Page 45 Review by Stephen
"My parents are most real to me in fictional terms."
As telling sentences goes, that's a corker.
Welcome to one of the most literate autobiographies in comics, as well as one of the most fascinating, candid and revealing, in which Bechdel first sets out her dysfunctional family life in all its bizarre artifice before intertwining her personal development with her father's past to explore what might lie at the heart of each.
Linguistically it's impressive, structurally it is remarkable, whilst visually it is a comicbook triumph. Bechdel has accomplished the most sublime fusion of word and picture, the latter elaborating on the former with no break whatsoever in the narrative flow. Whether it's an interior room, a map, a diary page or a revealing argument in the background, each serves its narrative function smoothly, enjoyably and attractively. Her penmanship is faultless, the brushed colouring a soft shade of warm bluey-grey reminiscent of Seth. For such a contemplative book, it's such an astonishingly attractive read.
One of the book's central themes, appropriately enough for an autobiography, is truth versus fabrication. Artifice rears its gabled head everywhere here, be it the fudging of her own diaries in order to hide or misdirect, or the extraordinary lengths her father went to in order to gentrify their home, spending hours fashioning exterior awnings with his own bare hands, or embellishing the interior into a gaudy clutter of false gentility. So Bechdel begins on the surface...
"My father could spin garbage into gold... He was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of decor. For if my father was Icarus, he was also Daedalus -- that skillful artificer, that mad scientist who built the wings for his son and designed the famous labyrinth... and who answered not to the laws of society, but to those of his craft. Historical restoration wasn't his job. It was his passion. And I mean passion in every sense of the word. Libidinal. Manic. Martyred."
...and then starts to scratch:
"Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. A sort of still life with children."
In so many ways, Alison seemed to be the antithesis of her father:
"I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture. My own decided preference for the unadorned and purely functional emerged early. I was Spartan to my father's Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his Nelly. Utilitarian to his aesthete. I developed a contempt for useless ornament. What function was served by the scrolls, tassels, and bric-a-brac that infested our house? If anything, they obscured function. They were embellishments in the worst sense. They were lies."
And what lay beneath those lies? This is when Bechdel then just comes out with it. No sensation, no prevarication, so it may give you whiplash.
"My father began to seem morally suspect to me long before I knew that he actually had a dark secret [he's shown employing a bronzing stick on his face]. He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not. ["Mass will be over before we get there," her mother chides her father as he takes a family photo in front of their home's facade]. That is to say, impeccable. He appeared to be an ideal husband and father, for example. But would an ideal husband and father have sex with teenage boys?"
In spite of the events Bechdel records throughout the family history - for a start, her father's arrest - she remained blissfully unaware of her father's predilections until she herself came out as gay. Indeed it was that abrupt announcement to her family that provoked the disclosure, with her father - for all his secrecy - then making strangely encouraging noises and even more strangely sympathetic and confessional disclosures, all with the same intellectual detachment that pervades this book, and which the pair of them are shown to share.
Its heart is Alison's exploration of how it all came to this: her father's history, and her own development.
An ex-soldier who'd become obsessed with Fitzgerald (hence the Gatsbyan gentrification, perhaps), he was forced by circumstances - in spite of European aspirations - to settle down with his wife in an American town so remote its population numbered 800 souls, and so confined by ridges longer than Hadrian's Wall that there were 26 Bechdel families in the phone book. There he took over the family funeral business following the death of his own father, and took a job as a part-time teacher. "Thwarted" is a word one might apply to both Bechdel's parents, and conformity versus freedom is always going to a subject up for discussion when it comes to sexuality.
As to Alison herself, growing up for a while in the funeral parlour gave her a cavalier attitude to death (at a graveside: "Can I get in?"), and it's difficult to tell whether it was more that or her father's arctic exterior which led to the muted way she received news of his surmised suicide. Perhaps the most engrossing of chapters, however, is the one in which she lays bare her childhood obsessive-compulsive disorder, which would make this an affecting and vital read in and of itself:
"Crossing thresholds became a time-consuming procedure since I had to tabulate the number of edges of flooring I saw there. If these failed to add up to an even number, I'd include another subdivision, perhaps the small grooves in the metal strip. Then came the invisible substance that hung in doorways, and that, I soon realised, hung like swabs on drapery between all solid objects. This had to be gathered and dispersed constantly, to keep it away from my body -- to avoid in particular inhaling or swallowing it....
"At the end of the day, if I undressed in the wrong order, I had to put my clothes back on and start again. It took several painstaking minutes to line up my shoes exactly, so as to show neither once preference (the left one was my father, the right one was my mother). No matter how tired I was after all this, I had to kiss each of my stuffed animals -- and not just in a perfunctory way. Then I'd bring one of the three bears to bed with me, alternating nightly between mother, father, and baby. Though it verges on the bathetic, I should point out that no one had kissed me good night in years."
There's a significant passage in which Bechdel once more returns to the notion of fabrication:
"Then there's my own compulsive propensity to autobiography. At some point during my obsessive-compulsive spell, I began a diary. Dad gave me a wall calendar from one of his vendors to write in, a curious memento mori. And appropriately enough, my first entry was made on that movable feast of mortality, Ash Wednesday. Actually, the first three words are in my father's handwriting, as if he were giving me a false start. "Just write down what's happening."
"The entries proceed blandly enough... But in April, the minutely-lettered phrase "I think" begins to crop up between my comments. "I finished <I think> The Cabin Island Mystery. Dad ordered 10 reams of paper! <I think> We watched The Brady Bunch. I made popcorn. <I think> There is popcorn left over..."
"It was a sort of epistemological crisis. How did I know that the things I was writing there were absolutely, objectively true? All I could speak for was my own perceptions, and perhaps not even those. My simple, declarative sentences began to strike me as hubristic at best, utter lies at worst."
Taken to that extreme such soul searching is self-defeating, yet as a basic starting point for any work of non-fiction - be it history, biography or autobiography - it's an invaluable insight from which to proceed, either as author or audience.
I have no idea how this will be received as Page 45's Comicbook of the Month, but if Bechdel has had the courage to air such personal matters in public, and done so with such skill and humility, none of us here are going to shy from promoting the book simply because the subject matter is still considered uncomfortable by some. I suppose I could add the caveat that there are "scenes of a sexual nature" and you can run away screaming if you want. More useful, surely, would be information that it is riddled with "scenes of remarkable insight" linked and expounded upon with a degree of sophistication rare in any medium.
There's a long history of "father and son", "mother and daughter" or indeed any combination of such relationship coming-of-age stories, but few for me have been this fascinating. There is of course a very old one, which Bechdel returns to again and again, but with a different perspective:
"Was Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea? Or just disappointed by the design failure?"