Thursday, June 28, 2012

Are You My Mother, by Alison Bechdel

Honest disclosure--not much of a graphic novel reader. I've spent most of my reading life around words, the finicky English language, and illustrations have always seemed like --like what, really? Sprinkles on an ice cream sundae? You know, festive and a lovely touch, but not really adding all that much to the substance. Not something I would necessarily notice if it weren't there.

Not really the model reader for a graphic novel.

But the world is changing, and visuals are much more integrated into content generally, and frankly, this myopic concentration on English language means that I miss so much of what else is possible in narrative. I know this, but I don't necessarily know how to train myself to do otherwise.

So I pick up the occasional graphic novel and try to learn broader reading habits.

This is one I really wanted to read--and really wanted to love. I am, I think, slightly younger than Bechdel is now, which means I must be about the age she was as she started this book. I am entering a new phase of relationship with myself and my own mother; a classic case of seeking to understand my own situation through books.

Which is fair, since that is exactly what Bechdel is doing--she is seeking to understand herself through reading a lot of psychology, some fiction, undergoing therapy, and writing this book. Books as paths to understanding of the self--Bechdel and I have this in common.

The key difference between us is that she turns to non-fiction: Donald Winnicott, Alice Miller, Jungian and Freudian therapies. She also has much more faith in the value of those works than I do, based on reading this book. In the end, I am pleased she seems to feel helped by the process, and I am delighted she is having such success with the book, but I don't think it has really been all that helpful for her.

To summarize the book: Bechdel is a successful comic artist. Her series Dykes to Watch Out For has made a big enough cultural impact that even I have heard of it. She is the source of the eponymous "Bechdel Test" which become an insistent presence in my own cultural life over the past year. Bechdel also had a very successful book, Fun Home, a graphic novel memoir about her father, a closeted homosexual who was killed by a truck in what may have been a suicide. (I have not read that book either.) Are You My Mother has been billed as a companion to Fun Home, the story of Bechdel's mother, to complement the one about her father.

This is not strictly true: in fact, I would characterize this as a book about Bechdel's own search for herself, with her mother playing no larger role than Virginia Woolf or Adrienne Rich do. Her mother certainly plays less of a role than Donald Winnicott does.

And here is where this becomes difficult for me to summarize. Bechdel puts a great deal of faith into the works of this early-to-mid century child psychologist, and specifically his ideas of the "good enough mother." She tries mightily to map her own memories of childhood and her emotional development onto Winnicott's theories, while detailing some of the history of Winnicott's own life and work. I can't really say that Bechdel is successful in this effort, although she does offer some facile resolution at the end, and perhaps that amounts to finding her own peace. I just can't get behind the project, so too much of the book also feels facile and superficial. Not Bechdel's struggles, mind. Her struggles to figure herself out are poignant and important. It's the "resolutions" that feel insufficient to really address the struggle.

For example, Bechdel starts each section with a dream she has, and then she works out the (usually Freudian) meanings of the dream. In one, her therapist offers to fix a rip in Bechdel's pants. In the next page, Bechdel reports this dream to the therapist, and makes the connection "You fixed my tear [the rip in the pants], but you also fixed my tear [crying, emotional pain]. You are healing me!"

Later, Bechdel puts pages of her manuscript into a re-used folder, which turns out to be where she had taken some notes during a particularly productive therapy session, and she ascribes psychological meaning to that as well. To which I say: No. The universe and your subconscious are not talking to you in puns and meaningful coincidences. They are just coincidences.

Nor do I think her application of Winnicott's writings are well-thought out. The biographical information she gives us about him is not confidence-inspiring. He had no children of his own, he had his own issues with women, including a sexless marriage that lasted almost 30 years before he divorced and remarried. His work on how mothers and infants interact is mostly descriptive, based on observation similar to the way Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees. It smooths out individual variation and presents broad generalizations of how he observed the interactions between mothers and infants, in his own society, in his own time.

At least within the limited scope of the book, Bechdel doesn't deal with the generic character of Winnicott's work. Instead, she presents it as a road map to the mother-child relationship she feels she should have had. That where that relationship has been frustrating, it is her mother's shortcomings that cause that unresolved relationship. So she reads Winnicott as prescriptive, rather than descriptive, and she attempts to find the moments that her mother failed to be quite "good enough," using Winnicott's books as though they are unquestionable and perfectly applicable to her individual experience.

