Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Towards the end of the summer, I discovered a new thrift store in my hometown, one that was part of a block of stores managed by a local church. It was enormous, although it didn’t yield up any new corner pieces for my bursting at the seams Tolkien collection. But it did have books, and I found a copy of Fun Home there for fifty cents. Finding a memoir that deals frankly with queer sexuality in a church thrift store was a funny juxtaposition to me, although, for all I know, that particular denomination is a-okay with queer folk. (Being Georgia, I sincerely doubt it.) So I essentially picked it up for a lark, but got so much more.
Fun Home is cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s memoir of her upbringing in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s, a memoir of her relationship with her distant and deeply closeted father, and a memoir of her own identity as a lesbian. The thread holding the memoir together is her father, Bruce, who died shortly after Alison came out to her parents, leaving her with a fractured family and a mystery, as Alison believes that her father killed himself. Bechdel’s memoir is not so much her own story but a story about family and the sacrifices we make; tellingly, Bechdel is currently at work on another memoir, Love Life, to tell her own story.
I’m not sure what I was expecting out of Fun Home; I will be totally honest in saying that the paperback’s iridescent cover caught my attention as much as anything else. While I knew of Bechdel from her famous Bechdel Test, I’d never read Dykes to Watch Out For. While I have been trying to think about graphic novels cinematically rather than literately, Fun Home is a nonlinear memoir. It’s something completely out of my experience, and I’m not the only one—the paperback cover is covered with accolades that gush over how unique it is. After spending more than twenty years honing her skills on Dykes to Watch Out For (which is still running, albeit on hiatus), Bechdel is a master in her field; you never feel that Fun Home is trying to prove the validity of graphic novels because it doesn’t have to. It’s perfectly valid on its own.
The very medium forces Bechdel to practice the economy of style that I so admire in other writers, Michael Chabon in particular. This doesn’t mean that it’s barebones, but rather that it’s remarkably focused, despite its nonlinear structure and seemingly broad focus. Ultimately, in exploring and trying to come to terms with her father’s death, Bechdel explores how difficult and painful hiding who you are is, especially for those who rely on the front you present to the public. Bruce’s dark secret casts a pall on everything that Bechdel covers here; her childhood, her growing awareness of who she is and how it is wrong in the eyes of the world, and her tentative adulthood. It creates a family so distant that she postpones telling her mother she’s begun menstruating; her mother is busy and her father is soon arrested for providing a minor with an alcoholic beverage. Bruce is so internal and disaffectionate that it’s tempting to pin the source of Bechdel’s home environment on him, but everyone in her family is just as self-focused. At several points, she considers it an artists’ colony rather than a family, and her family environment was stressful enough for the young Bechdel to develop obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But this isn’t a bitter or angry memoir; Bechdel loves her father, and it’s that love that pushes her to try and piece together the circumstances of his death and his life. She ends many anecdotes of Bruce’s life before moving back to Pennsylvania by mentioning the fact that she learned about it as an adult, oftentimes after his death. She rifles through his closet, finding photographs that she struggles to connect to her father. Even as she and her father seek to connect with each other over their alternate sexualities towards the end of his life, they can’t—they’ve been avoiding each other and themselves too much for open Alison and very recently closeted Bruce to make that connection. It’s ultimately a tragedy, yes, but Bechdel’s thoughtful and literate musings on the subject are fascinating.
I have to be honest, I’m finding it very difficult to review Fun Home—I think I need to explore the medium some more before I’m really capable of trying to pin down how magnificent this graphic novel is. But I do want to impress on you that it’s impressive and a story to be reckoned with; you’ll feel its aftereffects long after you finish.
Bottom line: Bechdel’s fond memoir of a distant family overcast by her father’s secrets is a truly unique and impressive piece of work. Highly recommended.
I bought this book from a thrift store.