Monday, 23 July 2012

Books: Are You My Mother?


Are You My Mother? 
By Alison Bechdel

Available now from Islington Libraries
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Everyone likes at least one M.I.A. song right? Paper Planes? Galang? Amazon? Ok - whatever. The point is her first album - Arular - takes its title from the political code name employed by M.I.A.'s father, Arul Pragasam [1] while her second album - Kala - is named after her mum (and blah blah - both albums apparently reflect each parent's life and the themes permutate the music blah blah blah): well - it seems like Alison Bechdel's thoughts run in much the same way - after produced her long-running strip Dykes to Watch Out For for over 20 years she finally branched out into "proper" graphic-novel-dom with her critically acclaimed book Fun Home back in 2006 which mainly dealt with her recollections of her father - Bruce Bechdel and so - now comes Are You My Mother? which - well - you work it out...

So instead of writing about her Dad she's writing about her Mum - when I first found out that's what the pitch was I kinda shrugged. I mean - you see little glimpses of her Mum in Fun Home - but there was nothing in those glances that made it seem like she deserved or needed (or whatever the word is) her own complete book - I mean - yeah - she was an actress and there were some unfulfilled dreams and everything but - well (and I guess this isn't surprising when you read a book where her relationship with her Dad is literally the whole story) but it seemed like - her relationship with her Dad was her whole story and that her Mum was just the other person that happened to be around [2].

But that's an error. In fact - while Fun Home was a (still kinda daunting) 240 pages Are You My Mother? (do I have to put in that question mark every time? I guess so...) is  289 pages (which damnit isn't as impressive as I thought it would be before I checked the page lengths but I guess the point I wanted to make is that it feels somehow much longer and more expansive - like I thought it was going to be 350 pages or something like that). Instead of blues and greens this time Bechdel is using reds and pinks and browns (I don't know how much to read into that - maybe it's because - her issues with her Dad were more subdued and simmering - while with her Mum - it's more all more alive and lively or something - or hell: maybe she just liked the way it looked?).  The other notable change for me - is that while Fun Home (as good as it is) came across in parts as being a little bit - well - pretentious (not that I have anything against long words - but damn she sure used a lot of long words) - Are You My Mother is a bit more relaxed about the language it uses [3] and doesn't feel like it has to struggle so much to put on a show and be - well - ostentatious about things [4]. Plus (altho this is left unsaid - but gives the whole book a lingering feeling of illicit electricity): writing about someone who's dead is much easier than writing about someone who's still living - and yeah - her ongoing relationship with her mother (and her mother's reactions to the things she writes - Fun Home and Are You My Mother?) gives the book a pulse and feeling of danger that wasn't in Fun Home. The past book was more a clinical autopsy - while this is more like surgery undertaken when the patient is still wide awake.  

Still - apart from all that - what's the book about? What's it like?

Well... let me try and explain with some examples (hold on): I think I've already mentioned on his blog that there was a time way back when - when I used to work in a mental hospital library and (because there was nothing else to do) I spent a big fat dollop of time there playing around on the internet and one of the things I found there was a brilliant music webzine (is that still what we're calling them?) called Stylus Magazine (now since defunct: (wipes away tear)) and - particularly a writer called Nick Southall - who was amazing [5]. The thing that I used to love about him (and if I'd seen that he'd written a new review - I'd wait until I'd made a cup of tea and had some biscuits before I read him - seeing how it was like - you know - a proper treat and all that) is that when he reviewed an album - he wouldn't just go - this is a band who are like this and this is their PR bumpf and this track is good and sounds like this - this other track is alright and blah yadda etc - but rather he would - I dunno what the best way to say this is - but he would make a connection with something in his own life or with a particular thought or something that would illuminate things in some way and make them - gah - make stuff meaningful or whatever (I'm sorry - I'm English - so of course it's very difficult for me to try and write in a sincere way about things which are important to me and touch me in a dopey emotional way - it's just not in my nature - stiff upper lip and all that: tally ho!). And so - even if he was writing about a band that I had never heard of or an album that I never intended to listen to or whatever [6] - it would still be totally worth reading [7]. And the thing I took from that and what I've tried to do - in a very slipshod way admittedly - is to write about the books on this blog in such a way that - if someone was so inclined - they could still read the things I've written about all these bloody comic books - and still get something out of it - even if they had never read them or never planned to read them or whatever (something I've failed to do much more than I've managed to do - but still) [8].      