Which is, I think, asking more than a bit too much from an early work of infant psychology. Winnicott was apparently working in the early years of child development research, and in addition to the actual "science" contained in his books, he was also working to establish his theories in the framework of other influential theories of the time, and really, the whole undertaking was really not designed in any way to be a personal road map to a single mother-child relationship. Perhaps Bechdel herself understood this and managed to accommodate it; it is far from evident from Are You My Mother? that she did.

I also find it hard to believe that her own therapists didn't caution her against such an individualized reading. In fact, I assume that they did, and that Bechdel just edited those portions out as distractions. Which they would be--and there is not a lot of room for distractions in a graphic novel. Pictures take up space, and the words have to be carefully selected in a way different from a non-graphic format. In a straight memoir, there would have been plenty of room for the digression into Bechdel's evaluation of the appropriateness of using Winnicott as a personal life coach. I get that, and I don't think she could have added such a thing to this book. But I am left uneasy, almost queasy, by her near religious acceptance of the dictums of a writer that doesn't seem to me to merit that kind of reliance.

Part of the problem is that Bechdel has never had children, and so in personalizing Winnicott's writings, she can only consider the child's side of the issue, which inevitably skews her understanding of what he reports. She can only personalize one side of the equation, and she really can't see her mother other than as the mythic care-giver of her own infancy.

But women are not suddenly imbued with goddess-like powers of compassion and care-giving simply by virtue of giving birth--although we like to think so. We as a culture promote mystical and frankly rather silly ideas of "instantaneous bonding" and "mother-child" relationships, innate understanding of the baby by the mother that are possibly only equaled by bad YA novels about girls and their horses. The insight that Bechdel struggles and fails to achieve is that her mother isn't Mother in a mythopoetic, archetypal fashion. She is just a woman who had kids and had to learn new ways of being in order to care for those kids. Because Bechdel has only ever been on the one side of that equation, she doesn't gain any real perspective on the way parenting is a dynamic--we become the parents are children make us as much as the other way around.

Perhaps the clearest epiphany Bechdel achieves comes before the end of the book, indicating that she doesn't really see it as momentous as I do. Bechdel has sent pages from her book (either this one or the one about her father--I don't remember which one) and after a long time, gets them back from her mother. Her mother has made scores of notes, which Bechdel admits are excellent suggestions and legitimate and helpful. However, Bechdel wanted something different--she wanted her mother's acceptance, approval, and a personal response to the content of the book, not a disquisition on its mechanics. At that point she realizes "I can stop knocking on that door, because what I want isn't there." She realizes that what she wants from her mother isn't something her mother has to give, and it is foolish for her to keep looking for it there.

This is really huge, and something that reinforces my sense that she is mis-reading Winnicott. Mothers, just like all people, are not equally good at everything. No one person can meet all of another person's needs. Bechdel was trying to make her mother be something she wasn't, and she was using Winnicott to justify her demands. After all, Winnicott says that mothers should behave certain ways, and so Bechdel was right, she was justified in demanding those things from her own mother. But the reality is that her mother couldn't provide those things, and it didn't matter how hard Bechdel asked for them, or how justified such requests were--they couldn't be met. Not there. Not by her mother.

And let's go back to what I said earlier--women learn  to become mothers, and their primary teachers are their own children. The relationship may feel like a hierarchy, with parenting coming down from above, being passively received by the child, but that's not how it actually works. Mothers--parents--only learn to do what they understand their children need. It is really a two way street. And look at how Bechdel approaches her mother--through the distancing mechanism of a manuscript. What she wants from her mother (or at least what she tells us she wants) is a personal connection, where they take the incidents from the manuscript and compare memories. But look at how she asks for that connection--by sending off a manuscript in the mail.

