Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

by Alison Bechdel
240 pages,
ISBN: 0618477942

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The Year of Alison Bechdel
by Michael Harris

Since 1983, this lesbian comic artist has steadily built up a readership for her cult phenomenon, Dykes to Watch Out For. It's the serial story of a DIY, found family of gay, lesbian, and transgendered folk who do little more than groan and smirk over their coffees at the stupidity of the America they find themselves living in. It also happens to be one of the most insightful running commentaries on contemporary politics. The strip Bechdel inked after the September 11 attacks, for example, was the most immediately effective artistic response that I have come across.
WDTWOF is syndicated in over 50 periodicals, mainly niche publications geared toward gay and lesbian readerships. With Houghton Mifflin's publication of Bechdel's memoir/graphic novel, Fun Home, the mainstream is now discovering what gay and lesbian readers have known since DTWOF was first published back in 1983: namely, that Bechdel is a first-rate talent whose work¨relegated to the hinterland of the art-world by its status as "queer" and "cartoon"¨is anything but niche-oriented.
Bechdel speaks of universals. So much so, in fact, that a universal humanist like Harold Bloom would have trouble finding fault here. Splices of canonical literature are fitted into every cranny of Fun Home. Because this is a family memoir, Bechdel chooses stories of family to furnish her narrative. The tale of Daedalus and his romantic son Icarus is overlaid onto Bechdel's relationship with her own father.
In Bechdel's case, the roles are reversed: "I was Spartan to my father's Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his nelly. Utilitarian to his aesthete."
While Bechdel is away at college, her father dies under mysterious circumstances. He was either hit by a truck accidentally, or he jumped in front of one, having finally become exhausted by a lifelong struggle to suppress his own homosexuality. The father's end becomes, in a classic bit of structural symmetry, the emotional beginning of the child. His death is inextricably linked to Bechdel's own awakening; he dies shortly after she comes out to her parents as a lesbian:

"I had imagined my confession as an emancipation from my parents, but instead I was pulled back into their orbit. And with my father's death following so hard on the heels of this doleful coming-out party, I could not help but assume a cause-and-effect relationship. If I had not felt compelled to share my little sexual discovery, perhaps the semi would have passed without incident . . . "

If the guilt that Bechdel feels over her father's death is an attempt to impose narrative on actually random circumstances, then she's highly aware of the fallacy. Indeed, Bechdel's graphic memoir is giddily self-referential to the point of camp.
Her parents are introduced to us through the gelled lens of canonical allusion: "If my father was a Fitzgerald character, my mother stepped right out of Henry James¨a vigorous American idealist ensnared by degenerate continental forces. In fact, in college she played the lead in The Heiress, which is based on James's novel Washington Square."
This worming of some literary sense into the mulch of her lived experience lends Bechdel's book a cohesiveness that it wouldn't have otherwise achieved. It also feels terribly sad, in its way; it's as though real life were incomprehensible and one must retreat into fiction in order to feel safe. Bechdel's drawings, which her publisher aptly describes as "sweetly gothic" are shaded in melancholic bluish-green tones that perfectly suit the dominant wry expressiveness of her characters.
The characters themselves are all drawn from digital photographs that Bechdel takes of herself. This time-consuming procedure yields a curious reward: since we are reading a family history, it helps that everyone in Fun Home appears lightly linked, either through posture or frame. In her preface, Bechdel notes that "while the process of embodying various members of my family and reenacting scenes from my life definitely helped with the technical aspect of drawing, it also had the unanticipated side effect of giving me access to emotional details I otherwise might have missed."
Perhaps the best way to understand that illustrative quirk would be to look again at Bechdel's father. The first chapter of Fun Home,"Old Father, Old Artificer", spends an inordinate amount of time describing his "monomaniacal restoration of our old house." He is determined to return the building to a lost glory that he can sense in the house's cracking walls. "The gilt cornices, the marble fireplace, the crystal chandeliers, the shelves of calf-bound books¨these were not so much bought as produced from thin air by my father's remarkable legerdemain."
Bechdel, too, senses something larger, more cohesive, in the broken bits of her family's life. There is a fascinating quality of repetition in this work, where she works over key moments in her young experience with an obsessive need to revise them, exhume them. Of her father's restoration efforts, his desire to recreate "a nineteenth-century aristocrat's" life for himself, she writes: "Perhaps affectation can be so thoroughgoing, so authentic in its details, that is stops being pretense."
Her own monomaniacal restoration is the book itself. Her desire to restore her own family history seems at once a reaction against her father's life and a direct result of some inherited gene. I very much like her awareness of this quality (could we call it an artistic affliction?), which suffuses the drawn pages with a kind of meta-smirk, a way of saying 'Yes, I know this is all in vain. But I must.'
Her adroit comprehension of all this put me in mind of Vladimir Nabokov's memoir Speak Memory, in which his method of recollection is irrevocably tethered to the recollection itself. No doubt it's all just fancy footwork. Memoirs must always fail eventually; that is their mournful beauty. When we see young Alison worrying over her diary, later in the book, we find a heart-wrenching tick in the child's writing. "In April, the minutely-lettered phrase I Think begins to crop up between my comments. It was a sort of epistemological crisis. How did I know that the things I was writing were absolutely, objectively true?" Isn't that the torment of all historians, whether they deal with the battlegrounds of families or countries? (The Watergate scandal breaks, tellingly, at the same time that Bechdel shows herself first getting her period).
"My simple, declarative sentences began to strike me as hubristic at best, utter lies at worst . . . My I Think were gossamer sutures in that gaping rift between signifier and signified." The I Think is eventually trumped by a scribbling out of the offending words. And the offending words, always, are subjects. Most often, they are the members of her own family.
As was the case for Art Spiegelman when he created his Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece Maus, Bechdel's family wasn't entirely supportive of her plans to memorialise their dark past. Yet, for Bechdel, there is an imperative to diarise and mark down memory. Otherwise, one is left with a tortuous emptiness that she rightly calls "the implicit lie of the blank page." ˛

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