The Meta Self

If you knew someone else was going to read your confession, would you edit it? How honest would you be about your boss’ unwanted affections? Your lover’s crippled self-esteem and neediness? Your mother’s dwindling intellect?  Your father’s inability to understand or accept? Your own bodily failings, the feeling of being betrayed by your own skin? Would ego raise you up, or would guilt slam you down? How reliable is your diary? How aware are you of its fallacies? How aware are you of the fact that your entire  aesthetic taste in men stems from the moment when a handsome, black-locked and goatee’d family friend gave you a teddy bear when you were five? Do you remember that your hatred of pomegranates is only because years ago, on your first encounter, you couldn’t figure out how to eat them? Or that your father’s “lack of support” began with one missed soccer game, a far cry from him always missing things, though that’s what the story quickly became. Are you feeling self-conscious yet? I am. Things change, people change, when others are watching. When people know their words might carry beyond themselves, be it in a diary, they begin to rethink and reword. Now just imagine what it would be like if your paranoia extended beyond parents and nosey roommates, imagine exposing those Dear Diary declarations to the world. Imagine you accepted the dizzying task of distilling that diary for anyone with desire to buy or borrow it (we’re gonna skip over the ‘steal’ option because stealing books is wrong, mmk?) to get ahold of on a whim. Even though I’d love to wring out my superego, id and all the ego in between all over a reel of paper, the concept of committing to a memoir rather than babbling into the eyes and ears of the willing/unsuspecting kinda…freaks me out. Mostly it’s the organizational element, the winnowing down of all the weird, wonderful, and woebegotten bits of past that are branded MINE in big gaudy, dragon’s blood letters (complete with a tiny TM). That’s why I’m in awe of Alison Bechdel and the titanic endeavor that was her attempt to come to terms with her father, and likely, herself.

The award-winning, and ever-captivating Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, is so meticulously crafted of chronicled particulars that it’s almost impossible to question Bechdel’s veracity. At least, it’s almost impossible on the first read. By the third, queries creep out of the cracks of her colossal family home, compelling you to come closer and claim, if not answers, at least a taste of insight for the asking. What were her goals in writing the novel? How did she go about accomplishing them? How fair were her efforts? As always with literary analysis, we’re going to make some assumptions about the authors intentions, or if you prefer, disregard their actuality and insert our own from the evidence provided.

In so far as I can tell, Bechdel’s conscious goal was predominantly to pick apart her relationship with her father through the lenses of gender identity, sexuality, literature, and the hierarchy of power inherent in the parent/child dynamic. That said, I think there was a secondary goal of controlling that relationship and utilizing its new form to actively accept her father and the past. It’s this element of control that intrigues me the most, and which I feel is under-addressed in critiques of Fun Home.

When dealing with issues that are traumatic or emotionally charged, we have a bad habit of filtering them through our initial reaction. This leads to increased bias and weakened objectivity. However, if we record the issues in the moment or shortly thereafter, then return later (the greater the temporal distance the better) the more insight and understanding we can gain. In this regard, Bechdel shines due to her “own compulsive propensity to autobiography” (140). The access to and inclusion of records, letters, and photographs, along with her own copious documentation lends trustworthiness to her account. Even when she confesses that her entries became unreliable at a certain point, the very act of confession cements our trust in her reliability, as does her regular questioning and theorizing about the events rather than delineating them as capital T truths. She is discovering her past with us.

Yet, this is a false sense of security vested in our narrator. She’s not only lived that past, but spent seven years honing it into the version we’re now able to read. She chose every image, scene, and word within the book. And my, what words she chose: Libidinal, dishabillie, Icarian, intertextual, Saturnalia, monomaniacal, legerdemain, blithely, curatorial, aesthete, simulacrum, sluiced, gallic, percussive, onomatopoeic, painterly, multivalent, doleful, discomfited, redolent, humectant, milieu, conflated, cartilaginous, postlapsarian, maudlin, bathetic, deracination, erasure, lacunae, divagations, obtunding, and taxonomic. Indeed, it is her taxonomic process that initially daunts many readers. She does not hide her literary background, nor does she flaunt it. The prevalence of her language is consistent throughout, preventing that pretentious air from seeping into the gaps that would have been left by picking and choosing her vocabulary to make it more accessible. Her chosen words, when used in context, don’t strike you like a backalley-suckerpunch, but rather, they lure like exotic perfume, guiding comprehension and enhancing the stimulation of a moment. Each is ultra-specific, honed with exacting purpose, providing a meaning that a dozen words could not in its stead. These are the words that linguists live for. Why serve up a sentence (or several) on the obsessiveness of her father’s renovations, reaching to explain how they were limited to the confines of altering, restoring and decorating the house when she could simply refer to the endless act a monomaniacal? The right tool for the right job, as they say. But does she have too many tools? Does her expertise belie her confidence?

