Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I told the clerk at the bookstore my daughter has a book coming out. She asked what it was about, and I said, "Me!" She said she could get me into a witness protection programme."
Bechdel's last book, FUN HOME, was my favourite graphic novel of 2006. It's a literary, autobiographical work about an early Obsessive Compulsive Disorder regarding the truth in Bechdel's childhood diaries, her deceased father's predisposition towards artifice, and her relationship with her father who was secretly gay. Not the best idea, having secrets when your daughter is compelled towards truth. Her mother - still very much alive and with some justification - took exception to the private being made public: the exposure of their family life to her friends and neighbours. They didn't have a tempestuous falling out, but the disapproval was there and was voiced.
So, um, guess what this one's about?
Yup, in her quest to get to heart of all matters - and matters of the heart - Bechdel pursues the truth about her relationship with her mother, the underlying causes behind it and the effect it's had upon Alison's self-esteem and love life, this time with the aid of psychoanalysts' therapy. Extraordinarily, she does so in the full knowledge of her mum who is given access to Bechdel's script in time to comment on it. On that level, at least, I think Ma Bechdel is as forgiving as a saint.
Dr. Mary Talbot, expert in Critical Discourse Analysis and author of DOTTER OF HER FATHER'S EYES (about two daughters' relationships with their fathers) and now SALLY HEATHCOTE, SUFFRAGETTE, had plenty to say but summed one aspect of the book up beautifully with the word "reflexive". It really is, and all the more fascinating for it. That it was ever completed at all, given its method of construction, let alone organised with such clarity and precision is a major miracle of creative instinct and discipline.
"Of course, the point at which I began to write the story is not the same as the point at which the story begins." At the very least!
Visually it's far more exhilarating than FUN HOME, for Bechdel's loosened up on the layouts and lines, replacing the swimming-pool blues and greens with a rich, warmer plum, kicking off each chapter with a single image which bleeds right to the edge opposite a full page of said pleasurable plum, and concluding with a double-page spread with a thick frame of black. And, speaking of discipline, I cannot convey in strong enough terms my respect and appreciation for the trouble Alison has taken to reproduce by hand every map, photo, newspaper clipping and prose quotation rather than throw lazy, incongruous and therefore distracting photocopies at us which would have obliterated my immersion in the work.
Those opening sequences, by the way, are each one of them dreams which Alison and her analyst then proceed to interpret as part of their investigative process which also incorporates childhood, teenage and more recent memories and Bechdel's own research into the infant-based, analytical works of Donald Winnicott and co. And this, I suspect, is where most British critics' heckles will rise so uncontrollably that they'll mistarget their ire, disappointment or disdain. As a stiff-lipped nation we have a low tolerance for psychotherapy, dream analysis and the numerology claptrap so enamoured or even obsessed over by our transatlantic cousins. I know I do. But I wince with worry that readers will take exception to the book, which is brilliant, purely because they have issues with Alison's issues. If I shook my head at some of the conclusions drawn from, say, Alison's third eye in one dream being hit by a stick, there were other instances, like the anxiety nightmare of a timorous growth on her cheek, which struck home; plus I still found the surrounding jigsaw puzzle pieced together over the course of the book to be both fascinating and valid, never mind the wider issues of parenting and childhood.
Both Bechdels are fiercely intelligent and culturally versed women, passionate about books and art. However, instead of sharing their opinions in a conversation mutually appreciative of each others' learning, Bechdel's mother is instead given to pronounce while Alison's predisposition is to rankle. It's produced a certain degree of rivalry which also rears its head as professional jealousy whenever Bechdel hears of the success of others who make a successful career out of being a feminist - and more specifically lesbian - writer or artist. For, let us be clear, Alison Bechdel is very much a 'lesbian' comicbook creator. I'd never define someone by their sexuality but Alison does, as is her right, so there you have it.
For someone who complains about a lack of communication with her mother, you might think it odd that they're on the phone to each other virtually every day. But what actually happens is that Alison phones her mother in the desperate but vain hope of finally hearing some words of approbation, and then her mother talks at her about her own current focus of interest while Alison just sits there, recording and acting as little more than punctuation marks in her mother's self-absorbed discourse.
In keeping with making the private public, then, I can relate to that. On the rare instances my father would venture out of his Cheshire-based comfort zone to the sub-cultured city of Nottingham (once every other year for an hour and never staying over), he would bring with him an envelope; and on the back of that envelope would be detailed notes on the topics he wished to pontificate upon without pause to minimise the risk of discovering anything about my own life. He was a frightened (and so very angry) man, but that particular prospect terrified him, and so I fear it is with Alison and her mother who is far from homophobic but just wishes it wasn't such a public part of Alison's private life - i.e. in her comics.
"You're not going to use your real name, are you? Couldn't you use one of your funny names?"
"That would defeat the purpose!"
"I would love to see your name on a book. But not on a book of lesbian cartoons."
None of those books, by the way, now collected as ESSENTIAL DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR would have likely seen the light of day without Ma Bechdel's unconditional patronage in the form of cheques amounting to $5,200 to support her daughter's creativity in a field she disapproved of. That, folks, is maternal altruism. Doubly unfortunate, then, that Alison's moved into a second field her mother disapproves of: memoir, full of "inaccuracy, exhibitionism, narcissism".
"The self has no place in good writing," declares mother Bechdel. Or has her reaction to the genre been coloured by her inclusion within it? I certainly don't believe it was an act of belligerence on Alison's part as any reading of FUN HOME would make clear, and in any case inaccuracy is an anathema to her.
And so we come to the five A4 pages of notes I wrote while reading the proof copy, not one of which have I used here! "True Self", "False Self", and quotations like, "Patterns are my existence. Everything has significance. Everything must fit. It's enough to drive you crazy." But do you know what? They're not for me to transcribe - let alone remember which pages they came from! - they're for you to make for yourselves, or else why buy and enjoy the book for yourselves?
For the record, I like Ma Bechdel. She had a difficult life you'll discover for yourself, and she has a genuine passion of her own for truth and discovery, even if some of those discoveries are at odds with what she believed:
"Wait, I just read something interesting about memoir, hang on. Are you there?"
"It's by Dorothy Gallagher. "The writer's business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve the story.""
"I know! Family be damned!"
"The story must be served!"
The story, I promise you, is very well served.
FUN HOME's featured writer was Scott Fitzgerald; this one's is Virginia Woolf. Excellent!