COMICS: petpluto Reviews Fun Home

Searching for words to describe the fantasticness of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is almost futile, but I’m going to try. The closest I can come to fully explaining its power and mystique was actually written by someone else: a reader of my personal blog; Rebekah (I’m quoting without permission here, as always) described the book thusly:

I related so well to her childhood even though it has few actual parallels to mine.

It’s true. The familial situation described in Fun Home has very little relation to my own. My father is not a closet homosexual. My parents did not wait until my sisters and I were older to take interest in us. My parents, while almost perpetually antagonistic, are not in what could best be described as an all out war zone. My father, aside from his fastidious wardrobe and shoe requirements, has little in common with Bruce Bechdel. And yet, there is something strangely familiar about the story she tells; almost as if I’d known it before I read it, and that this was just a talented hand awakening that universally shared knowledge. I think that feeling of forgotten nostalgia for a story I had never before encountered was well-served by Bechdel’s technique of nonlinear story telling. The way the story bobs and weaves, the way the narrative jumps from place and time and back again, with renewed knowledge and a slightly different perspective, helps reinforce those important moments.

The story itself – and how Bechdel writes it – is a wonderment. It captivates, it draws from the literature of Fitzgerald and James Joyce, from Greek myth and Camus and Wilde and Proust and Henry James and Shakespeare. And the visuals are equally magnificent, with its HR Pufnstuff lunch boxes and Wind in the Willows coloring books and illustrated maps. And there are revelations that wash over the reader, like the dual nature of Alison and her father:

Not only were we inverts. We were inversions of one another. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him… …He was attempting to express something feminine through me. It was a war of cross-purposes and so doomed to perpetual escalation. Between us lay a slender demilitarized zone — our shared reverence for masculine beauty. But I wanted the muscles and tweed like my father wanted the velvet and pearls — subjectively, for myself.

The book both manages to condemn Bruce Bechdel’s sex with teenage boys and empathize with his predicament of being a gay man in the 1950s; it does so by turning a darker eye to her father’s predilections in hindsight than there was when she experienced those moments the first time around, like the beach trips and camping trips with Bruce Bechdel’s preferred boy babysitters. But it allows that sympathy through letters Bruce wrote to Alison, letters that demonstrated his own dire straits and how captive he felt to the heteronormative life, and how constricting and stifling that world was. That doesn’t mean that there is not plenty of sympathy for Helen Bechdel, Alison’s mother. She is allowed her own voice as well, though since the story primarily functions and Bechdel’s examination of herself and her father, their relationship, and their strangely parallel paths through life, she is more of a minor character flitting in the background than the full-fledged conundrum of Bruce Bechdel.

Fun Home also tackles, albeit mostly in passing and obliquely, some of the troubling aspects of something as simple as the skewed expectations when it comes to parenting in terms of gender. Says Bechdel:

Although I’m good at enumerating my father’s flaws, it’s hard for me to sustain much anger at him. I expect this is partly because he’s dead, and partly because the bar is lower for fathers than for mothers. My mother must have bathed me hundreds of times. But it’s my father rinsing me off with the purple metal cup that I remember most clearly.

That, and why she labels her father as gay (which he most certainly could have been, with no attraction to women at all) instead of bisexual:

Perhaps my eagerness to claim him as ‘gay’ in the way I am ‘gay’, as opposed to bisexual or some other category, is just a way of keeping him to myself.

are both moving to me and help me understand both Alison Bechdel as a person and the narrative her story takes as a comic book. The second one puzzled me most when I first heard talk about Fun Home, and I’d heard talk long before John showed the book to me and MediaMaven then excitedly stole it from the pocket of John’s coat and exclaimed that it was so good that once she finished, she wanted to start it again to pick up on all the things that she missed – and that I had to read it, pronto (this sentiment, by the way, is horribly paraphrased, since Dave & Buster’s is hardly an ideal location for really hearing someone – or taking notes). Unless someone labels himself or herself, I personally think it is a bit presumptuous to label them based on our own preferences or even inferences. It is easy to see Bruce Bechdel as simply a gay man who trapped himself and his wife in an unfulfilling marriage containing infidelity, deceit, and shoplifting. It is easy to assume that the love letters he wrote Helen Bechdel were simply Bruce Bechdel imitating Fitzgerald and his relationship with Zelda (which should have been a sign of things to come, much like Alison Bechdel contends that meeting during a production of Taming of the Shrew was a “harbinger of my parents’ later marriage). But it is possible that he loved his wife, and was attracted to his wife – but was more attracted to men and had more of a desire to be with men. Alison Bechdel’s explanation that picking a box for her father had as much to do with her and her need to hold onto him as it did with her father’s history was both intensely personal and moving.

And this brings me to Rebekah’s point about relating to this disparate childhood. The more personal Alison Bechdel gets, the more universal her story becomes. I may not have a father entrenched in the art of home decorating and skilled in mortuary sciences, but there is something that connects her crazy childhood to my differently crazy childhood. Perhaps it is the presence of books in both of our developments that connect us. But while that is helpful, I think it is simply her openness. In the face of such descriptions of her feelings in regard to this time of life and how those feelings connect to a moment at once separate and connected, I instinctively do the same. When she draws and narrates her father’s insistence on barrettes, I can’t help but think about my own rebellions against having my hair in ponytails; the difference being, of course, that my parents acquiesced almost as soon as I made my protest known. Unlike many memoirs, I didn’t lose interest when the subject grew out of childhood. I have, in the past, skipped chapters revolving around adolescence in memoirs, mostly because they tend to be the same set of stories and those are the stories I find least compelling.

Part of the openness of Fun Home has to do with the medium it embodies. Without the function of a comic book, it could have still been a profoundly moving work. But seeing the people and how they progressed through life, witnessing how the narration accompanied and beefed up the movement within the panels themselves, and even just the postures and facial expressions of all the people the book encompassed made it that much more of a worthwhile experience. Fun Home is a perfect marriage of both mediums, and that alone would have made it a wonderful read. The fact that Alison Bechdel is so ridiculously talented when it comes to weaving her tale is icing on the cake.

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent review, Pet! I’m glad to hear that you heartily enjoyed the book. The formatting for WordPress is a bit different from Blogger, so I used a different method to add a picture of the cover. I hope you don’t mind.

    I’ll admit that now I feel a bit odd for not identifying with Alison the way you and Rebekah did, but I’ll chalk that up to having as idyllic a childhood as anyone could ask for. I frequently find myself repeating simple acts that remind me of the symbols she used to draw in her diary, though, which both amuses and worries me.

  2. Nope, I don’t mind! When I first saw it though, I was like, “huh, I wonder how I did that”. I was mightily confused!

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