I wonder at her precision. Does she not trust her readers to understand her meaning in plainer terms? While it is certainly possible that she’s simply over-accustomed to such language, I believe her efforts to be more telling than that. By providing us with words whose accuracy and scope are acutely limited, Bechdel—assuming the reader has dictionary access from time to time—increases the odds that her points will be made clearly within the context she intended. But such controlling tactics delve behind her linguistic self-assurance and hint at insecurity with her topic. Let me be clear that this is not a criticism. The subject matter she’s wrestling with reveals her bravery in her very vulnerability. That said, it also highlights her need to possess it. Word choice is just one of the methods she uses to do this. Another is the choice of memories displayed in the novel.

Think about a parent. A best friend. A favorite toy. Now think about your relationship with them/it. How many memories surged to the surface? Could you even tell one apart from the next? If you were going to tell someone else, someone who knew nothing about you, about that intimate relationship, what would you share? Figuring this out was part of Bechdel’s task. Rather than approaching it in a linear fashion, she told the story with fluidity, slipping in and out of timelines, examining subjects along the synaptic chains that fired at their mentioning. This gave the work a holistic feel, for few, if any of us, remember chronologically. While the lack of a linear timeline might frustrate some, for me, it adds a scope and realism to the work, letting it revolve around central issues rather than seek a narrative path. It’s a strong form for contemplation and conveyance of anecdotal stories.  However, on subsequent readings, when the stories are less engrossing than the how and why of them, we can peel apart the process. What made her choose those memories? Which did she leave out? Why?

While pondering this, I watched her unfolding and refolding of her enigmatic father in the turns of his passion and his wrath, across the peaks of their connections, and the valleys between them. He is not centered in a particularly flattering light. If anything, the shadows of his humanity succeed more in vilifying him, even as she moves to extrapolate why he was the way he was. It was then that it struck me, a strange notion. Bechdel notes numerous times throughout the novel that looking at things through literary lenses creates a more visceral reality for her than unfiltered memory. She even states that “[her] parents are most real to [her] in fictional terms” (67). Due to this, I believe that by crafting a literary reality in which her father’s faults were at their most exposed, Bechdel built a world in which she could forgive him, because she could finally see. However, she did not leave him defenseless. Rather, with all the information she could compile, she attempted to defend him to a degree, rationalizing, though not quite justifying, his failings and flaws by stressing the prison of his own repression, which spawned them. This is self-editing for a noble cause: understanding. That said, there’s a secondary side-effect to Bechdel’s cathartic, mnemic collage.

By offering a foreign audience a deeply personal story, geared at coming to terms with a man we do not know outside of her portrayal, she manages to do her father a disservice. While she knows the whole story and reads the subtleties of his actions with clarity, we do not and cannot. Thus, near the end of the book, when a family friend mentions how weirdly close Bechdel and her father are as they play a piano duet (225), it’s nothing short of jarring. This is the first time in the entire novel, not seven pages before it ends, when we see true, familial intimacy between them. I have no doubt that there were other bonding moments before this, even if only a few, others beyond mere intellectual camaraderie, but they are not provided to us. As such, Bechdel, who lived the life and knows what’s missing from the memoir’s pages, puts herself in a position to forgive her father, without affording all readers that same luxury. Though, I doubt if she intended for us to feel that need in the first place, as ultimately, this story belongs to the Bechdels.

Whether she was moved to grapple with the impossible in the wake of tragedy, seek meaning in the senseless, or was simply thinking out loud is neither clear nor the point. Who’s to say that she was even sure of her purpose or that she needed to be? Earlier on whilst examining her childhood journaling she asked, “How did I know that the things I was writing were absolutely, objectively true?” (141). As always, I err on the side of asking over knowing. Questions lead us and unmask our thoughts. Thus, what matters most is not what was revealed, but the fact that she asked at all.


The Self

Lately, I’ve found myself awash in waves of nostalgia, warped by the fog of years. I began writing this on my birthday, sitting alone in a hotel bar, soaking in a beer-bolstered Aussie’s insistent conversation several seats away. Normally I’d have been irritated by forcefulness with which he asserted his sense of self on the room at large, but it was a good day and the raucous regaling felt àpropos for whatever reason. A short while before I took up my notebook, my parents had gone back to their room, leaving me, per my request, to drink in the atmosphere. Behind the Aussie, at the nearest table, a demur older couple spoke in veritable whispers. The bartender, in her overtly traditional dress shirt, black vest, and bowtie smoothly slid in and out of various groups, her comments offering a tempo to the room. So many stories. It lulled me as much as it invigorated me. I felt at home, nestled in the words of strangers. Yet I wasn’t really listening to them. The conversations coalesced into calming white noise, covering my conscious mind and letting it drift. I thought about my childhood, the birthdays that brought me to that one.