I would think that as skilled as she is at Freudian analysis of random events, she'd see the degree to which this was a very arm's length request for intimacy. In fact, it is so arm's length, that it isn't really a request for intimacy at all. If Bechdel is really trying to get closer to her mother, this is a very guarded, highly coded way to do that, and frankly, I think her mother has done a lot to demonstrate her keen interest in interacting withe Bechdel on the terms it appears Bechdel has dictated. The social cues that Bechdel is delivering are not easily translated as "Tell me your story, Mom." "Here's my book, what do you think of it" is a clear message that Bechdel doesn't want her mother to come too close, and so that's what she does. She pours  herself into praise and specific acknowledgement of Bechdel's writing--as a way of demonstrating her continuing love and attention to her child. On the terms dictated by the child. Without getting too close, or too personal, or challenging Bechdel's apparently preferred method of interaction.

Overall, it's a rather difficult book to read, much harder than you would think given the format. I mean, it's a comic book in format, but the content is heavily weighted toward esoteric snippets of turgid psychoanalytic concepts: false and true self, transference objects, and the like. Bechdel has a somewhat distant mother, and she hasn't really got any handle on how to understand that relationship. She has some maternal-like relationships with two (female) therapists--which is its own doomed effort, since there are strict limits to the therapist-patient relationship that are inherent its very nature. Bechdel also says she wishes that Winnicott was her mother--a man who has been dead for over 40 years. There are patterns here, repeated with her partners as well--she is drawn to a certain level of intimacy, one that is strongly girded by distance. She doesn't really want more intimacy, she keeps picking important relationships that don't allow for more closeness. Perhaps that preference was enforced by her mother, or perhaps it was genetically determined at birth. Either way, it would be healthier for her to recognize the pattern, analyze her dissatisfaction with it, and then go amend her own ways, rather than obsessively comb Winnicott for proof that it's all her mother's fault.

Several reviews have mentioned that this book is less satisfying than Fun Home because Bechdel's mother is still alive. Her father's story could be shaped, because it had ended; her mother is not only still living, but she continues to shape Bechdel's own life and even this book. As a result, there is no real closure or finality to Are You My Mother? I think that is probably only true if you assume that this is a book about Bechdel's mother and that it should be a companion to the earlier one. I challenge both of those assumptions.

A book about Bechdel's mother would actually be a book about her mother, not about Bechdel trying to figure out herself with her mother as backdrop. A book about Bechdel's mother would try to understand her feelings about marriage, motherhood, acting, what it meant to be married to a closeted homosexual. How did that knowledge affect her own gender identity and self-worth--as well as her sexual identity? What decisions did she make about staying married, raising children, helping her husband through graduate school, military, funeral home directing? How does she really feel about Bechdel being lesbian, and semi-famously so? How did she raise the boys differently? Where are those boys now?

Are You My Mother? doesn't really address any of these questions, nor does Bechdel really want to know the answers. Arguably, this is a book which explores why Bechdel doesn't want to get close to her mother, why she doesn't want to ask any questions or approach her mother directly. That would have served to give the book more closure than it has. A truly internalized understanding of what she is looking for, from her mother, from her therapists, from her lovers--that would be closure. As it is, Bechdel is still doing the work, and the book reflects that. Later, perhaps, she will write a book that finishes the work started in this one. That's one I would read, too.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

I wanted to love this book. Its own story, detailed in an extensive Vanity Fair long-form article (now available as an ebook) is compelling enough: Harbach spent years working and honing the story, the language, his own life apparently on hold as he dedicated himself to the novel. It's hard not to imagine Harbach as Henry Skrimshander, the preternatually gifted shortstop, whose only wish is to work toward perfection:

All he'd ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it liek that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him, what Schwartzy had promised him. The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better. You rant the stadium a little faster.  You bench-pressed a little more. You hit the ball a little harder in the cage; you watched the tape with Schwartzy afterward and gained a little insight into your swing. Your swing grew a little simpler. Everything grew simpler, little by little.  You ate the same food, woke up at the same time, wore the same clothes. Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts--whatever you didn't need slowly fell away. Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever.

Can't you see Harbach developing this routine for his writing? Every day a little more of the book is written, every day he polishes the language, sharpens the character, simplifies the plot, all the work pointing to this, the novel that tries to speak to what it takes to live and love, to become who you are.

