Fun Home

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.

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18 Responses to Fun Home

  1. It’s really a wonderful medium, isn’t it?

    I’ve heard of Bechdel (who hasn’t?) but I’ve never picked up her work. This sounds quite good.

    • Jenny says:

      It is! I’ve read some of her Dykes To Watch Out For strip as well, and that’s also well worth reading, but this is more of a narrative.

  2. christina says:

    It is official. I am the ONLY blogger who did not like this book. I wish I could even say it’s because it was my first graphic. Now, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m missing something.

    It’s been a couple of years since I read Fun Home (I did really like the title) but I recall never truly connecting to the characters. I suppose I was expecting more of an emotional reaction, similar to the one I had with Persepolis.

    • Jenny says:

      It does feel a little distanced, maybe because she is so analytical and literary. But for me, that made it even more interesting, and I did feel a connection. Maybe try it again sometime? It’s short, so it’s not a big risk.

  3. I was afraid that the powerful message of the book wouldn’t be properly conveyed in a graphic novel, so I was very surprised to be proven wrong.

  4. The graphic novel form really lends itself to memoir and the bulk of those I have read so far have been memoirs (and I’m not really one for reading memoirs in prose).

    Fun Home was done remarkably well but I remember another blogger (I *think* it was Jenny of Jenny’s Books) commenting on my review that she was uncomfortable with Bechdel appropriating this story when it was not just hers to tell but also that of her mother and brother – I wonder how they felt about Fun Home.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree, Claire, I’ve loved most of the memoirs I’ve read in graphic-novel format. I think my favorites are Maus and American Born Chinese. Your question about her family is an interesting one, but I don’t consider it “appropriation” any more than I consider writing history “appropriation.”

  5. Marieke says:

    I was totally blown away by this book and immediately shared it with my brother and sister after I read it — I think a re-read would be warranted because I’m sure I missed a lot of the literary allusions. I just love the way she tells the story in so many layers.

    “She’s obviously brilliant” – agreed!

    • Jenny says:

      I think the reason I liked this so much was the literary allusions. Anyone who can tell a whole chunk of her story through Proust (referring to him as a pansy!) has got me hooked!

  6. Jenny says:

    This is the only thing I’ve read of Bechdel’s, as my darn library doesn’t have any of her Dykes to Watch Out For collections. :/ Maybe I will ask that they be ordered–the library never orders what I ask them to, but I keep hoping they will someday.

    It probably was me who commented on Claire’s review to say I was uncomfortable with Bechdel appropriating her family’s stories, because I was uncomfortable with that (as ever with memoirs). I read an article Bechdel wrote about doing that (I think it was Bechdel), where she said that she ran everything by her mother and brother, and when they asked her to take parts out, she took some out and left some in. She said she knew she had hurt them, and she knew she’d probably do it again if she wrote more autobiographical stuff. So it didn’t necessarily make me less uncomfortable with it, or with memoirs in general.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think of writing the story of your own life as “appropriating” anything. Unless you grew up in a room by yourself, without interacting with anyone else, your own story is necessarily going to be the story of other people, too; it’s the inevitable consequence of having relationships. Bechdel is very careful not to project her feelings onto her father or anyone else, and that’s about all you can do, I think. Some memoirs are, of course, self-indulgent, and assume that everyone else revolves around the narrator, but this one balances that beautifully.

    • Jenny says:

      I guess “appropriate” isn’t the word I want. I was bothered that she was telling secrets that weren’t her secrets, sometimes without permission. I know it’s frequently part of writing a memoir, but it’s not a very nice part.

      • Jenny says:

        I can see that that could bother you, though it didn’t bother me; as you say, it’s part of writing a memoir — understanding your own life means understanding other people’s. I haven’t liked memoirs where this was done maliciously (I’m looking at YOU, Augusten Rice Burroughs!), but this was done, I thought, lovingly on the whole.

  7. cbjames says:

    I think I’ll request this book from my library. Sounds very interesting.

    I am someone who conisders graphic novels a genre. While I agree that there are many sub-categories within this genre, this is true of all genres of course, graphic novels use all use a set of tools that other genres do not use.

    In the strictest sense, novels are a genre, as are short stories, plays, poetry, non-fiction, etc.

    It is no insult to call graphic novels a genre.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, but then graphic novels would be a genre, and graphic short stories, and graphic biography, and graphic poetry, and graphic plays (if such a thing existed.) “Graphic novel” implies *novel*, at least to me, unless I misunderstand the term. That’s the point I was trying to make, I think, if I was trying to make one. This isn’t a graphic novel, it’s a graphic memoir.

      I look forward to seeing what you think of this!

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