She also mixes in mini-biographies and close readings of Jack Kerouac, Margaret Fuller, Samuel Coleridge, Adrienne Rich, William Wordsworth and “The Diamond Sutra,” along with hidden references to “The Inner Game of Tennis” and Yeats. And she offers some memoiristic candor, including about her flirtations with substance abuse.
Bechdel doesn’t learn to juggle in these pages but she sure throws a lot of balls into the air. More balls, the reader imagines at times, than she will be able to catch. You have moments of wondering if she’s grown weary trying to write this book (her last one was 10 years ago) and thus loosened her trademark rigor. But you forgive her, because you feel she can’t help it — her brain is just wired this way. She also seems to know that it’s unlikely she’ll catch all the balls. And maybe that’s OK?
Besides, the ride is fun and even insightful. I live in a house of literary fitness freaks, and even for people who are supposedly good with words and who exercise all the time, Bechdel’s book contained real revelations. For example, the idea of obliterating yourself. We’ve been talking about this for years — Hey, how are you? Fine but I kind of obliterated myself at the gym — without ever considering these words in the way that Bechdel suggests: that the self is a problem. That our aim in going all out is to release so many endorphins that the problems of ego and a whirling mind fade away, even if just for a few minutes.
The book makes you see exercising as a kind of touchstone, the way going back to the same place every year can be. You love to see the landscape, but the true experience is internal: dealing with your own change. The biggest of these discoveries, for me at least, is the idea that physical pursuits, which on the surface may seem like a way of trying to fend off death, are actually a way to accept it. Every day you check in with your body. For a while you get better and then you get worse. It’s a hell of a thing to face day after day. What’s “winning” once you’ve summitted the crest and begun the descent, anyway?
The alternate title of “Superhuman Strength” was “How to Get Six-Pack Abs in 60 Years.” This book is in no way a companion to Timothy Ferriss’s insane manual “The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman” — but it would not be a mistake to read it that way. How to win a MacArthur and still feel like garbage? How to do nothing when the doctor looks at your bum shoulder and says: “Yep. It’s frozen. Not much to do about it. It’ll resolve in a year or two. Or not.” The path to enlightenment is not always marked by grand new achievements and personal bests.
In perhaps my favorite panel in the book, Bechdel returns to the same warehouse where she bought her first karate gi to buy the new black belt she’s earned. The same man at the same window says, “Five bucks.” He’s our ferryman. Bechdel has gone on this whole journey and she’s still the monk in the koan, chopping wood, carrying water, buying athletic gear. She’s still in the same place.
Part of the pleasure of Bechdel’s books is the conversation she’s in with herself, all the layers: the drawings, the captions, the dialogue, the annotations of the world, the storyboards that move the narrative, the burbling monologue of her mind. This is a true delight of graphic literature, and nobody does it better. You feel as if you’re peering through a plexiglass panel right into Bechdel’s marvelous brain. In her earlier books her virtuosity with the form resulted in creations that were ornate and contained, filigreed gems looping and folding in on themselves. The back page of “Fun Home,” with its two panels, is a nearly perfect ending to a nearly perfect book.
In “Superhuman Strength” you can feel that Bechdel knows that she doesn’t have that much control. But perfection is not the point, which is the point. Control is an illusion; the secret is to let go. In that way, you realize at the end, she even pays off her goofy title. Bechdel’s genius is such that even a plain old writer suddenly wishes for the ability to annotate her own text. [Please insert a Holy &*@^%!$! GAHHHHHH!]