It comes very very close. Hell, it might even be the wise, luminous, great-hearted novel its supporters claim it is--it is certainly a very very good one. Maybe I am just too old to be pierced by this story of college aged men (mostly) finding their way. Maybe my own life has a little too much of its own turmoil, and so I'm a little too calloused to be appropriately vulnerable to this book's charms. It has enough humanity that I am more than a little ashamed of my inability to fall entirely into its spell--and maybe that's enough to prove its worth.

To say that this book is about baseball is misleading. It's like saying that pizza is "about" oregano--baseball gives this book its seasoning, its distinctive taste, but its not "about" baseball the way that The Iowa Baseball Confederacy is. Instead, baseball is the organizing principle--maybe even the excuse--for the book.

The baseball plot shapes itself around Henry Skrimshander, a scrawny kid from South Dakota with no visible future beyond high school. He's a gifted shortstop, and he gets spotted by Mike Schwartz, a freshman baseball player from the fictional Westish College in Wisconsin. Mike convinces his coach that the team needs this kid, and the story is in motion. Henry lands at Westish and meets the rest of the characters. His roommate: "Owen Dunne. I'll be your gay mulatto roommate." Owen also plays baseball, in an elegant and refined way that earned him the nickname "Buddha." Unflappable, calm, Owen ends up having an affair with the flappable Guert Affenlight, president of Westish College. Affenlight's daughter Pella also arrives on campus, fleeing an ill-advised marriage to an older architect in San Francisco--she met him when he came to lecture at her college? Prep school? At any rate, hers is the cautionary tale of faculty-student romance that sets itself against the Affenlight-Owen affair. And while the story seems to take place over the three years of Henry's college career, there is little sense of passing time. Sure, Henry arrives as a new freshman, and has to orient himself around a new life, but the book itself mostly seems to take place with the kind of timelessness of a baseball game.

Unlike many sports, baseball is not ruled by the clock. The game is determined by incident--have there been three outs? Have there been nine innings? Until those things happen, the game isn't over. You run through the batting order as many times as it takes until all the necessary events have occurred.

This book is also kind of like that. We get glimpses in turn of the main characters; alone, in pairs, or grouped. We see relationships form, we see lives change shape, we get death, we get a championship game, and they all seem to take place in a sort of never-ending now. Sure, Mike Schwartz also plays football, but we never actually see a football season. Presumably all these kids take classes, have finals, write papers, but mostly they seem to float around suspended in a medium of gentle bookishness, a sort of environmental erudition that doesn't require actual schoolwork. The days are mostly the same--the boys train, or they play a game, games that differ from each other mostly by being labeled either "home" or "away." There is an ethereal sameness to the book, just like a strike is different from a ball only in details, not usually in a fundamental way.

The largest incident of the book is the wild throw that launches Henry Skrimshander into a spiral of doubt. Usually a perfect player, the Platonic ideal of a shortstop, Henry knows where the ball is going to go before it even hits the bat. He is racking up an impressive collegiate record, tying the longest error-free streak of his personal idol, Aparicio Rodriguez, baseball Hall of Famer and author of the eponymous "Art of Fielding." (This was the one book Henry brought with him to college, and apparently the only book he read the entire three years.) After tying that record, however, Henry throws a ball that impossibly, inexplicably, fails to fly to its target and instead sails into his team dugout, hitting Owen in the face and knocking him out cold. This is what precipitates a number of changes for everybody.

Henry, predictably, begins to second-guess himself with every throw, and the situation simply worsens until he walks off the field mid-game and withdraws from life entirely, refusing to even to eat. Guert Affenlight visits Owen in the hospital, slowly coming alive to his attraction to another man, but having to face professional and personal destruction when the affair is reported. Schwartzy faces his own black pit of despair, having failed to get into any one of the six top-tier law schools where he applied--he tried to launch his post-sports career without a safety net, and now he has nowhere to land. Pella Affenlight (who doesn't actually seem to be four years older than everybody else) has to confront the emptiness of her own life, breaking down her self-conception and rebuilding it from the bottom up--auditing classes and washing dishes in the school cafeteria.

