Family Tragicomic: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home
The story is this: Alison Bechdel and her family—mom, dad, and two brothers—live in a small Pennsylvania town where they own and operate a funeral home, the “Fun Home” of the title. Mom and Dad are also English teachers, but according to their daughter these are not their passions in life. For Bechdel’s father that is restoring old farmhouses; for her mother, it is acting. But Fun Home is about the author’s father, who, she learns a few weeks before his death, was also gay. This comes at almost the same moment in the story that Bechdel is discovering her own, also gay, sexuality. Through a series of literary allusions, Bechdel links her father’s obsession with feminine appearances to his hidden sexuality, and at the same time explores the ways in which her own interest in masculine appearances is both a rejection of her father’s “sissiness,” as she calls it, as well as a bond between them.
At first the book seems like it might be nothing more than a spilling of one family’s dirty secrets, mainly, I thought, an abusive father. The graphic novel begins with an introduction to the Bechdel home, restored and arranged, I now realize, with as much attention and devotion as his daughter has obviously put into her own passion (graphic memoirs). “He was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of décor,” writes his daughter, who follows up the Daedalus allusion by suggesting that like the famous inventor, her father cared more about his projects than his children. This is both an appropriate and a misleading beginning. It is the façade, before the reality is uncovered.
Over the course of the book we learn, along with Bechdel, much more about her father and about herself. What we ultimately come away with is richer, more nuanced, and inevitably truer than just an angry daughter exposing her father as a faggot and a fraud. The book ripens along with the heroine. As Bechdel grows up and goes away to college, she and her father bond over books—Camus and Fitzgerald for him, Colette for her—and she finds a way to forgive her father, perhaps through the research and analysis she obviously did to write this book. In so doing is able to understand not only him, but the societal pressures governing a young man’s homosexuality in the 1950s, as well as those shaping her own life, as she discovers and embraces her own lesbianism and feminism in the 1990s.
The topic here is definitely more about homosexuality in families than it is about family in general, but I don’t think you need to have experience in that area to enjoy it. On the other hand, you had probably better be a bibliophile to follow all the references. To really understand, particularly the parents’ marriage, you’ve got to know Ovid, Wallace Stevens, Henry James, and Oscar Wilde, just to name a few. These books are crucial to Bechdel’s understanding of her fathers’ life, and her own.
Literary allusions, even as thorough and apt as the ones here, however, are not particularly unique. What’s rarer is how Bechdel mines her childhood diaries as a part of her research. It was during a brief period of OCD, at the age of ten, she tells us, that she started her diary. It begins plainly enough: “It was pretty warm out. I got a Hardy Boy book. Christian threw sand in John’s face.” But soon, “the minutely lettered phrase I think begins to crop up between my comments.” As time goes on, the young Bechdel trusts less and less that what she observes is truth. To “save time” she invents a symbol to stand in for the phrase “I think.” It’s not long before entire entries are covered over with this symbol; the diarist can be sure of absolutely none of it. I found this episode fascinating, a neat reflection not only on the appearance/reality divide going on in the child Bechdel’s life, of which she is as yet not consciously aware, but also an indication of the kind of careful, sophisticated thinker we are dealing with here. This is a writer devoted to the conviction that memoir should do its utmost to locate the truth.
It is clear that Bechdel would love to tie things up with a return to Daedelus—this time Stephen Daedalus and Harold Bloom, the unlikely father/son pair from Ulysses, which would be an emotionally satisfying closing to all the loops she’s opened here—paternity, literature, the retelling of old stories in new ways—but instead the book ends not with the fireworks of fiction but with the soft thud of reality. The bitter and the sweet juxtaposed, one on top of the other. The movement that consumes the final page—a truck “hurtling,” and a little girl “leaping” into the arms of her father—remind us that this is life and, like it or not, we are all impelled forward.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Willamette Week, and Martha Stewart Living, among other publications.