Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel.
Mariner Books Imprint, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2006, my edition 2007.
Graphic novel memoir, 232 pages.
NOTE: This book is intended for adults, not children.
After reading a good portion of this, it felt familiar. I think I read at least part of it before either as a library checkout, or an excerpt posted online or put in another anthology. This was published at about the time I went through a lot of graphic novels, so it’s conceivable I read this and either did not finish or simply forgot it because of the volume of books I was reading at the time (once upon a time I used to finish a book every day).
This story explores both the author’s understanding of her sexuality and gender expression as well as her father’s death. Bechdel comes to terms with being a butch lesbian raised in a small town by brilliant but self-absorbed parents. She writes about how she learned about her own sexuality, coming out to her parents, being drawn to men’s clothing even as her gay father tried to feminize her, making her wear dresses and do her hair a certain way.
Shortly after her mother asks for a divorce, her father jumps into the path of a truck while Bechdel is away at college. There are some signs it may have been a suicide and others that it was an accident.
The story is even more darkly comedic because the Bechdel family owns the local funeral home. This part-time job means the kids grow up playing between caskets and see bodies being embalmed at an early age. The “Fun Home” of the title was the family’s nickname for the funeral parlor. However the title could also refer to their family home; lovingly restored by her father with little input from the rest of the family, it was a dollhouse in which they still had to live.
As we delve into the book and Bechdel learns more about her father, we also learn that he had sexual relationships with young men who were often his students and occasionally his employees. He was subjected to his first sexual experience by a farmhand in his youth. I found this aspect of the book well written given the difficulty of the topic.
It’s clear Bechdel still deeply loves her father, even as she is uncertain what to do with this information. He wasn’t incestuous and went so far as to protect her brother from pedophilia, but the internal dichotomy was obviously troubling both to him, and to her when she learns about it. How can a man be a loving father who victimizes other children? How can a child love and respect a father who has done those things?
Bechdel doesn’t come to an answer, but explores these questions, and many others, during her narrative. In many ways, her father’s death made it a moot point, and drove her to have these conversations with the past in graphic novel form. It’s a powerful work for those trying to resolve similar dichotomies in their own families, but could be triggering for others. Bechdel doesn’t explore the victim’s point of view – this work is about her relationship with her father.
And her relationship with her father was largely through books. He didn’t connect with her over art – shutting her down when she colored a page ‘wrong.’ But over the years he lent her books, including some that she used as mirrors with which to explore her own sexuality and experiences of womanhood. The narrative is dotted with literary references, including reproductions of pages from different books.
Other reproductions also occur. Bechdel makes excellent use of photographs from her childhood and her parents’ lives. She doesn’t outright copy the photographs in a collage style, but redraws them with coloring appropriate to the other artwork. Besides copying pages or excerpts from books, she also copies letters from her father, newspaper articles, and other items. The lies in her childhood diaries are the subject of one chapter, which also explores her bout with OCD, probably artificially brought on by reading about it. Some items she highlights or otherwise alters, while others she wants us to simply read so that we can draw some inference into her life, her father’s, or their relationship.
This book is not chronological. Even within chapters there’s much skipping back and forth throughout time. Bechdel goes back to her parents’ early relationship and considers items in her own past. However, her ever-changing haircuts help us understand the time frame and quickly place her at a particular point in her life. The narrative also assists.
The balance between text and drawing is perfect in this literary graphic novel. Neither can tell the story entirely alone, but they complement each other. The line art with watercolor painting is perfect – allowing a variety of moods to be shown and allowing the reproductions of book pages and other items to merge seamlessly with her original artwork. Bechdel also does a great job drawing various characters. There was never a point in which I was unable to tell who any of the main characters were, and their facial expressions gave a lot of insight.
This isn’t appropriate for children as there are nudes, sex scenes, masturbation, and discussion of pedophilia. I would even look through it before adding it to a classroom library for teens. This is a comic for adult readers, particularly those who feel that comics aren’t as valid an art form as prose books. This book set a high standard for graphic novel memoirs, one that only a few have been able to meet since (such as the appropriate-for-younger-audiences El Deafo).