Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. By Alison Bechdel.
Years ago I was writing and drawing a graphic novel that is fiction, but is based loosely on a relationship I endured when I was 25. I still hope one day to return to it and publish it, and I also hope that it has benefited from sitting on a shelf for five or six years, as with time (and maturity) I have found flaws in the way I chose to tell the story that I wouldn’t have been able to see at 25. I think it is a love of that shelved project that sent me running to Alison Bechdel’s book Fun Home the second I learned about it. Let’s not dwell on the fact that I should have known about the book at least a year earlier, and instead focus on the positive…I found out about it and went to buy it that same day, and then read it that same evening, cover to cover.
It’s a wonderful book and I have to commend Bechdel for being so unflinchingly honest in relaying her story. I think in a graphic novel it’s even more difficult to be honest than in a prose memoir, because it’s not just words, but also pictures, which speak so loudly on their own. And yet Bechdel is not only brutally frank in her portrayal of herself (hard enough to be non-biased as it is), but also of her relationship with her father, and her father himself, which is no small task, especially considering that her father died, likely a suicide. I doubt I’ll ever be capable of such honesty in storytelling, but I’m always going to aim for it, and I think I’ll start using Bechdel as my benchmark.
First let’s talk about the art, which is sublime. Check out this panel (from one of my favorite pages in the entire book) in which you get everything so clearly – who Bechdel is (was), who her father is, how their relationship works…all in the space of a single panel. AND it’s funny. Beautiful stuff. I can’t get over her perfect expression while dusting that frustrating chair. This is the expression of dusting children everywhere.
Beyond the artistic achievement of Fun Home, it is also well written, though it’s less about beautiful language than it is about memory and reality and the rawness of all that comes with that. Bechdel is served well by the diaries of her youth, which are shocking in retrospect and so insightful about all that was happening to and around her as a child. It’s a fascinating study of youth and relationships.
From a strictly shallow standpoint, the arc of Bechdel’s story has some slow points where the story really drags compared to the piece overall, which generally moves smoothly and quickly. It’s a challenging story to tell in one piece as there are many elements from childhood through adulthood to address, most of which relate directly to her father, but some of which are tied more loosely to her father and require a bit of a stretch in her formatting of the story.
I’m not sure it’s a failing so much with Bechdel’s narrative as it is a failing of me as a reader, being the impatient video game playing generation that I am I became frustrated looking for the “resolution”. Of course in reality, which Bechdel is very clearly dealing with here, life is rarely so “resolution-y”, and so I have trouble blaming her narrative. I think in the end, whether a few areas dragged and took me off path or not, Bechdel was honest with the material, telling it in the most genuine way she could, a massive undertaking of which I think she is wildly successful.