guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

September 2006

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). 232 pp. (hardcover) $19.99

By Michael Moon

It’s hard to imagine a more “bookish” graphic narrative than Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home. A staggering range of titles appears in it, from Ulysses and Proust to Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care and Masters and Johnson’s Homosexualities; from Georgette Heyer’s regency romance Charity Girl to Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus and Violette Leduc’s La Bâtarde; from The World of Pooh to Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language. Roald Dahl, Colette, Tolkien, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Collected Stories, as well as Nancy Mitford’s biography of Zelda, Pride and Prejudice, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Secret Sharer, The Sun Also Rises, As I Lay Dying—the book moves through a blizzard of high- and middlebrow literature.

Despite the way the constant references to other books might make one suspect otherwise (at least initially), Bechdel very much has her own story to tell—one about growing up in a small Pennsylvania town in a Victorian house that her father turned into a monument of careful historical restoration. His true vocation is living in a fancy fantasy past that he has given dense material form to—all wainscoting, gingerbread architectural details, and a “library” full of leatherbound books. Teaching high school English and serving as an embalmer and (third generation) undertaker are his day jobs.  (“Fun Home” is a family-joke abbreviation of “Funeral Home”). Well-matched in some ways, Bechdel’s parents become somewhat estranged from each other over the course of her childhood; Bechdel and her two brothers defend themselves by each becoming absorbed in their own projects and interests, in much the same way they see their parents doing. Bechdel goes off to college and comes out to her parents as lesbian. Shortly thereafter, her 44-year-old father is killed walking across a road, hit by a passing truck. Bechdel and her mother both believe his death was a suicide. Bechdel learns that for a long time her father may have been leading a secret life as an ephebophile (a lover or would-be lover of adolescent males). What kind of largely invisible, but nonetheless powerful, pressures may her father’s complicated (to say the least) sexuality have been exerting on the young Bechdel, and her decision to come out on his? These are interesting and important questions, and Bechdel finds truly inspired ways of exploring and depicting them with the kind of patience and attention it’s often hard to bring to bear on the most formative figures and events in one’s own life.

A reader has only to glance through Bechdel’s book to see that she is fascinated with detail, whether it be verbal, visual, or documentary (for this last, see the many topographical maps, passports, snapshots, pages of dictionaries and magazines, diaries and calendars that she painstakingly redraws). But the literature that floods
Fun Home is obviously not there just to provide more delicious social detail, like the clothes, haircuts, cars, and styles of home entertaining and decorating that Bechdel scrupulously records. More than merely another entry in an overwhelming and irresistible style-catalogue, literature—unlike changing clothes and hairstyle—gives Fun Home its high degree of form: the narrative alternates for a long time between wanting to be more like the respective alleged masterpieces of those two incompatible pillars of literary modernism, Proust and Joyce. Proust because he is the world’s leading authority on both the inevitability and the futility of nostalgia, as well as of our attempts to decode the meanings of our most intimate desires and relationships up to (and beyond) the point of death. Joyce—more and more as Fun Home goes on—because he is so excessively good at reforging old stories (say, Daedalus and Icarus) in ways that make them integral to new stories (say, that of Alison Bechdel and her father) and vice versa. On the first page of Fun Home, Bechdel shows her father playing “airplane” with her when she was a little girl and tells us (among other things) that the term from circus history for such acts in which one person balances another is “Icarian games.” Her ability to take Joyce’s example fully to heart and mind in such seemingly passing touches is part of what makes her reference to the “Icarian” full of potential emotional and artistic power—rather than just being a pretentious and meaningless gesture—the kind of “antique” that Bechdel’s father may have, sadly, overvalued.

For me, the most exciting thing about Bechdel’s new work is that she has succeeded in finding a way of “translating” “old stuff”—old stories, domestic interiors, literary styles and obsession—into strikingly and intriguingly new stuff. Of the other most accomplished graphic-narrative artists currently out there, this work of hers (unlike almost any of her work in her long-ongoing  graphic serial
Dykes to Watch Out For) in some ways strikingly resembles that of Seth. But Bechdel has found ways of making her work more emotionally daring and open, and challenging to readers, than Seth’s tends to be. Take for example the amazing picture (top of p. 44) of her child-self in silhouette, observing her father laboring in his embalmer’s role over a bearded and naked corpse from which he appears to have extracted heart, lungs, stomach and bowels through a gaping hole in the front of the body: “The strange pile of his genitals was shocking, but what really got my attention was his chest, split open to a dark red cave.”  Here is meticulous, Thomas Eakins-like physical detail, in both drawing and writing. But here too (although we are may overlook it) is probably the book’s most harrowing visualization of Bechdel’s worst fears about her father: that he lacked, to a radical degree, some kind of crucially important interiority.

Beside the image of the disemboweled cadaver it might be interesting to place a drawing near the book’s center (pp. 100-1) of Bechdel’s much-enlarged left hand holding a snapshot of “Roy,” her father’s “yardwork assistant” and her former babysitter, who may also have been a sometime lover of her father’s. Roy lies stretched out on a bed, odalisque-like, clad only in tighty whities, his arms up around his head, his eyes gazing away at the ceiling, his hips, crotch, and thighs rotated invitingly toward the viewer. Unlike the eviscerated cadaver, the image of Roy is one of a closed and integral body. In a further remarkable sequence of panels, in her depiction of her own emerging sexual/emotional life (p. 214), Bechdel shows one of her early lovers, Joan, lying in bed with her upper body in a position similar to Roy’s, but with her knees raised, legs spread, and with Bechdel leaning on her elbows into the space of Joan’s thighs and crotch. In the following frame, Bechdel appears to begin, experimentally, eyes wide open, moving her head and mouth toward her Joan’s genitals; in the third frame, she has closed her eyes and begun eating her lover out. Bechdel here speaks of her lover’s genitals as “Polyphemus’s Cave,” a warm and delicious tactile counter-space to the visually fascinating “dark red cave” of the male cadaver’s pillaged insides. This whole sequence of nude bodies in radically different relations to insides and outsides, to erotic and non-erotic energies, provides the kind of powerful recurrent visual touch that makes the book exceed what might otherwise be the limitations of its “bookishness.”

Ultimately, neither Proust nor Joyce wins the battle for the soul of Bechdel’s
Fun Home. Quietly and devastatingly, I think, Bechdel actually awards that palm to Colette—the Colette of one of the most ravishingly stylish autobiographical memoirs of the twentieth century, Earthly Paradise. In what may be the only repeated image among the many hundreds that constitute Fun Home, Bechdel shows her father’s hands placing a copy of this very book in her own hands (top of p. 205 and middle of p. 229). No author has understood better, or more compassionately, the vagaries of passion and desire (both within and outside the family) and the kinds of deceptions, refusals, and betrayals that often emerge as the most “natural”-seeming consequences of such long-lasting and sometimes volatile feelings. Bechdel succeeds, à la the Joyce of Ulysses, in bringing about a compelling sense of reconciliation between her Daedaelus father and her Icarus self in the closing pages of her book. Bechdel revealed in a recent interview that when her mother learned that she was writing a book about her father and his fate, her mother stopped confiding in her. And the mother is definitely left out of the reconciliatory climax of the book. Only in this regard do Bechdel and Fun Home fall short of the model of a broader understanding of compassion that she herself brings into play in the book by intimating that neither Joyce nor Proust, but Colette, is really its presiding genius.