May 11, 2012

Review: Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a huge fan of Bechdel's previous graphic memoir, FUN HOME, which centers around her closeted father and the ornate family house where Bechdel grew up. I've read it several times, always moved and impressed by its narrative and visual power, and always finding new angles of interest with each reread. Her new graphic memoir, ARE YOU MY MOTHER?, obviously centers around her mother this go-around. And while it's brilliantly drawn and certainly an impressive psychological and intellectual achievement, I wasn't as engaged with its narrative.

First of all, ARE YOU MY MOTHER? is much more meta (even with characters referring to it as a meta-book within the pages) and it may have suffered for that. It's analyzed and distanced, with overlaying therapy, commentary, criticism, and self-consciousness that mostly reads as rather intrusive voice-over. It's more of a psychological exploration mystery than a storytelling narrative, and sometimes reads as a self-help guide rather than narrative non-fiction. Oddly for a graphic memoir, it actually takes the old adage of "show don't tell" and turns it around so completely that it takes "telling" to new heights, despite the presence of wonderfully evocative illustrations. I began to resent the intellectual overlays that seemed to interrupt the narrative, and even though all the psychological exploration and analysis was interesting and smart, I kept feeling that it should have been submerged more into the story itself rather than layered on top of the narrative like meta-commentary.

Still, it's an enlightening book, with some deep-rooted personal and universal issues being tackled. Perhaps if I was more interested in nakedly-presented psychoanalysis, I would have been more engaged and affected, but I prefer my narrative to stay in story as much as possible, and I ultimately found the meta-commentary intrusive and even off-putting. Rather than reading a story, it felt more like I was listening to someone's therapy sessions and dreams, and those are conversation killers. Don't tell me your problems -- tell me your STORY.

The illustrations are gorgeous and touching throughout, with many poignant moments evoked through simple expressions and silent poses. I just wish everything had been subsumed within the narrative and not been quite so analyzed and deconstructed.

However, it WILL make you consider your own mother in fascinating and unsettling ways, so prepare for that!

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