Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sophomore Jinx: Are You My Mother

Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
Are You My  Mother, out this week in softcover, is Alison Bechdel's shockingly dreadful follow-up to her previous memoir Fun Home.

Fun Home, published in 2006, widely praised and deservedly so, is a masterpiece of graphic memoir. An astonishing piece of literature, it was smarter, deeper, more incisive and perceptive than almost anything I've ever read and it can safely be called one of the Greatest Comics Of All Time. In it she recounts her childhood and her coming of age (and coming out) against the backdrop of her somewhat unusual upbringing with a big focus on her relationship with her father. The art is finely detailed, her prose richly allusive and vibrant, her storytelling engaging and sophisticated. This is one of comics' most important works, a piece that will be looked at as one of the gold standards of both autobiography and non-fiction graphic novels for years to come.

Every amazing thing that Fun Home is, Are You My Mother is not. It is dull, whiny, frankly insufferable. Once I started it, I resented having to finish it. The memoir aspects are thin and repetitive, often covering material already vividly and memorably portrayed in Fun Home. Indeed the amount of times she references Fun Home (the actual comic as much as the material already covered in it) should be a big red flag. It's an unenviable task to follow up such a well regarded masterpiece, but you do yourself no favors by constantly reminding your audience about it. I repeatedly found myself in the position of wishing Are You My Mother was even just a fraction of the book Fun Home was, and repeatedly being disappointed, page after page.

Is it unfair to Bechdel to hold Are You My Mother to Fun Home's standards? Possibly, but I'd like to think I approached the work as its own piece. And as its own piece it is a failure. Too much of the book is bogged down in the psychosocial history of what being a mother is, focusing vast swaths of the work on notable psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (and others). Where even Fun Home's most obscure allusions and references were apt and varied and fascinating, all this philosophizing is really, really boring. Her relationship with her mother - the work's ostensible raison d'ĂȘtre - isn't any more interesting, a pretty big problem. Her art also seems to have devolved, perhaps focusing more on digital techniques rather than her own assured fine line of Fun Home (but that's an assumption on my part - point is the art ain't as good either). And the parts about her experience in therapy, whining and about as incisive as a butter knife, almost made me put down the book permanently. I wish I had.

I know my views here go against the critical consensus for this book, but this is honestly an awful, regrettable, boring work. It certainly has the veneer of Importance and Crossover Success, but junk is junk. And while I cannot recommend Fun Home enough, I cannot more vehemently recommend avoiding this at all costs.

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