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Not so fun book
on 21 June 2012
I was a big fan of Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" when it came out 6 years ago, it was an interesting and insightful memoir about her growing up in a funeral home with a father who was secretly homosexual and would later commit suicide, and then discovering that she was gay as well. It was an excellent book that I would recommend to all comics fans but also readers in general, so I was looking forward to this follow-up, this time the focus supposedly being on her mother. What more revelations could there be? Not many as it turns out, and neither is the book particularly about Bechdel's mum.
The book gets off to an uneasy and rambling start with Bechdel bewailing a lack of clarity when writing this book. It begins with a kind of dream, then segues into the then-present (most of the mum-stuff in the "now" is set circa 2009) before going off on a tangent to Virginia Woolf and then back to her mum in the present. I waited for the book to settle down and expected Bechdel to begin telling her mother's story which she does, in part, in between scenes where she visits a series of therapists talking about her own neuroses, and talking - and quoting at length - psychoanalysts she's been reading.
This isn't really a memoir about her mum, it's only one part of the book. And if we were to look only at that, we wouldn't find much. Her mum went through spells of depression, and it can't have been easy married to a closet-homosexual with a horrible temper, but she just isn't as interesting a person to read about as Bechdel's dad was.
The rest of the book is mostly a mish-mash of anecdotes about psychology. Bechdel writes about various psychologists whose work has had an impact on her life, trying to get a better relationship with her mum and helping her through her tangled web of relationships with other lesbians and this part of the book, repeatedly returned to, is by far the most tedious to read. She doesn't write about them as much as she copies out entire passages from their books, highlighting sentences here and there. Unless you have an interest in psychology - and I don't - this part of the book is just dully academic to read.
She also writes about Virginia Woolf at length, quoting "To The Lighthouse" frequently, and I have to say after reading "Mrs Dalloway" a couple of years ago, I'm no fan of Woolf. I found when Bechdel began quoting Woolf at length, coupled with the psychology textbook copy and pasting, that I was becoming even more uninterested in this book.
So besides the psychobabble textbook quoting, the Woolf stuff, more psychobabble in the therapist scenes, and a look at her mother's fairly ordinary life, what's left? Not much I'm afraid. The structure is very wobbly, the scenes merging strangely with no real idea of what the whole is supposed to be. It's not much fun to read and boy is it long at nearly 300 pages, made longer with the extensive psychology passages. By the end I was just glad to get it over with.
Bechdel's art is great, but the writing needed some serious editing as it's meandering, tangential narrative is too unclear as to what it's supposed to be. It started out as a look at her mum's life and wound up being about Bechdel's own, frankly overblown (as Chris Rock calls them "white people problems") neurotic sensibilities and it's not much fun to read about her figuring them out. It doesn't feel like it's worth an entire book and "Are You My Mother?" is, in the end, a very weak follow-up to "Fun Home" containing far too much intellectual posturing and not enough substance. Not a great read though I'm sure psychology students will probably love it to bits.