Nymeth over at Things Mean a Lot is always saying that “graphic novel” is not a genre. There are graphic novels that are speculative fiction, horror, literary fiction, historical fiction, retellings of classics, romance, and many others; there are also graphic… whatevers… that are not novels at all. There’s popular science, biography, history, and — perhaps most popular of all — memoir. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is one of these last, subtitled “a family tragicomic.”
Bechdel is the author of the well-known comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and she has published something like twelve compilations of this very witty, wry, popular strip. So I expected Fun Home to be a sardonic coming-out story, maybe Bechdel’s tracing of her childhood awareness of difference in her family. I expected it to be funny, with David Sedaris overtones. And while it had some very funny moments, it went much deeper than jokes.
Instead, Bechdel frames the story of her childhood and adolescence around her father’s presence, absence, and obsessions. Besides being an English teacher, he compulsively restored their Gothic-Victorian family home (making his daughter, in one extremely funny moment, identify with the Addams family). Everything was about appearances: the gilt, velvet, furniture, and perfect landscaping. In an even more sinister way, her father helped to run the family business: a funeral home (hence the irreverent “fun home.”) This, too, was about appearances for him, as he put cosmetics on corpses. Bechdel compares him to Daedalus, that great artificer, and to Gatsby, who preferred fiction to reality — the book is richly full of literary references, one after another.
What were all these appearances hiding? Bechdel’s father had multiple affairs with young men, sometimes including his high-school students, Bechdel’s babysitters, and hired hands. Despite the desperate risks he ran (once he was arrested for buying one of these young men a beer, and was required to seek counselling), he couldn’t seem to stop himself. And eventually, after Bechdel was in college, he committed suicide.
The book winds back and forth between the suicide and the past, sometimes going back beyond Bechdel’s birth to her parents’ relationship, sometimes exploring her understanding of her own sexuality. She always knew she was different, and that she would need to escape the trajectory of the heteronormative society she found herself in; how was it for her father, who found himself trapped? She explores questions of beauty and art (she is an artist, and so was her father, in his way) through references to Proust and James Joyce; she asks questions about artifice and authenticity by quoting Fitzgerald.
By the end of the memoir, Bechdel has begun to come to terms with her own identity, and has also begun to accept her father’s choice, desperate and destructive as it was. She reads the Odyssey, and then Joyce’s Ulysses, her father’s favorite book, and begins to understand his constant seeking for a home he was never really able to find. She acknowledges how little she knew him, but also their closeness. One of the signs that this is a good book is that she’s able to accept this ambiguity and not seek for complete closure.
I thought that the visual medium was an astonishingly effective way to tell this story. The narration takes place in the margins, outside the pictures, in Bechdel’s present-day, mature voice. The drawings, then, seem like illustrations from the past: home movies, maybe, or slides, or other memorabilia. She shows us photos, letters, pages of journals, the marginalia of books — all the intimate detritus of a life shockingly stopped in mid-beat. It’s wonderfully engaging, and touching, too. This is a family story, and a personal journey, and a literate and psychological narrative. If you’re looking for a “graphic novel” but you’re not sure about comic books, you couldn’t do better than to start here.