The Secret to Superhuman Strength. by Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York. 2021. 240pp. $24.oo
Alison Bechdel is on a mission, perhaps the greatest of all, in her latest book which explores the connection between mind and body. Ostensibly, this is a book focusing on fitness but Bechdel, in her distinctive way, has taken things much further. In earnest, but also with a touch of irony, Bechdel is in search of the big prize, a light out of the existential abyss. Well, perhaps Tennessee Williams had his finger right on it when he said, “We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.” Ah, there’s the rub indeed and the perfect jumping off point for Bechdel’s collection of visual essays which unfold into a highly engaging narrative, a new dazzling exploration of an artist and a life.
When Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out was launched in 1983, it was cutting-edge counter-culture in a bite-sized format. Today, gender issues are much better understood and accepted. What remains most provocative for some might be another aspect to Bechdel’s work, the fact it carries a brainy tone. Americans, in general, have not favored the intellectual. We’ve had smart American heroes but it’s never an easy and obvious thing. That said, the overall quality of a work tends to have the final say. We look forward to Bechdel in the same way we might look forward to any number of articulate writers–sometimes despite, or because, of the cerebral challenges they set up for themselves. Yes, Bechdel tends to overthink things–she’s defiant about it; she revels in it. And, nowadays, there’s no end of material to scrutinize. Bechdel gets it. She even wonders, at one point, just how privileged is it to bring into the world “another book about fitness by a white lady.” Just keep in mind this isn’t just a book about fitness.
Bechdel’s mind likes to take the more esoteric route. When most people are asked to think about fitness, they might start thinking about their favorite workout. Bechdel sees her passion for fitness as inextricably linked to her compulsive need for self-improvement which she attaches to the progressive spirit going back to The Romantics and The Transcendentalists. I happen to enjoy the sort of Byzantine multi-layered narratives that Rachel Maddow is famous for. Well, you’re in luck because that’s what you’re getting here: a book that truly explores the interconnections between mind and body. To be honest, sometimes things are bereft of rigorous intellectual inquiry. When you gotta go, you gotta go. The body has a way of pulling rank, of having a mind of its own!
As with all of Bechdel’s work, this book will charm the reader with its particular pace and rhythm. Bechdel is unapologetically nerdy. And, truth be told, she’s not exactly in the minority. I know I just said that we Americans collectively are anti-intellectual. But, again speaking in general, we are collectively more inclined to be couch potatoes than jocks. And maybe, among all those coach potatoes, there’s something akin to a more thoughtful sensibility. Maybe not totally bookish, but no doubt more nerd than not which is a good thing. It’s safe to say that we have a reliable mass of readers that keeps growing and evolving. With that in mind, I think this book definitely has a vibe with great mass appeal. For more dedicated readers, I’m also sure it is safe to say we can all agree that Bechdel’s book advances the comics medium. In this case, Bechdel provides beautiful passage after passage of extended thought. This speaks to the hard-won lessons learned from doing a comic strip for decades. You learn to pare down text to fit tight spaces. And, when you find you have more space, you come to it with a more nimble and elegant sense of organizing words and pictures. When Bechdel ruminates, she knows how to do it to fullest effect.
I think Bechdel’s esoteric approach is simply divine. This is such an authentic voice. Basically, think of this book as an extension of Bechdel’s graphic novel format storytelling, with a interconnection to her previous books, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? If you enjoy a book that truly takes a deep dive into exploring human nature, this book will definitely satisfy you. The comics medium is a never-ending unlimited platform for any type of storytelling. You can slice it and dice it, constrict it or expand it. What you want to be careful about is knowing how to juggle those words and pictures so that your story shines and Bechdel is one of our great masters in comics without a doubt.