The Secret to Superhuman Strength
“Bechdel is ruthlessly honest, her sharp gaze helping us see ourselves, our culture, more clearly.”
After writing about her father (Fun Home) and her mother (Are You My Mother?), Alison Bechdel turns her gaze on herself in her latest graphic memoir. As usual, Bechdel is ruthlessly honest, her sharp gaze helping us see ourselves, our culture, more clearly. She uses her passion for losing herself in various forms of exercise as a way of exploring her sense of self, or more specifically, selflessness. Bechdel searches for a connection with the universe through zen, transcendentalism, psychotropic drugs, and physical exhaustion, drawing lines between them all in her life-long search for inner peace.
The book opens with a look at how exercise has become a cultural fad, very different from her slothful childhood of the 1950s where nobody went to the gym. “What gnawing void propels this cardiopulmonary frenzy?” Bechdel writes. “The spiritual and moral bankruptcy of late capitalism? The disembodiment of our increasingly virtual existence? A bottomless credulity that ‘6 weeks to a 6-pack’ is humanly possible?” Whatever the greater culural need, she buys into the craze whole-heartedly. We see pages of her trying out the latest fad and buying the hi-tech equipment each sport demands. It’s a strange consumerism of exercise, a way of defining oneself. But it’s much more than that. Bechdel spells it out clearly, “I’m not just writing about fitness. I’m writing about how the pursuit of fitness has been a vehicle for me to something else. The feeling of my mind and body becoming one. But what is the mind? What is the body? What is the self that they somehow constitute?”
The rest of the book takes us through decade after decade of Bechdel’s life, from her childhood to her 50s as she tries to answer these questions. Her first sport is skiing, something the family does together, but her first love is running, which she discovers as a “way of recovering myself after the social stress of school, and also a way of losing myself.” That dichotomy of both finding and losing the self through exertion is a central theme of the book. Bechdel wants to quiet her mind, to stop the constant chatter of petty worries—and to give herself physical power and endurance at the same time.
The book captures well her constant search and she beautifully describes the endorphin rush that is the reward of pushing oneself physically. She also does a lovely job of weaving in zen philosophy, including how it was expressed by the Beat poets and Jack Kerouac, along with the 19th century British transcendentalist poets and writers.
The thread of following the British writers and thinkers is especially interesting but also provides one of the frustrating problems with the text. Bechdel introduces us to Margaret Fuller, the great-aunt who inspired Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, his search to be part of something bigger in the natural world. Margaret Fuller edited the “first issue of the transcendentalist journal, The Dial.” She becomes a springboard for Bechdel to follow other writers, starting with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his friend and fellow writer, William Wordsworth, and his sister Dorothy. They’re all connected through Margaret Fuller, who also brings Ralph Waldo Emerson into the “Transcendental Club.” The problem isn’t the writers and how their contributions are presented. That all works well. The issue is that although Wordsworth and his sister are referred to by their first names, as is Emerson after his first introduction, Coleridge remains Coleridge throughout the book, leading to jarring sentences with “Coleridge, William, and Dorothy.”
Jack Kerouac is even more confusing, being referred to sometimes as “Jack,” sometimes as “Kerouac.” A good editor—or copyeditor—could have avoided this confusion by referring to all writers by their first names (since the two Wordsworths create a clear problem) or by their full names throughout. Otherwise readers may find themselves turning back pages to figure out who the references are to (as this one did), interrupting the flow of the narrative. This is admittedly a small nit in a compelling story, but no less annoying, especially given how easy the fix would be.
Bechdel does finally find some inner calm, conquering symbolic and actual mountains, but the book, which brings us into the present with 2020 election, doesn’t end on the expected zen note. Bechdel has achieved some wisdom: “The only thing to transcend is the idea that there’s something to transcend. Nirvana is samsara. I finally got the memo,” meaning enlightenment is found in the real world, the everyday, not outside of it. The final lines, however, put her squarely back into her anxious self, deeply part of the messy real world that we all find ourselves in at the start of 2021. One figures this means she’ll be eagerly looking for the next fitness fad to throw herself into—Peloton, anyone?