Toward the end of Alison Bechdel’s latest graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, cartoonized Bechdel plops in front of a desktop computer with a document open on the monitor, titled Exercise Book. “I began work on a new book,” reads the text box above her head. “A light, fun memoir about my athletic life that I could bang out quickly.” We’re meant to understand this as a joke. By now, we’ve read enough to know that what was born of this project wasn’t a “light, fun memoir” but a complicated, broad-scope meditation on mortality and the elusive nature of bliss. The wall calendar behind her is open to January, 2013. So much for “quick.”
One can’t help, though, thinking that her initial intention made more sense than the finished product. The book is strikingly similar to her two previous graphic memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?. Bechdel swoops in with her disarming honesty, charming self-consciousness, and literary acumen to weave together a thoughtful, engaging portrait of her life. That said, unlike her earlier memoirs, with their weighty topics and gnarly ethical questions (one is about her father’s extramarital affairs with young men and eventual suicide, the other about her relationship with her standoffish mother), The Secret to Superhuman Strength just doesn’t quite have the same inherent tensions that lent her other memoirs so much sophistication and force.
Which is not to say that the book isn’t thoroughly enjoyable. Bechdel has a tenable charisma on the page and impeccable comedic timing — I laughed out loud numerous times (like, for instance, at the ingenious infographic, which depicts Bechdel’s personal and professional life as an interval-training workout). It is also refreshing to read a narrative about a woman’s relationship to fitness that doesn’t simply fixate on thinness or body dysmorphia in a way that lends rigorous exercise the nagging suggestion of self-flagellation. But I did find myself wishing that Bechdel would fixate on something. Instead, she wavers, so quickly jumping from one intellectual pursuit to another that I never quite got a handle on what exactly she was trying to do.
Bechdel divvies up the memoir by decade — she turned 60 last fall — and takes us through her various romantic entanglements, the ups and downs of her professional life, the exercise trend she’s obsessively pursuing at any given moment, all culminating in a Kerouac-inspired attempt at a mountain summit — an obvious spot for a climax, mountains themselves being the graphic inspiration for a narrative arc.
In the introduction, she insists that this will be a work of cultural criticism — a journey through time (there is a literal time machine, mysteriously labeled in German, the “Zeitgeistwegzurückmaschine”) that will lead us from the sedentary lifestyle of mid-century American suburbia to “A world gone mad! Pacifists paying for boot camp! Feminists learning to pole dance!” (This, Bechdel exclaims while suspended midair on a climbing rope.) And she’ll accomplish it via her trademark literary allusions — rendering “progressive-minded” figures like Jack Kerouac, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Adrienne Rich in cartoon form, mining their literature and biographies for insight into the world around her. “I’m interested,” says Bechdel, while filling her Platypus reservoir with water, “in the chain of influence among them, the way their individual ideas are part of a larger, evolving understanding of the relationship between humans and the universe.”
At the outset, it seems like Bechdel will follow through: The year she is born — 1960 — is the year of the first televised presidential debate, which marks the moment when a candidate’s physical appearance becomes significant. “Bodies were asserting themselves in other ways, too,” she writes, as one-year-old Bechdel crawls in front of the television set, “Freedom Riders were taking busses into the segregated south.” But beyond the early sixties, Bechdel effectively abandons this pursuit. And while she certainly records the larger historical moments that have occurred in the six decades since her birth — the JFK assassination, 9/11, the 2016 election, to name a few — their relevance to exercise, to the physical body, or to the “relationship between humans and the universe” is left utterly mysterious.
In the introduction, Bechdel also teases a reckoning with mortality — a way of thinking about exercise as a denial of the body’s fragility and impermanence. Bechdel has started to notice that for all her training, she’s slowing down, growing weaker, her endurance is flagging. “I have crested the summit… and begun the descent,” she writes, while in the background, cartoon Bechdel zips down a mountain at sunset toward a tiny headstone. And while death certainly punctuates her life (we witness, over the course of these pages, the deaths of both of her parents and the sudden death of a close friend), she doesn’t seem to have much to say about it, apart from the occasional, grim recognition of her own impending doom. (“Next it would be my turn,” she says, ominously, after the undertakers wheel away her mother’s body.)
At times, I wondered if she was trying to lay bare the sinister capitalist underbelly of the wellness craze. “Let’s face it,” Bechdel writes. “You don’t need special equipment to run. But it was easy to exploit and commodify running precisely because something authentic happens when people do it.” But Bechdel merely nods at the problem — filling room after room with expensive, highly-specific exercise equipment (much of which, Bechdel acknowledges, now likely occupies landfills); or depicting young Bechdel ogling a pair of PF Flyers and adult Bechdel splurging on road bikes she can’t afford and idolizing brands like Patagonia.
When Bechdel describes herself early on as “the vigorous type,” I bubble over with a sense of kinship. Like her, I was never an athlete, but have gravitated in adulthood toward more and more strenuous methods of exercise: long-distance running, aerial silks, high intensity interval workouts, the kind of yoga where I knot my limbs into pretzels and balance on nothing but my hands. But for something I spend so many hours of my life doing (as Bechdel jokingly puts it, “very possibly as many as are actually recommended”) I spend remarkably little time thinking or talking about it. The reason? Exercise isn’t really that interesting; not much, it appears, can usefully be said about it that can’t be said in a brief article or a comic strip.
If anyone could have pulled it off, it would have been Bechdel — the woman who wrote a fun, engaging graphic memoir about therapy. But alas. In the world of vigorous exercise, all roads lead to the same vague invocations of eastern philosophy. “In my favorite part of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, [Shunryū Suzuki] talks about his experience of the falls,” writes Bechdel, over an out-of-focus, black-and-white watercolor of a waterfall. “Before we’re born, he says, we’re like the river up above. Then we’re separated from that oneness into droplets….But soon enough, we join the river again.”
For anyone who’s spent enough time in yoga classes or experimenting with psychedelics, these kinds of insights will be (perhaps tiringly) familiar. Of course, they’re also important and true, but Bechdel’s neurotic approach to her comics — which made her other memoirs so lively, complicated, and accessible — wound up feeling like the wrong approach. “What if the point was not to finish, but to stop struggling?” Bechdel asks. One wishes she perhaps struggled a bit more — found some more answers, unearthed some surprising new insights. Or maybe a bit less: leaned into the “light” and the “fun,” instead of trying to inject gravity and profundity where it didn’t belong.