COMICS / BOOKS: John Reviews “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel

Autobiography is a very interesting genre, in large part because it is so rare to find the combination of a brillaint writer and a compelling story. Furthermore, these books rarely follow standard plot progression and usually lack the frequent use of literary devices (such as parallelism, symbolism, metaphor, allegory and irony) that are a staple of fiction. This makes renowned writer/activist Alison Bechdel‘s trend-bucking graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic stand out from the crowd all the more. Taking the leap from comic strip creator to full-fledged autobiographer, Bechdel pulls back the curtain on her own life to reveal the bizarre and often tragic details of her upbringing, and sheds light on her discovery of her own sexuality in almost perfect contrast to her father’s attempts to disguise and deny his.

Fun Home begins with the expository surface details of Bechdel family life in order to set a framework (like a house of cards, an elegant facade of stability) which slowly comes under greater and greater scrutiny as the memoir progresses. Once the details of Bruce Bechdel’s death (which occurred several weeks after Alison’s “coming out” to her family) are revealed, she takes the reader back to the myriad events of her childhood that seemed so innocuous at the time, yet were plainly visible signs of tragedy for anyone who had the foresight to look for them. Make no mistake, though: It is Bruce’s inability to accept his homosexuality that is his tragedy, not the sexual identity itself. Indeed, one might say that his inward repression – combined with subtle expression via creative outlets such as gardening, restoration of antiques, and fancy period dress – were an invisible, influential force on young Alison, who reacted by becoming “butch” to her father’s “pansy” long before she was old enough to understand her own motives.

Everything in the Bechdel family home (a meticulously restored manor home from the nineteenth century that Bruce supposedly showed more affection to than his own children) was a carefully contrived fiction. The Bechdels’ marriage was never truly equitable or even amicable, and the entire family could be seen as just another “piece” of the house that gave the fiction an appearance of authenticity. It is a wonder that Alison is not far more emotionally damaged than she is.

Fun Home is clearly written by a professional author, specifically one with a solid education in the classics of Western Literature. Given the fact that Bruce Bechdel was a high school English teacher and an avid reader who encouraged his daughter to pursue the arts from an early age, this comes as no surprise. What is surprising is the astoundingly literary structure of events in Alison’s life, as well as the number and extent of allegorical, metaphorical or parallel occurances that make the truth even more illustrative and dramatic than fiction. The final chapter deals largely with astoundingly fitting parallels between both Bruce and Alison’s lives and James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s The Odyssey (the “cyclops” is a lover of Alison’s who has a glass eye, etc.), while the early chapters illustrate an unsettling mirror of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that may have been an example of life imitating art. After all, could it be coincidence that Bruce Bechdel’s life so frequently reflected elements of his favorite novels?

On the subject of illustration, Bechdel’s graphic work fits perfectly with the memoir genre. Each panel blends the authenticity of meticulously recorded and researched history with the inherent nostalgia of memory, be it for better or worse. The use of three colors (black ink, white negative space, and blue watercolor) gives the pages an almost cold feeling, which is more in keeping with the book’s themes than more traditional sepia tones would be. Many photographs and letter excerpts are expertly reproduced, sometimes authentic to the point of making them less legible. If I have one problem with Fun Home, it is that the occasional reproduced handwritten excerpt takes extra time to decipher. Thankfully, any passages of crucial importance are highlighted for emphasis and easy reading.

The subject of homosexuality is the crux of Fun Home, and it is treated not only with the respect that it deserves, but with a surprising level of accessibility. Alison Bechdel does a fantastic job relating her own experiences in a way that will help heterosexual readers understand her journey without making them feel alienated or uncomfortable. In fact, I would say that this may be one of the greatest strengths of “Fun Home.” Perhaps we will see it taught in LGBT studies courses the same way Maus is used in some college-level courses dealing with the Holocaust. It is certainly equally honest and forthright, and similarly tragic, but is a decidedly different in both theme and method of storytelling. I highly recommend Fun Home to anyone who enjoys deeply moving, well-crafted stories with strong characterization and important themes. Sometimes the truth really is more powerful than fiction.

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