To try and cash this out: what this means and what I'm trying to say is that: if you're going to properly review something (or whatever other word you want to substitue for "review" - "analyse" "talk" "understand") then - well - there's this sort of equation that you need to fill in: you can't just describe the thing (so: as we're talking about comic books: that would be just to say: this is the writer, this is the artists - this is the plot - and I give it 8 marks out of 10) but rather: you've got to (if you want to make what you're writing "good" or (hopefully hopefully: even if it's a bit much to ask for) "meaningful") fill in the space of your reaction - and describe what it links up to - or what associations it draws up and all that (in fact - maybe just read [8] seeing how Mr Southall says it all much better than me: even if he is talking about music).  With me so far? Well - for Alison Bechdel who - well (no duh) - isn't writing a blog but a book - and who isn't writing about something that someone else has created (an album or a comic or whatever) but well - not to put too fine of a point on it - but someone who created her that little equation is squared and blown up to the power of infinity: as in order for her to try and describe who or what or how (whichever option you want) her mum is - she also needs to also try and describe her reaction to that as well (otherwises it's just boring old describing - and no one wants that [9]) and so: who and what and how she is which - well - obviously - only leads to a dizzying recursive loop [10]. (Not that that's the only recursive loop in town: Taking about her mum (and the fact that she throws away her journals) Bechdel says it feels "as if she is comparing her own selflessness to my self-absorption. But of course that's just evidence of my self-absorption." - oh boy). So - in trying to a get a hold of and pin down her mum - she also has to try and understand and pin down herself. Does that make sense? 

And if it sounds like I'm making too much of all of this - I'll mention here that the book is evenly divided between her mum and her therapy (in fact: a good alternative title would have been: Are You My Therapist?)  and that the journey of the whole book is - in a sense - to reach a some sort of an understanding of both her mum and herself. And like she says: "Analysis is in no hurry to get to the bottom of things. Therapy is usually a shorter term proposition, more focused on symptom relief."[11]: which doubles as a secret manifesto for the book itself - it's not just there to make you (or her) feel better - it's more about churning things around and seeing what floats to the top - and then taking those things and matching them with other things: there's one point where she gets a letter from her mum where she says: "Patterns are my existence. Everything has significance. Everything must fit. It's enough to drive you crazy." (To which Bechdel responds in her narration by saying: "This search for meaningful patterns may very well be crazy, but to be enlisted with her in it thrills me. "Why do you and I do that?" I am carrying on her mission.") This is pretty much the crux of the whole book - indeed (if you were so disposed to say so - altho it does sound a bit much) the crux of human existence - looking for patterns and making order where there isn't any [12]. 

