The Bechdel Test

Only an Idiot Would Fail to Recognize the Layered Genius of Are You My Mother?

The Bechdel Test
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Practically the first thing Alison Bechdel did when she stood in front of a packed-out University Book Store on Friday was apologize for writing a "kind of weird book." One has to wonder if Bechdel's abashedness had anything to do with Dwight Garner's drubbing of her new memoir, Are You My Mother?, in the New York Times earlier this month, in which he called it "not nearly so good" as Bechdel's first memoir, Fun Home, and accused it of being "therapized and flat" with "no real narrative." ("If Fun Home was a book about a funeral home," Garner sniped, "Are You My Mother? is merely funereal." Er, zing?)

Here's the thing: Only a shitty critic would take a writer to task for not writing the same book twice. Fun Home was a memoir tucked inside a biography of Bechdel's father. Mother has many more layers than that. Rather than simply deforming her mother's story into a traditional narrative, Mother examines Bechdel's relationships with many women in her life—her mother, her girlfriends, her therapists, Virginia Woolf—and the connections between those threads are often left for the reader to identify. Mother is more like a work of literary criticism, but the texts it examines are not always traditional—To the Lighthouse, The Drama of the Gifted Child, and the writings of British pediatrician and psychotherapist Donald Winnicott are addressed, to be sure, but so are the love letters between Bechdel's mother and father, and Bechdel's years of therapy.

Bechdel's talk at University Book Store revealed the hidden layers of craft that went into the work. As she flipped through a slide show made up of panels of the book, Bechdel discussed the hours she spent exactly copying Virginia Woolf's handwriting into miniature replicas of manuscript pages. Then she painstakingly reproduced published typeset pages of Woolf's work by hand. That kind of literary devotion—to the ideas in the work, to the process of writing the work, to the work as it is presented to the world—is rare. The resulting layers of examination cross over and under and around each other to weave a cohesive narrative that, after you step back and take in the whole work, reveals a portrait of Bechdel that is much more intricate and intimate than anything she's given us before. recommended


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Will in Seattle 1
Well, you have to admit there are some shitty critics at the New Yorker sometimes.

For example, in film, there's Anthony Lane, who is stuck in the 1980s and never likes any action films based on comix no matter how good they are.

Signed reviews for books or films are useful, since one quickly discovers certain critics don't agree with one's own tastes or opinions.
Posted by Will in Seattle on May 21, 2012 at 2:25 PM · Report this
eastcoastreader 2
the crap review was in The New York Times, not the New Yorker
Posted by eastcoastreader on May 21, 2012 at 2:53 PM · Report this
The NYT reviewer isn't complaining that Bechdel didn't write the same book twice; it's pointing out that Are You My Mother? is a hot mess of the author's insecurities and lack of focus with a looming publishing deadline. Bechdel has always been willing to show her foibles and faults, but this book crosses over into self-flagellation and self-indulgence. it's still engaging, but it's half baked...perhaps with another 6 months or so she could have pulled this into a more coherent work.
Posted by genevieve on May 21, 2012 at 3:49 PM · Report this
It's a question of taste, I think - the good kind of question, that makes all this stuff fun. Some people like a linear, narrative comic-style approach, and this book isn't it. Some people like contemplative, abstract graphic literature where the art and the text combine for a very different sort of effect. Are You My Mother is more Chris Ware, less Spiegelman. It's ok to have that conversation I think, and unfair to call someone a "shitty critic" just on that. And I loved the new book.
Posted by serious book deserves serious discussion on May 22, 2012 at 3:55 AM · Report this
Dwight Garner is spot on. Fun Home is a masterpiece; Are You My Mother? is interesting but tedious
Posted by RuthVanita on May 30, 2012 at 6:38 PM · Report this

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