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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

(Houghton Mifflin)

A memoir that sees itself as a kind of fiction, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic explores the absurdities of Alison Bechdel’s upbringing while simultaneously delivering them as exquisite truths, filling its pages with psychological insight and clever literary allusion. Bechdel frames the events with the lives and tales of literary authors and refers to her family as if they were fictions themselves, with “heavy-handed plot devices” shaping their lives. The way Fun Home often visually displays its events, through maps, letters, diary entries, newspaper headlines and dictionaries creates a trail of evidence, even as Bechdel uses imaginary tales to convey the strangeness of her family. The result of the mixture is ultimately humanizing, intimate, and a new graphic novel to add to the small list of works that can be recommended to full-blown skeptics of the medium.

The tale focuses on Bechdel’s life, through adolescence and college, and on her father, an English teacher, operator of a funeral parlor, and closeted homosexual. The opening chapter summarizes his late life, declaring the turning points and revelations with a shocking nonchalance. They affect us in a way that clearly no longer affects Bechdel, a tactic she expounds upon later in the book. She then digs deeper into the details, filling the holes in the temporal map of their relationship while making endless thematic connections across everything available, including ancient mythology, plays, films, and the sociopolitical events of the times and places.
Witty wordplay is one of the book’s most attractive features. “Postlapsarian” describes the aftermath of a transformative experience involving a snake, Bechdel’s father’s life “was a solipsistic circle of self, from autodidact to autocrat to autocide”, and captions make incisive, parenthetical humors, like renaming a house cleaning agent “incipient yellow lung disease”. Fun Home switches tone elegantly and yet swiftly, the comical and the dramatic yielding a solid realism.

The main point of reference in the memoir is fiction, and where her father used real objects to create a fiction, Bechdel uses fiction as a filter to reveal her family. Bechdel handles this reversal with sublime grace and economy. Her father becomes a suite of characters, from Jay Gatsby and Albert Camus to both Icarus and Daedalus, all to the successful end of poignantly explaining his character and their relationship. The method provides a compelling contrast, the odd nature of writing this memoir, of digging up the past in the midst of a family business focused on burying it. These comparisons, indeed the whole book, fight against a void Bechdel establishes early on. When her father died, she felt that “his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him”. This happened a short time after she came out as a homosexual herself, and she attempts to blame this event for his demise. She calls this the “last, tenuous bond” between them, but every barest relation she generates attempts to tighten their link just a bit more.

Less impressive is the art, which is not bad, but the writing often overshadows it in quality and function. It is sometimes completely secondary, merely displaying discrete moments better described by the words, but at other times its detailing is impressive, as in the aftermath of a summer storm around the Bechdel home, or it is at least painstakingly crafted, such as the many maps, letters and photos. In particular, a photograph found halfway through Fun Home is not only delicately duplicated, but its pages form a curious blue-green streak amidst the book’s otherwise white edges, opposite its binding, creating a thin line to demarcate the sole physical evidence of one of her father’s darker secrets.

At a recent reading in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Bechdel was asked to recommend some graphic novels, and she admitted that she wasn’t altogether familiar with many and was just now catching up. In a joking way, this is almost unsurprising, as Fun Home feels like an anomaly, a graphic novel with no idea that graphic novels are seldom written this well.  It comes to us as a gift from some alternate universe where comics casually stand beside classic works of literature, reaching across the mediums without fear of mockery.

Tagged as: alison bechdel
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