“Fun Home,” Alison Bechdel

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My introduction to this book was gradual. First, a friend started sending me songs from the musical. They were of course great, but I don’t think my brain made the connection that the musical was based on a memoir. The first time the book itself was recommended to me was during a coffee date with friends. At some point, conversation meandered to books, which was odd but refreshing. We all enjoyed reading, but our friendships each pre-dated us being Adults Who ReadTM, and books weren’t a typical topic of conversation for us. That being said, the recommendation slipped my mind, and by the time I picked it up, I’d forgotten it was ever mentioned to me. Either way, I’m glad it made its way onto my bookshelf.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a graphic memoir dealing with her struggle with her sexual identity, her father’s hidden identity, and his death. Bechdel’s father, Bruce, was a particular man with a particular sense of style. He frequently refurbishes their Gothic style home, all while doing the same for his daughter, dressing her in pretty clothes that only fuel her tomboyish tendencies. Bechdel describes multiple times during her life, primarily her childhood through college years, as she copes with yearning for parental affection while simultaneously rejecting much of what her parents are trying to impress upon her. Summarizing this memoir is almost as complicated as the relationships depicted within it. There is love, but there are secrets, tensions, and resentments.

Bechdel’s writing is everything I could have asked for: intelligent, intricate, powerful, and woven carefully so that every word is charged. Every sentence, every word of Fun Home has its purpose. As someone who generally doesn’t read many graphic novels, I believe that this concentration of content is what makes the medium special and captivating. By my estimation, a great graphic novel is brief but intensely full. Bechdel has delivered on all counts, with Fun Home reading like the love child of a great, full-length memoir and an intimate personal diary. She writes fearlessly about her family’s dysfunctions, from her father’s closeted homosexuality and subsequent affairs, to the onset of her obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme, for me, was the struggle with identity. Bechdel comes out during college, receiving a less than lukewarm response from her mother, who presumably resented Bruce’s hidden sexuality. Although Bechdel sees herself in her father, she also actively pushes away. She previously bonded with her father over books, and he happily gave her recommendations. Bechdel even took a class to devoted to Ulysses, one of her father’s favorites. But she finds herself disillusioned from the coursework. Bruce hides his sexuality beneath a veneer. He designs his life to obscure what he was feeling and doing. He hides behind books, lace curtains, his family. Bechdel, meanwhile, dismisses Ulysses, and in tandem rejects these veneers, instead voraciously absorbing queer literature, joining the on-campus gay union. She is undeniably herself in way that her father scarcely allowed himself to be.

I feel as if I have so much to say about this book, but I’m struggling to share it in a way that is unique. Instead, I keep going around in circles, arriving at the same points I’ve already made. This is, I think, a testament to just how beautifully interwoven everything about Fun Home is. Like I said, Bechdel doesn’t waste words. Every sentence is saturated with meaning, and revolving around her main themes. It all comes back to Bechdel, her father, and their increasingly complicated relationship leading up to his death. There is something perverse about Fun Home. It begins with environment: a funeral home owned by the Bechdel family. It continues in behavior: receiving the news of her father’s death, and laughing. And yet, through it all, there is no lack of love. It’s not a cynical indictment of her closeted father or her somewhat distant mother. It’s self-exploration, going deeper and deeper inward, uncovering all the little parallels and deviations between parents and their daughter.

 

Side-note time:

Happy Women’s History Month! Lit She Wrote will be celebrating by… resuming exactly as usual, unfortunately. I may try to post more this month, or regulate my posting schedule. However, I would like to take this opportunity to say that I’m always looking for book recommendations. Obviously I’m looking for diverse female authors. I’m looking for literary fiction and equivalent non-fiction. So, if any of you (few though you may be) have anything you’d like me to consider, I will gladly consider it. Warning: I am picky.

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