Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic novel memoir by Alison Bechdel, of “Bechdel Test” fame (an idea that came from Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For). Published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 2006, Fun Home is one of the most introspective, expertly woven, and intelligent graphic novels–or memoirs in general–that I’ve ever read.
Bechdel focuses on her father, a man who obsesses over appearances, including that of his house, children, and personal clothing. The house looks like something out of a Victorian novel, and though the family isn’t “rich,” other kids think the Bechdels are because of what the author’s father is able to do with rummaging and an obsessive desire to make things look beautiful and ornamental. He also forces his children to look nice, encouraging–and then belittling for not obeying–the author for not adding feminine touches, like pearls, to what he considers a dowdy outfit. Alison Bechdel confesses that she would rather dress like a boy, and readers discover that her father would rather dress like a girl (and has). The two exchange clothing advice in a surreptitious fashion for years, living vicariously through the other.
Bechdel’s father is also a man with a temper, ordering his children around and fighting with his wife when she’s nearly at the end of her rope with him. Both mother and father are English teachers, and they live a life of creative endeavors. Often, the family is terribly isolated, each person in his/her own room, working on creative projects, like an artists’ commune, Bechdel notes.
The father doesn’t seem loving or meant to have children, but Bechdel observes, “Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. A sort of still life with children.” It’s a lonely, sad, cold life. No one hugs, touches, or exhibits the vital light that typically signifies “family.”
Bechdel’s story isn’t totally chronological. Putting things out of order and going in circles worked to surprise me and engage me more deeply with Bechdel’s analysis. One surprise happens when the author reveals a death: on the left page, the father is bathing a very young Bechdel. At the top of the right page, it says, “It’s true that he didn’t kill himself until I was nearly twenty.” What a surprise! Who knew this is how the story would go! But once Bechdel says it, the memoir starts spiraling around this impending death. Getting closer and more intimate while pulling away shows the similarities between the author and her closeted father.
Due to his cold and angry personality, Bechdel seems to feel little when she learns that her father was hit by a semi-truck and that he may or may not have committed suicide. She tries to feel something, though it’s difficult because she’s grown used to death, in addition to the distance relationship with her dad. Bechdel’s family owned a funeral home (the “fun home”), so she saw many splayed open corpses.
For years after my father’s death, when the subject of parents came up in conversation I would relate the information in a flat, matter-of-fact tone….
“My dad’s dead. He jumped in front of a truck.”
…eager to detect in my listener the flinch of grief that eluded me. The emotion I had suppressed for the gaping cadaver seemed to stay suppressed. Even when it was dad himself on the prep table.
Bechdel goes deep into herself to figure out what she’s thinking and feeling and how it affects the way she behaved. Much of the graphic memoir does this type of introspection.
For example, Bechdel realized for certain at 19 that she is a lesbian. She wrote a letter to her parents, who seemed to take the news hard. Her mother also said she was at the end of her rope with Bechdel’s father, and the author, at 19-years-old, suggested they divorce, advice that the mother took. After “causing” a pending divorce and coming out, Bechdel worries she had something to do with her father’s suicide. She confirms her fear is not really founded, as the father struggled his whole life with anger, legal troubles, and being closeted, but Bechdel notes, “I’m reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond.” It’s touching and telling to realize that the closest Bechdel can get to her father is by assuming she had a part in his death.
Later, Bechdel remembers how her father would have young men around the house to babysit the children or do yard work. “He would cultivate these young men like orchids,” she writes, and it’s seeing these very masculine young men that leads the author to realize that she relates to them, as opposed to having a crush on them. She realizes that even as a girl, she could “sense a chink in [her] family’s armor, an undefended gap in the circle of [their] wagons which cried out, it seemed to [her], for some plain, two-fisted sinew.” Basically, Bechdel’s father is highly feminine, suggesting that there is no manly presence to protect her family, so it’s a role that Bechdel tries to foster in herself. Again, the author recognizes the psychology that shapes her choices.
Bechdel, as a result of English teacher parents, is well read and grammatically astounding. She never ends in prepositions, she ties in themes from books like Ulysses, Kate Millett’s Flying, the story of Icarus, Earthly Paradise by Colett, and Fitzgerald works. Many of the works referenced are ones I have not read, but Bechdel smoothly explains just enough of the book’s contents to make it relevant to the situation she’s comparing it to, but not so much as to insult the reader’s intelligence.
Another result of literary-minded parents is excellent vocabulary. I was constantly turning to a dictionary while reading Fun Home, but as someone who always wants to learn, I didn’t mind. Here are some examples of words I looked up:
If you’re an impatient reader with a pretty normal vocabulary, this book is not for you.
If you’re up for a bit of a challenge though, you’ll love Fun Home. The weaving of past and present, psychology and action, is complex and reveals a person who has extracted meaning from a complicated, lonely childhood. Even better, the images as all professional looking–no cartoony images, no bright colors, no squiggly-doodly pictures.