The Father, the Daughter
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
By Alison Bechdel
Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, 232 pp., $19.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Anne Elizabeth Moore
As I sat down to write about Alison Bechdel’s amazing graphic novel Fun Home, I was disturbed by a phone call that informed me of the death of an old family friend. He was important to me not because he was central to my youth—he wasn’t; he didn’t seem to like girls—but because of the unusual way he conducted himself. His quasi-masculinity was neither my own tomboyishness nor my father’s hypermasculinity. His mystery extended even beyond the pleasure he took in reading the thick dusty books in his office and the thrill he got from acquiring antique furnishings for his house. It went unspoken and unacknowledged that his beautiful wife and three happy kids were the family he presented to the world, while his male partner—even if he was only a rumor—was the family he wanted for himself.
We are taught that closeted homosexuality equals shame, fear, and self-loathing, yet one of the many unique strengths of Bechdel’s autobiographical tale is that she provides a validating, comforting, almost inspirational model for retelling the stories of our pansy fathers, dirty uncles, limp-wristed younger brothers, geeky friends.
Fun Home is not what the title seems to indicate—a wacky, hilarious sitcom filled with characters as amusing and identifiable as the cast of her cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Or, it is that, but it’s also a kind of cross between Ulysses and Six Feet Under, if Claire had actually enjoyed kissing girls. “Fun home” is what Bechdel and her siblings call the funeral home where they live. While their father obsesses about redecorating and their mother seems incapable of relating meaningfully either to them or to her husband, the joke is one way they cope with the family business.
The life of Bechdel’s father, the crucial character in this memoir, resembles that of my late family friend’s—meticulously constructed, lavishly appointed, stacked high with dust-covered secrets. Bechdel eventually discovers his numerous affairs, many with young men he brought to the house to help with yardwork or watch the kids—she comes across an erotic photo of one in her father’s desk. Eventually, her mother grows tired of her husband’s dalliances, as well as of his occasional minor crime sprees, and asks for a divorce. Two weeks later, her husband is killed by a truck while hauling gardening debris across the street. The incident was officially ruled an accident, but Bechdel, almost twenty at the time, and with an intuitive knowledge of her father, comes to believe his death was suicide.
The book opens when Bechdel is about eight years old, but the tale eventually looks all the way back to 1867, when the Fun Home was built, and forward to the present day, in a scene where Bechdel visits her father’s grave. A century and a half, cyclically told, interwoven with both history and literary-fictional memories, is no mean feat for a funnybook artist. It took Bechdel seven years. Her method was to photograph herself in the positions of her characters, then to compose panels that appear to be raw, unmediated, unstaged fact. Over the line drawings the artist, who usually works only in black and white, applied a grey-green wash, a perfect hue that is the book’s most bittersweet feature. Her method of revelation is circuitous, ornamental, protective; she sketches the facts, then re-reveals them in meticulously drawn detail. In this moment when authenticity is often lacking in traditional literature, Bechdel gives it to us in her comics.
Bechdel’s technique of using herself as a model, though obsessive and distinctly odd, is appropriate for her character study of her father, with whom she feels a kind of inverse identification. In the absence of his gay pride, hers grows. In his library, she stumbles upon the hidden literary history of lesbianism, yet he will not speak of it to her. Shortly before his death, she dreams he fails to watch a sunset with her, although in real life he is enchanted by it, and she is enchanted by his enchantment.
Bechdel should have been a household name some time ago. She has after all been creating—by herself—and syndicating—by herself—the alternative comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For for nearly a quarter of a century, and making a living at it. This is unusual and a difficult task. But the comics industry has always resisted the success of women. See the Masters of American Comics Exhibition if you require a specific example—which purports to create a canon of American comics artists, and contains no women at all—or take a quick jog through your local comics shop or better yet, if you can stomach it, chat up a die-hard fan. The history of comics is that of the distilled desires of red-blooded American males, writ large and wearing tights.
Even more than the success of women, the industry has resisted the success of queer women. (As creators. On the page it’s something else; everybody loves a bi-girl.) Banished to the pages of all-women anthologies and rarely offered publishing contracts or even encouragement, queer women cartoonists such as Erica Lopez and Ariel Schrag—and Bechdel—are simply not well known in the industry. Life is even tougher for newcomers such as Liz Baillie. Bechdel’s separation from comics meant that the tiny cadre of critics who have proven capable of writing about and even advancing the form haven’t been paying attention to her work.
So Bechdel was flying under the radar until, splat! the New York Times printed a rave review of her first full-length graphic novel. Mainstream critics seemed so wowed by the fact of pictures—in a book!—that they proved incapable of engaging with the narrative on a deep level. None was prepared to respond to the book in the context of Bechdel’s oeuvre. Instead they were distracted by the fact of comics: “Somehow adding the two [words and pictures] together conveys more than either could do alone,” the Times gushed.
“Painfully honest,” the Times called Fun Home, which isn’t entirely true. The book is at times overly literary and needlessly embellished. Bechdel obscures her father’s abusive and criminal behavior with ornamentation and the “magic” of her drawings (another word that pops up in the Times review). She doesn’t relate her own experience of this behavior.
But then, she herself draws a comparison between embellishment and lies, as she grows to hate (yet also adopt elements of) her father’s Victorian aesthetic. And if readers are being deceived—that is, if information is withheld, revealed later, emphasized or obscured as the teller sees fit, it is because Bechdel has learned the aesthetic and metaphorical value of deception. The lies, the embellishments, express a deeper, narrative truth.
Anne Elizabeth Moore is the series editor of Best American Comics. She wrote Hey Kidz, Buy This Book! and Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity forthcoming from The New Press. She lives in Chicago and still falls off her bike a lot, even though she is 36.