Front cover of Alison’s Bechdel’s Fun Home (2007 paperback version)
Originally published in 2006, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic memoir that led Alison Bechdel to commercial and critical success. Reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Fun Home explores the relationship between Alison and her closeted father, Bruce Bechdel, to shed light on themes such as gender, the coming-out process, and the complicated dynamics of family life. The exploration of these themes are facilitated through discussions of death, life, and literature–triggered by Alison’s efforts to illustrate an accurate portrait of her complicated connection with her father, particularly after he commits suicide.
Alison and her father share many traits: they are both queer (even though the father remains closeted and married to his wife throughout the entire duration of the memoir), they both have a love for reading and for art, and they both wish that they were born the opposite sex. Despite these similarities, they never seem to forge a strong and intense bond due to their reserved personalities and their divergence in terms of gendered affiliations. Whereas Bruce tends to express traits that can typically be approached as feminine, Alison admits that she has been “a connoisseur of masculinity” (95) since she was a child. Thus, even though their share many similarities, their divergence in terms of their gender alignment creates significant tension between the two characters.
Not only does Alison approach herself and her father as “inversions” of each other, but she also makes note of how she struggles to emphasize her masculinity while her father struggles to prevent her from expressing it. She approaches her father’s attempts to feminize her as an almost pathetic effort embody femininity (vicariously) through his daughter, which leads to what Alison calls “a war of cross purposes” that is “doomed to perpetual escalation” (98). Thus, differences of gender are not invoked to uphold the division between men and women, but rather, to illustrate the differences and tensions that exist between Alison and her father.
Figure 1. Page 95. Many of the images in Fun Home stress the dichotomous view of Bruce as a feminine presence and Alison as a masculine presence. In the image above, notice how Bruce engages in an activity that is stereotypically approached as feminine. The wall unit splits this panel into two sections, thus highlighting Alison’s placement in front of the television showing a Western movie. Keep in mind that this memoir is not necessarily upholding gender binaries–a man with feminine characteristics and a girl with masculine characteristics, in due course, challenges the binary in the first place.
Bruce’s reserved and temperamental nature is attributed to the fact that he’s had to keep his sexuality a secret due to his upbringing in a society where homosexuality is considered a disgrace. It is suggested in the memoir that Bruce’s repressed nature, his wife’s request for a divorce, and the fact that Alison is able to live an open life as a lesbian (whereas he was not) are the events that prompt him to commit suicide by running in front of a truck. This suicide is the event that prompts Alison to explore her father’s life through memoir, while in turn coming to a more enlightened understanding of the influence that she and her father had on each other. This exploration, however, does not take place in a linear or organized fashion. Fun Home is as a pastiche or decoupage of many elements presented in a non-chronological fashion. The comic panels are supplemented by snippets of other literary texts, photographs, letters, and even newspaper clippings. Furthermore, the narrative itself is supplemented with Bechdel’s interpretations of the events that she lived, in addition to theoretical interventions from areas such as gender and psychoanalysis.
I am deeply interested in the role of literature and literary texts in Fun Home, not only because they add more depth and nuance to the memoir, but also because literature (particularly novels) is a crucial element that must be kept in mind when interpreting and understanding the central developments in the graphic memoir. For instance, literature is the catalyst that helps Alison to discover that she’s a lesbian–leading her to describe her lesbianism as “a revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind” (74). At the age of thirteen, she first encounters the word “lesbian” in a dictionary. She later reads a book focused on offering biographies of queer figures, which leads her on an obsessive mission to read and consume as many queer texts as she possibly can, such as E.M. Forster’s Maurice and Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.
The very act of accessing and reading this literature is depicted as a deeply political and almost revolutionary act, for it entails developing the courage to buy these books in spite of their overtly queer titles, or to borrow them from public libraries, “heedless of the risks” (75). These books inspire her to attend a gay union meeting at her university, and to come out to her parents in a letter. Whereas her father seems quite accepting of her sexuality, claiming that “everyone should experiment” (77), her mother responds with mild disapproval, approaching her lesbianism as “a threat” (77) to her work and her family.
Literature is associated with almost every single significant event that takes place in the novel. Alison’s first relationship blossoms when she meets a poet named Joan. Every time they are shown in bed together, they are surrounded by novels and other books. The images depict them reading even when being intimate with one another, and they critique and analyze books even when sprawled naked on their beds (see pages 80-81). The importance of books is her life is unsurprising when taking into account that her father was an English teacher at their local high school, and he spent a lot of time recommending and discussing books with Alison.
Even though Bruce engages in sexual acts with other men, and even boys, the memoir highlights novels and literature as the outlet of escapism that Bruce used to express his sexual frustrations, and even his subconscious sexual desires. His favorite books, such as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Joyce’s Ulysses, touch upon matters and themes that are central to Bruce’s characterization. The Great Gatsby, for instance, highlights the pains of yearning for someone or something we cannot possess, whereas Ulysses depicts how characters can cross each other’s paths without affecting one another in a significant way (reflecting Alison’s complex relationship with her father). Given how closely Bruce’s books are tied to his suppression, his secrecy, and his hidden desires, it is no wonder that his wife gets rid of most of his book collection after he dies.