I don’t remember many of them, or much of the life led between them. The surreality of that had struck me before, that I could have forgotten so much of my own life. It unnerved me how frail my memories were, how malnourished. Perhaps that’s why I’d been speaking with my parents about our old house in California, reflecting on how there were only a handful of spaces in it that I recalled. It became a corny sitcom parody after a while: I’d say where one was in relation to the other and they’d correct me at the punchline. But I could’ve sworn that your bedroom was at the top of the stairs…There was a hall? Seriously? What do you mean we didn’t have a sitting room? The bathroom? I don’t remember…I can’t recall. How much have I lost? How accurate is what I retain? I tell the story about the fireplace. I know the fireplace. There was an elaborate and brilliantly successful Santa Claus hoax when I was four, involving hooves on the roof, leather gloves, soot, and mostly eaten cookies. I get its location right, but I wonder…how much has the story changed with each retelling? They say that memories solidify with rumination and visitation. Each look back etches the image deeper, enhancing and strengthening synaptic pathways. Each look back recreates the memory of who we were and our understanding of who we are.

As a child, I didn’t stop. There was too much. Too much everything. Energy. Time. World. I had to keep going. I couldn’t stop and look back at the footprints when the path pulled me forward. So I left them to the wind, allowing my past to be swept away unexamined.  It grieves me. I feel like every footstep, every moment is a lost self, a child abandoned to the wilderness of time. Yet it wasn’t until recently that I’d even noticed. Only during the last few years have I reflected and contemplated on events as they came and after they’d gone. Maybe if I journaled more it would help, or would have. I never really managed to maintain a diary, as the concept turned out to be more enticing than the act. I’ll record everything! That’s what people do, right? I’ll be so deep…memorable. I’ll save me forever…what should I write? Maybe…um…I wonder what’s on TV… I bought at least a dozen diaries from age eight to fourteen, and not a one has more than ten scattered, forced, and meager entries. Not only was I not yet a writer or even intrigued by the profession, I was too explosively extroverted in youth to manage the thoughtful, or at the very least patient, dedication requisite for self-chronicling. I’ve always wondered how others managed it, and whether or not it really is the key to keeping ahold of the past. For many memoirists, that seems to be the case.

The memoir is a tricky subgenre of nonfiction, made mischievous by its flexibility. How honest an author is, how creatively they stretch their literary license is up to them (though some experts disagree). Tug too hard, or take it too far, turning verifiable facts into falsehoods, and you might be at risk of relocation to the fiction section. Quote too much direct dialogue and some literati will eye you with suspicion for no memory is that perfect, while others will argue for the necessary evil. Every memoir comes with a choice, a question of how to balance what happened with what makes for a compelling story. Even the decisions on what to leave out of a book critically impact its form and honesty, adding contrast like the negative space in a painting, drawing attention to what is presented, or even deliberating highlighting what is not.

I’m guessing you’ve started to wonder what the hell this tumbling turn down Memory Mountain has to do with literary analysis at large. My point, as it so often and unsurprisingly is the case, is buried in a question: How do we translate the characters of real life into writing and what becomes of them when we do? The obvious answer is through the aforementioned memoir. But now we’re back to the issue of veracity: How do we know a memoir is accurate? They’re inherently subjective, and even good memories are biased by perspective, the passage of time, the number of recitations of any given memory, and the locations of magically meandering hallways and sitting rooms. So let’s say we accept the natural stain of subjectivity. What about the shoddy, shifty ways of the mind, which misplace and lose crucial details of everyday life? How do we combat that? Documentation is a good start, bringing us to, hopefully, more than half-complete Dear Diary entries. We can also look to art, photos, journals, letters, recordings, and phone calls to others to consult with and/or argue about what happened. These are solid starts, though how to compile the wealth of a life into something sensical and readable is another challenge entirely.

What lens will you tell the story through? What will the focus be? Full autobiography? Semi-biographical autobiography? An attempt to commemorate a career or occasion? A way to work out unresolved issues? A way to say what you never could? The options are overwhelming, which may be part of the reason why the authors who not only write them, but draw them, are so impressive. Over the course of the next week or so, I’ll be examining parts of the works of three such writer-artists (to pick at even one of them as a whole would be to either inaccurately quantify it as something it’s not, or to drive myself batty). To begin, I’ll look at  Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, its rendering of the self, the father, and its attempt to understand both.