And just in case you're thinking - well - surely we could have got all this from just reading a book (a proper one - with no pictures) [13]? The I should say that this is all entwined perfectly with the pictures. In fact - special mention must go to the one part where your attention gets directed to three different places at once - the image of the scene - plus an unseen voice coming from inside - plus the narration covering both of those with insights from Donald Winnicott (a major player): having your consciousness sliced over in three ways is a strange experience - like trying to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time. I mean - it's thematically linked to all the other stuff - but it's still a virtuoso performance (and pretty cool). Plus - and I'm gonna struggle to get this down - so - apologises - but one of the thoughts that struck me as I read this was her now almost trademark (she does it a lot in Fun Home too) use of interspersing the images with parts of highlighted text [14] from letters from her mum and the work of Donald Winnicott, Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, etc. Of course mostly this just shows how attached she is to the written word (and like I said before - it makes sense that she gets a lot of love from the literati seeing how indebted she is to novels and stuff) but the thing that I noticed is how - even tho she's writing what is - still essentially a book (you know - it has pages and stuff) - when she quotes from other people - it feels like she has the upper hand. That she can show you the world in three dimensions - while typical novelists can only give you the words. I'm not trying to say that comics are better than novels here (because - hey - that's silly and is a bit like trying to compare apples and oranges [15] and blah blah blah) but that Bechdel by placing one inside the other manages to kinda caption off the stronger text ("stronger" in that: in our culture thus far - Virginia Woolf means much more and has more - I dunno - import - than a mere comic book (with the exception of maybe Watchmen? [16])) and so manages to stay in charge. If I saw the same thing happening in a novel (with bits of the text from other books inserted inbetween the lines the author had written) the line of demarcation would be (obviously) much less clear and it would be harder to shift the feeling that you were reading something that had been - well - cut and pasted. But Bechdel (and it helps that she actually draws each letter so that we're not just looking at text - but a picture of text - but then - lordy - what's the difference right? "This is not a pipe" and all that [17]) manages to assert a sort of authorial dominance by subsuming other people's words into her comic book world. 

It's not a perfect book. Reading it the first time round (and who knows maybe my mind will change the next time I read it?) I thought that the ending was a little - well - unsatisfying. Especially compared to the way Fun Home wrapped up in an almost symphonic fashion (with different variations of ideas building on top of each other: the closet comparison I can think of in how it made me feel is (however wanky this may be) that track on Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks album An Ending (Ascent) [18]) - but then it's easier to achieve some small sense of - well - let's use the appropriate term - closure - with a dead person than someone who you're continuing to have a relationship with (also - and I mean this in a good way - it really felt like it was a book that could have gone on forever - and so probably any ending was always going to feel a little abrupt - like wrapping something in a box and putting a bow on it - even tho it's still growing and changing shape). But for anyone interested in - well - making connections and trying to understand (is this too much? I dunno) how life works - then this is a book that you should check out. Gloria Steinem (on the back cover) [19] describes it (and I love this) as "...sort of like a comic book by Virginia Woolf"or The Guardian (even better!) call her: "a sort of lesbian Woody Allen." But however you want to phrase it: this is the real deal. Not just entertainment - but in it's own strange, awkward way: enlightenment (or as close as we're likely to get). 

[1] This is great: "After she returned to the UK, aged 10, Maya heard nothing from her dad, until she summoned him back into her life by calling her first album Arular. "I thought that if he Googled himself, he'd get my LP and then he'd get in touch." The tactic worked, but their relationship is still fraught." (from this article)

[2] And this is all kinda flipped in Are You My Mother - as we only see little tiny glimpses of her father - which is kinda strange: like seeing a ghost from a TV show on another channel - and I wouldn't be surprised if anyone who read this book first would think - gosh - how on earth could she write a whole book about him?

[3] Altho to say that Are You My Mother? is a bit more relaxed about language seeing how - in a sense - it's all about language (Er-zatz or Er-zatz?) and the stresses it can cause (communication and the lack of it: blah blah blah) - but hell - hopefully you know what I mean. 

[4] Well - at the start at least - before it starts going into the psychological jargon (and I'll admit that I had to look up "Cathexis" - and if you don't know what that is - I'd say that you should too). But then it's not pretentious if you're using the long words because you need to - rather than just showing off (maybe you should look up the definition of pretentious if you don't know what I'm talking about... ha!)

[5] In fact - is still amazing and blogs under the name Sick Mouthy (Read him! he's very very good).

[6] And hmmmm - what is the right criteria here? Do people only read reviews of things they love or of things they hate or what? I tend to try and read everything so I'm not best placed to say.

