick, the story’s vector was enormous enough to accommodate a great deal of digressing and spiraling without the central story ever being lost.
Are You My Mother?’s central story follows Bechdel—or let’s say Alison, the narrator who writes herself writing and frames herself framing—on her quest to come to terms with her intelligent, competitive mother, and to write a book about their relationship. “Narrative is what they want,” the mother, Helen, counsels. But narrative can be hard to come by. “Perhaps the real problem with this memoir about my mother is that it has no beginning,” Bechdel writes at the outset. Nearly three hundred pages later: “The story has no end.” In the terrain between lies a magnificent rat’s nest woven out of not only Helen’s life story but Alison’s own romantic history, D. W. Winnicott’s and Alice Miller’s psychoanalytic theories, a pair of insightful therapists, and the works of Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich. The plot, such as it is, centers less on Helen’s biography than on Alison’s work with her therapists, her ongoing research into Winnicott’s thought and career, the dissolution of her first serious relationship decades earlier, and daily mother-daughter telephone calls during the writing of Fun Home and the new book. Under different conditions, Helen’s story could likely have been crafted into a magnetic through line, furnishing the narrative Alison at first seeks. After all, Helen is a funny, well-read, strong-willed woman who has made sacrifices (she put her acting career on the back burner to raise her family) and endured traumas (her husband’s secret sexuality and his violent death, of course, as well as her parents’ deaths within weeks of each other). But she is a resistant subject, apparently loath to be interviewed (Alison resorts to secretly transcribing their phone calls) and fiercely suspicious of memoir—“The self has no place in good writing,” she tells her memoirist daughter, with casual cruelty—which hinders Alison’s ability to coax a white whale from these deeps.
Helen, it seems, has been clipping her daughter’s wings for a long time. When Alison is in her twenties, she sends a bit of memoir writing to her mother, who admits to being jealous before riddling the page with rigorous edits. Alison swears off memoir for seventeen years and switches to drawing Dykes to Watch Out For, a brilliant comic about a group of lesbian friends. Like bad housing loans distributed in fragments among mortgage-backed securities, Alison’s “bad” writing self is spread out across the multiple characters of the strip, which was widely syndicated in the gay press in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet even this defense, and the success it brings, do not win Helen’s approval. “I would love to see your name on a book,” she says to Alison, “but not on a book of lesbian cartoons.”
Two decades later, reading Woolf’s diaries, Alison learns that the novelist, obsessed with her own mother for years, finally felt free after writing To the Lighthouse. Encouraged, Alison sets out to write her own Lighthouse, and ends up mirroring its technique. Her stream of consciousness is not as pervasively dreamlike or lyrical as Woolf’s: Every chapter here opens with a dream recalled, yet even these are told mostly within the set structure of the cartoon frame. And objectivity is courted through the myriad sources—newspapers, photographs, maps, telephone transcripts—that are painstakingly reproduced by hand. Overall, though, the book is organized according to the principle of free association, which plays out in spectacularly layered form. For instance: When Alison first comes across Winnicott’s name in Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child, she assumes the analyst is a woman, because the ideas cited are so nurturing. Plus, “Winnicott” reminds her of the girls’ name “Winnie.” This leads to a page-long exploration of Winnie the Pooh, conducted in tandem with an exegesis on Winnicott’s idea of the transitional object—the beloved binkie, teddy bear, or bedtime ritual that occupies, in Bechdel’s words, “the space between me and not-me.” The brief lesson on Winnicott is paired with a frame-by-frame zoom-in on the famous A. A. Milne drawing of Christopher Robin dragging a stuffed bear down a staircase by its paw: At the end of the page, our view is close to the point of contact where the boy’s hand grips the bear. On the following page, as Alison walks her dog at night, a cone of light from a streetlamp illumines her grip on the leash.
It’s through such exquisite visual rhymes and riffs that Are You My Mother? knits together its many strands, with profoundly pleasurable results. Psychoanalysis, Alison explains early on, “is in no hurry to get to the bottom of things,” and this book similarly eschews easy epiphanies and facile conclusions. Instead it imprints, magnificently, a curious mind’s quest to know itself.