It is literature that allows Bruce and Alison to achieve a degree of closeness that they’ve never felt before. It turns out that Alison ends up taking English with her father in twelfth grade, and she realizes that she really likes the books that her father wanted her to read, such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. She becomes deeply invested in discussing these books with her father within the classroom–and her interest leads her to develop “a sensation of intimacy” (199) that she has never felt before with her father. When Alison leaves to college, she grows even closer to Bruce, calling him every once in a while to discuss the books that she reads for her English class. Their connection reaches a peak when Bruce lends his daughter a copy of Earthly Paradiseby Colette (an autobiography with lesbian themes) even though she has not revealed her lesbianism to him. The book sparks a conversation between the two, leading Bruce to open and honestly discuss his sexual orientation with Alison for the first time.
Figure 3. Page 221. Alison and her father have their first frank discussion regarding his sexuality. Although their relationship is cold and distant, this marks one of the moments in which they begin to grow closer to each other.
Literature becomes the agent that allows Alison to forge a connection with her father. Although she admits that her intellectual connection and her intimacy with her father is seen as unusual to other people, she still seems to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate it. Alison does, however, lament that they “were close. But not close enough” (225). However, despite the fact that they were not as close or as intimate as she wanted them to be, she cherishes the fact that “he was there to catch [her] when [she] leapt” (232).
I can’t even begin to describe how much I enjoyed this memoir. It is complex, rich, funny, heartbreaking, and deeply insightful. I’m sure that this book is going to contribute significantly to my academic work, and I can’t wait to re-read this memoir in the near future.
You can purchase a copy of Bechdel’s memoir by clicking here.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print (Paperback edition).
Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” is an exciting autobiography with comics that bring her story to life. Alison Bechdel wrote this book about her childhood, the relationship she had with her father and one of the many things they shared in common, their sexuality. In addition to their common homosexuality, Alison and Bruce Bechdel share o b sessive compulsive tendencies and their artistic ways, even using her artistic language to describe the father daughter relationship they had, “I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian. Modern to his Victorian.
Butch to his nelly. Utilitarian to his aesthete.” This opposition was a source of tension in their relationship, as both tried to express their dissatisfaction with their given gender roles: “Not only were we inverts, we were inversions of each other. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him, he was attempting to express something feminine through me. It was a war of cross-purposes, and so doomed to perpetual escalation.”
At the center of where it all begins at “Fun Home,” Alison helps us envision her desperate need to make a connection with her father, Bruce Allen Bechdel. Father and daughter are playing a game of “airplane” that ends almost as soon as it begins because of her fathers obsession with keeping his old Victorian house he personally restored clean and what he seems to always want kept in perfect condition. Bruce “could spin garbage into gold” and “cultivate the barren yard into a lush flowering landscape.” “He treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.” Alison makes it clear by telling her story and drawings that he was so emotionally distant, that even before his death, she “ached as if he were already gone.”
Before Bruce’s death, he and his daughter have a conversation in which Bruce confesses some of his sexual history; this is presented as a partial resolution to the conflict between father and daughter. Alison along with the rest of her siblings didn’t have the typical dramatic and sad reaction other people would express if there own father passed. Instead she describes it as “Dry-eyed and sheepish, my brothers and I looked for as long as we sensed it was appropriate. If only they made smelling salts to induce grief-stricken swoons, rather than snap you out of them.”
Although Bruce’s death was assumed to be an accident, it was also a tragedy that started a long time before his life had even began which is why many readers, or even Alison suspect suicide because of the evidence Bechdel reveals to the reader. Four moths prior to his death, she came out to her parents that she was in fact a lesbian, she writes, “If I had not felt compelled to share my little sexual secret, perhaps the semi would have passed without incident.” This statement shows a hidden connection between father and daughter before the actual relationship beings.
Her mother also shared the news while Alison was away at college about her husband’s affairs with men and interest in young boys, for example “more promising high school students.” – the muscular, male ones, it seems – to visit his home to borrow copies of great American novels like “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Great Gatsby.” Last but not least, two weeks before his passing, his wife asked for a divorce.
Although these series of events that led up to Bruce’s death may seem very tragic, it allowed Alison to tell not just a story about herself but her fathers struggle to let his secret out as well. One of the most important key points in Alison Bechdel’s memoir is the connection both her and Bruce shared was expressing their sexuality through literature which plays a important role in Alison’s self discovery.
She writes “My realization at 19 that I was a lesbian came about in a manner consistent with my bookish upbringing,” Alison chose to accept the fact and not hide from the issue, taking a female partner and going to “gay union” meetings, she was open about her sexuality before she’d even been in a homosexual relationship. Her father, on the other hand, had had countless affairs with men but wasn’t open about it “. This may be due to him being afraid of coming out, as the images show “the fear in his eyes” when the conversation topic almost ends up being about homosexuality.
Alison Bechdel introduces her readers to many copied by hand family photographs, letters, local maps and excerpts from her own childhood journal, incorporating these images into her narrative. Since the reader is directly responsible for interpreting “action” in a comic, he or she is more directly engaged on a far more personal level.
Fun Home is one such example of a graphic novel making use of comics as a means of opening a discourse about the scars family members leave on their children and finding some form of connections and closure through sharing these stories with others. This novel really shows how comics are moving in new directions and demonstrates a willingness to engage readers in new and challenging ways. Each image seems to give a very specific emotion that is carried throughout her story and the pictures contain elements of beauty, longing, memories, and hope.
The bittersweet relationship of parent and child is held again and again in “Fun Home.” The memoir ends with two images that portray the bad times and the good. The top half of the final page shows the truck about to strike; the bottom half shows daughter, in jumping into a pool, waiting to be caught in her father’s arms. The bonding of the two images is compelling and striking. They also offer reader and author a choice appreciate what was had or continue to yearn. In completing “Fun Home” Alison Bechdel may have finally ended her longing.