[7] And hell - as we're talking about that kind of thing - can I link you to Pitchfork's review of At the Drive-In's Relationship of Command (quote: "The following is a partial transcript from the third and final debate between Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush and Democratic Candidate Al Gore.") (And if you're wondering why Pitchfork is no longer that good then you should read this n+1 article by Richard Beck: 5.4 Pitchfork, 1995–present (Personally I would have called it 6.8 - but whatever).

[8] Which was going to be the point where I quoted some Nick Southall. One of the lines that has really stuck with me over the years was one from his take on Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to The Head: "They don’t smack so much of the bedroom to me as the kitchen, people half-sighing as they dry the dishes and wait for their pasta to boil, rather than frantically, desperately miserable adolescents cursing their own birth." But then reading over the review again - I realise that he makes some remarks which are pretty pertinent here: "There is a weight of responsibility to the music writer, then, to account for themselves. I don’t think it’s acceptable (in most circumstances) to simply say “I like something” or “I dislike something”; I think you owe it to the people reading to extrapolate on why you feel the way you do, to help them hear a record the way you do so they can get something out of it too. And sometimes you owe it to yourself (and the readers) to explain something, to capture an idea, to draw links between things, to try and contribute holistic lines to the huge Venn/spider diagram of our culture. It’s not about just being a buying guide, about trying to offer a definitive statement, an objective truth (no such thing exists) about a record. It’s about trying to capture the feelings and thoughts that make you love a song or a hook or a turn of phrase or a sound. And it’s also about giving reasons why not when you can. And that’s what I’m doing now. Too often a review is written quickly, too often a record isn’t given time, because the barrage of stuff (asked for and unasked for) is too much, and sometimes one simply wants to listen to music because one loves it and not because one has to deal with it."

[9] That would just be a book that went: My Mum is a nice lady. She used to do acting in the plays. She liked to wear the pretty dresses. etc (Spoken in a voice like a child reading their homework out loud in front of the class - you know - like The Streets). And - oh god - can you imagine how boring that would be? In fact - you don't really need to. My literary flatmate (the one who likes to read the books that don't have any pictures in (ha - what a chump)) asked me what it was that I was writing. And I was like: oh it's called Are You My Mother? it's like a memoir and stuff - and he was like - oh: are you writing about how much you hate it? He's just started to read this blog (and in fact - he even helped me out a bit by pointing out bits where I've said stuff that I didn't mean to - so thanks literary flatmate!) and he recently read the thing I wrote about Make Me A Woman by Vanessa Davis which - yeah - I totally hated. And his take on the whole thing is kinda similar to mine (even tho he hasn't read Make Me A Woman or Are You My Mother? or Fun Home or Blankets or any comic memoir really) in that - well - who would want to read a memoir? It's just someone recounting bits of their life - and who wants to spend their time reading that? And I guess that's the point of why I've writing all this and what I'm trying to get at - it's that Are You My Mother? is not just a memoir and is not just recounting moments in her life - it's more like someone using the bits of their life as fuel to talk about other things. To use a life (her life, her mum's life) as a starting point - and then taking things from there. In fact there's a bit in the book where she says this almost overtly when speaking to her mother she says: "Yeah, but don't you think that... that if you write minutely and rigorously  enough about your own life... you can, you know, transcend your particular self." And man at this point (to steal a move from the book): I still can't work out how to get A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in here - but I just want to say - that that was the first book that showed me (I read it soon after it first came out - and yeah - I think a part of that was something to do with it's amazing title) that people speaking about their lives didn't have to be boring and - in fact - could create some of the best writing out there. But - then yeah - no duh. 

[10] Oh - and saying that just makes me want to go and reread Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid again. But that's another story (and not a comic book - so probably not something I'll ever really get around to writing about - ho hum).

[11] And speaking of Analysis and Therapy - ladies and gentlemen I give you: Dr. Tobias Funke.

[12] Here's a cool word that I've just discovered: "Pareidolia". "A psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse.The word comes from the Greek words para (παρά, "beside, alongside, instead") in this context meaning something faulty, wrong, instead of; and the noun eidōlon (εἴδωλον "image, form, shape") the diminutive of eidos. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia." (see here for more).