The prose is confident, the book encompasses a lot of different character arcs, but it never really conveys the emotional peaks and valleys. Guert Affenlight is confronted by two members of the college administration and board of trustees--his affair with a student will not be made public if he resigns effective the end of the school year, a matter of days (weeks?) away. Instead, he manages to smoke himself to death that evening, with a kind of beatific calmness that defies belief. Maybe it's supposed to be metaphorical; maybe Harbach doesn't yet have the tools to confront the situation he's set for himself. Either way, Guert's death is symptomatic of the kind of smoothing over of emotional extremes I felt. Discovering previously unsuspected homoeroticism in your sixties? Turns out its not unsettling, forcing Guert to reconstruct his self-conception--instead it's kind of like being anesthetized or stoned. The relationship consists more of cuddling on a sofa and reading poetry to each other--with the occasional (and tastefully rendered off-screen) hand- and blow-jobs.  There's no ickiness--no need to handle lubricants or condoms, no worries about transmitting fatal diseases, no heart plummeting fear when the affair is discovered. It's all single-malt scotch in clubby leather chairs and 19th century literature.

Owen is the single "exotic" and boy is he. He floats through life well shaped, fastidiously groomed, academically flawless, infinitely wise and understanding. His gayness never discomforts anyone, his racial identity never provoking anyone in the provincial small town or the college. None of the jocks ever mocks him, there is never the slightest hint of racism or homophobia, not even when the administration confronts Affenlight with the affair--it's more about the faculty-student aspect than any of the uglier issues that would probably have been at least raised.

Pella Affenlight is a good try, and I'm glad Harbach took on trying to articulate a female experience. And Harbach did make her more than an adoring fan, or a trophy girlfriend. But her story never really coalesces either. She made a bad marriage, and her arrival at Westish looks like an arc of self-discovery. In theory, she breaks herself down to her components in order to build herself back up--the way Schwartzy breaks down Henry's batting in order to make him a better hitter. But what really happens is that Pella leaves her undermining husband and returns to her father--with whom she rather predictably regresses into sullen adolescence. She quickly becomes Schwartzy's girlfriend, but also uses her magical vagina to rescue Henry. Even her job at the cafeteria is all about gaining approval from the male chef. Harbach makes some gestures toward her developing relationships with some females--she lives for a few months in a house with two other girls--although that situation is completely overshadowed by the fact that Henry has attached himself to her and lives like a cockroach in her room. There is the promise of coursework to be taken with a female professor Pella admires--but for the most part, her world is entirely defined and dominated by men. The situation could be worse, of course, but it should be better than it is. I'm not sure this book passes the "Bechdel Test"--does this book have two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man? Pella does have a conversation with her father's housekeeper (who does have a name, but I can't recall it right now), but they talk about Guert, so no. And as far as I can recall, that's the only conversation two women have at all.

And then there is Schwartzy. Again--preternatually gifted, prematurely grizzled, this is not a college student , unless Westish has an affirmative action program for AARP admissions. Nominally Jewish, Mike Schwartz is the adult of the book, the one who gets Henry into Westish, who develops Henry's training program, the guy who seems to run the baseball program starting in his sophomore year. If this book owes anything to Bull Durham it is Schwartz: he is the Crash Davis of the book. I can accept his physical breakdown--playing football and baseball has ruined his knees, he's already a large man, he's pushed himself past his own physical capability. But where did he learn enough physiology, biology, kinesthesiology to take on the entire rebuilding of Henry's batting? And why does anybody let him? Where are the coaches? This made me wonder why nobody looked at a physical cause for Henry's inability to throw. After all, they took a scrawny kid of 18, and entirely rebuilt his body--he was constantly eating supplements to put on pounds, he was running with weights, he was doing extreme strength training, running until he puked, Schwartzy even took apart his entire swing and rebuilt that through training. By his junior year, Henry was literally in a different body than he started with. No wonder it didn't work the way he was used to.

But that's not what makes a novel--it has to be a spiritual/emotional/mental/existential crisis. Sure--and of course it would be when it happened. It just seems like the book overlooked a glaringly obvious issue that is emblematic of the book's general failure to really address the physical reality of the lives it chronicles.

Not a bad book by any means, and definitely worth reading. I just wanted to fall in love with it, and I couldn't.

By the way--the cover of the book consciously mimics the "font" of a Rawlings baseball--check it out: