If you’d have told me back in 2012 that I’d be reading a third Alison Bechdel memoir after having read Fun Home and Are You My Mother? – and furthermore that I would enjoy said third memoir at least as much as Fun Home – I think I would’ve said, you must be out of your gourd. And yet here we are with The Secret to Superhuman Strength, which charts Bechdel’s lifelong interest in exercise in a similar vein to the way Are You My Mother? charts Bechdel’s interest in therapy.
As in the previous memoir, Bechdel intertwines the stories of other people about her own (on this occasion, Dorothy Wordsworth and the Romantics, Jack Kerouac and the Beats, and Margaret Fuller, founder – along with Ralph Waldo Emerson – of the transcendentalist journal, The Dial, amongst others), but there is something different this time. It’s took us a couple of reads to put our finger on exactly what it is (and we went back to Are You My Mother? too) – and we think it’s confidence. The Secret to Superhuman Strength, possibly as the title suggests, brims with a new Bechdellian confidence.
We follow Bechdel through her life (and seasoned readers of her books may feel a bit like Marty McFly in Back to the Future 2, hiding in wardrobes and peeking in at windows to see afresh events that we have been aware of since Fun Home, such as the death of her father, his struggles with his sexuality, Bechdel’s own sexuality as well as her tendency to be something of a workaholic) but it’s newly couched in the overarching narrative of exercise fads. I mean, you name it – Bechdel has given it a go. Skiing, walking, cycling, mountain climbing. She certainly keeps herself busy.
All told, this reader would go as far to say that Bechdel has never been better and has never worked harder to bring her readers with her on a journey that is both comic and sweetly sad. You’re with her on the ups and you’re with her on the downs and you can see, as she wants you to, when her own failings bring about a crisis of her own making. It may be she’s an ornery person to live with at times (but hey aren’t we all?) but her willingness to “work it all in” (to follow Joyce’s dictum) pays serious dividends here.
Any Cop?: Bechdel’s latest memoir may well be her best yet.