[13] Although if that's the way you're feeling - maybe you're reading the wrong blog?

[14] Which created yet another doubling effect through the fact (as you can probably tell from how much stuff I've written down here) that I decided to take this post a little more seriously than I normally do - and so wrote down notes as I read it (look how seriously I'm taking all of this) - so kinda ended up highlighting bits of the book (note: not actually highlighting obviously - goddamn - it's a library book!).

[15] Altho - in my mind - that's a cliche that's now been forever linked in my mind with The Thick of It:
Quote: "It's not my role to have a preference - I sell the apples. If you want me to sell the apples, I'll sell the apples. But if you want me to sell oranges, then I'll go and tell people that the apples, the apples are shit Olly, they're shit - I'll say go on, check out our oranges."

[16] That's a joke. I think. I dunno.

[17] And this would be the point that if you wanna read more about that sort of stuff - you should try out: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

[18] Which you may recognise from the following places (deep breath): TV - James May on the Moon - opening sequence / TV - Chris Morris's surreal TV comedy series Jam / TV - American drama Nip/Tuck, in numerous episodes / TV - Ouroboros, an episode of the British comedy series Red Dwarf / TV - Top Gear (Series 7 Episode 3), as the presenters drove supercars to the Millau Viaduct / TV - Top Gear (Series 13 Episode 7), during the final sequence of the series and closing credits as Jeremy drives the Aston Martin Vantage V12 / TV - Dan Cruickshank's documentary Cruickshank on Kew: The Garden That Changed the World / TV - 2010 Party political broadcast by the Liberal Democrats for the United Kingdom general election, 2010 / TV - Home, the final episode of the British comedy/drama series Love Soup / TV advertisement - for the PlayStation 3 / TV advertisement - for the NSPCC Liberal Democrat party political broadcast / Film soundtrack - Drive (2011) / Film soundtrack - Traffic (2000) / Film soundtrack - Ghosts of Cité Soleil (2006) / Film soundtrack - 28 Days Later (2002) / Film soundtrack - Clean (2004) / Game soundtrack - Thief II: The Metal Age, Mission "Trail of Blood" / Cover - Arturo Stalteri, on his 2001 album Cool August Moon / Cartoon - David Firth's cartoon Milkman / Sample - Used in Frou Frou's song "Hear Me Out" from the album Details / Sample - Used in Burial's song "Forgive" from the album Burial / Portion - The song was used by Coldplay in the lead up to the beginning of the first song, Politik, whenever they played live on their A Rush of Blood to the Head Tour. The tune cut out the moment Politik began. / Radio - This American Life - Used in the episode "Prom" broadcast April 29, 2011 (phew).

[19] Altho I will admit I don't exactly know who Gloria Steinem (and neither did my girlfriend when I asked her) - but I'm guessing - she's a famous feminist writer of somekind? (Checking checking: Ha! Yes! "Gloria Marie Steinem (born March 25, 1934) is an American feminist, journalist, and social and political activist who became nationally recognized as a leader of, and media spokeswoman for, the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s and 1970s." - I WIN.)

Links: The Comics Journal Review, Guardian Review, Open Salon ReviewComic Book Resources Interview, The Comics Journal Article: Six Observations about Alison Bechdel’s Graphic Archive Are You My Mother?.

Further reading: Fun Home, The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For, Couch FictionAsterios Polyp, Habibi, Literary Life.

Profiles: Alison Bechdel.

All comments welcome.


Tam said...

Fun Gloria Steinham comic book fact. She was an assistant of the visionary Harvey Kurtzman who created Mad magazine/comic, among his many achievements. Kurtzman had a pretty good eye for talented people, also giving Robert Crumb and Terry Gilliam their big breaks...

Islington Comic Forum said...

So - not just a pretty face then huh?

(JOKE obvs).