Photograph-Illustration: by The Reduce; Pictures: Getty Photos
“Sizzling Bod” is a weekly exploration of health tradition and its adjoining oddities.
In a panel about midway by Alison Bechdel’s new graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Power, the author stretches her hip adductors in a claw-foot tub in her crummy New York rest room. It’s after her dad’s suicide, and he or she has thrown her complete self into studying karate. “My solely ache was bodily,” she writes. “The uninteresting ache of bruises. The acute ache of blisters. An beautiful tenderness that suffused components of my physique I’d by no means been conscious of earlier than.” The bodily reminiscence singes with contradiction: It reveals how hyperawareness masks neglect, how one painful aftermath can supersede one other, how solicited agony replaces ignored agony. It’s additionally an ideal instance of the best way Bechdel makes use of motion as an organizing precept to inform a brand new story about herself.
As a memoirist, Bechdel is accustomed to scooping the corners of her life for materials — and intellectualizing every topic with an elevated line of inquiry. The syndicated newspaper comedian “Dykes to Watch Out For” gave a soapy therapy to a bunch of associates, sprinkled with topical political commentary. Enjoyable Residence (2006), Bechdel’s best-known work (subsequently tailored right into a Tony Award–profitable musical), included meta-literary evaluation into her relationship along with her father; Are You My Mom? (2012) used psychoanalysis to look at her relationship along with her mom. Bechdel’s strategy to her new guide isn’t any completely different; she shades her private train historical past with a handful of philosophical and literary actions — Romanticism, transcendentalism, regardless of the beatniks’ -ism was. However Bechdel’s perspective on motion is so engrossing, pensive, and peculiar that the guide has no want for a historical past lesson to justify its topic.
The Secret to Superhuman Power is a memoir of a love affair — not with an individual however with transferring. The guide’s actual topic is life pressure. And what higher topic is there? It essentially offers with growing old, need, ache, pleasure, enjoyable, failure, capricious style. We see an early punching bag that Bechdel made herself in tenth grade from a laundry bag crammed with pennies and marbles, utilizing her dad’s ski gloves to field in secret. We see her swept away by the group-classes feeling “of union as we moved and breathed in sync in a collective trance” whereas studying how you can be an unbeatable karate opponent. Train is available in completely different kinds and completely different obsessions, however the rules — of power, change, and accomplishment — stay steadfast.
We additionally see how bodily practices form not solely her physique however how she considers herself as a physique on the planet. Throughout the warmth of karate coaching in her 20s, Bechdel will get into an precise fistfight with somebody who groped her in a subway station. “That was the start of the tip for me,” she writes of karate, which she give up shortly after. Its objective jarred abruptly: She’d been coaching as a warrior when she by no means needed to go to warfare. This dénouement precedes Bechdel’s rapture with the exhausting work of biking — and the actual manner biking teaches you about geographic terrain. “I like the verticality of my new turf,” she writes. “The scoliotic backbone of the inexperienced mountains runs the size of the state.” The place karate conditioned her to struggle, biking conditioned her to discover.
All through the guide, Bechdel appears self-conscious to have written a memoir about transferring the physique, as if this diminishes the lifetime of the thoughts. “Effectively, I’m not simply writing about health,” she causes. “I’m writing about how the pursuit of health has been a car for me to one thing else.” She consciously injects the memoir with mental historical past to provide it a way of seriousness. However all of the arguments fall wanting Bechdel’s writing about how unimaginable it feels to breathe exhausting on mountains. And in gyms. And on small yoga mats as we wave in our residing rooms.
As quickly as she will get the apologia out of the best way, you notice how a lot she by no means wanted the apologia. In a rigorous bodily pursuit, like several rigorous pursuit, you find out about all of your corners. It’s a pure topic for a memoirist who likes to push deep into all of the layers of feeling: from floor pores and skin, to wavy muscle tissues, to exhausting bone, to the softest marrow.