Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
The graphic novel is a genre not widely associated with serious subjects. It’s a longer comic book for readers who prefer their cartoons with hardback covers and a hefty price tag. But that presumption misses the point of the graphic novel by a long stretch, not least when it’s Alison Bechdel doing the storytelling.
Her 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home actually represents two genres, one that is not widely read and another that is growing in strength, so much so that US colleges have added it to their reading lists for liberal arts students. Fun Home attracted criticism from more conservative students, who disagree with its sexual content and imagery. The fact that colleges believe students can learn from a graphic novel—and the novel can cause such a stir—is a testament to its ingenuity.
Bechdel sees no need to tell the story of her father’s death, the emergence of her own homosexuality and everything that led up to the two in a linear fashion. Instead, she zips between her family home, the title funeral home, her college classes and trips away with her mother, father and siblings, choosing to join the chapters by her feelings towards particular situations or events rather than in any traditional sequence. The story centres around the death of Bechdel’s father and what it means to her. Bechdel’s journeys into the past reveal a father who preferred to restore houses than spend time with his daughter, and who slept with men, often his students, behind the back of his wife and family.
Fun Home delivers the tragedy in Bechdel’s life with comedic aplomb, illustrating key scenes from her childhood and adolescence in a cartoon style that harks back to the comics that came before. Particularly revealing is a snapshot of a certain letter from father to daughter, because his indecipherable handwriting means all the reader has is the narrator’s reflections. Lacking context, Bechdel’s narrator must be relied upon, and the next page reveals the last time she saw her father, in an illustration that shows them getting on as well as they can, sat next to each other playing the piano. “It was unusual, and we were close. But close enough,” remarks Bechdel’s narrator.
The strength of Fun Home is in its yearning to understand fatherhood and sexuality and everything else that goes on during the chronicled period of Bechdel’s life. Her narrator never settles on definitive conclusions—it’s not entirely clear if Bechdel’s father committed suicide or was the victim of an accident—but prefers somewhere in the middle, which is both a challenge and a joy for the reader, who too wants to understand where Bechdel’s narrator is coming from, and is likely going next.
Besides the cartoonish illustrations and dry dialogue is a narration that touches on literature of all kinds, as Bechdel likens texts and passages to points in her own time. What’s created is a flowing story that peaks and troughs and runs wild and streams slowly, as Bechdel’s narrator attempts to grow closer to her father, and if not, understand him, and failing that, hate him. When that doesn’t work, she learns to be like him. And the reader is left wondering if there was really anything wrong at all.