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A Memoir For Lovers of Literature

March 27, 2014

Fun Home by Alison BechdelAlison Bechdel, Fun Home, A Family Tragicomic, 2006

Early in this graphic memoir, we learn that Alison Bechdel’s father regularly had sex with men and teenage boys, while remaining in his marriage. We also learn that he died, probably by suicide, when Bechdel was 19. Fun Home circles around these central facts, revisiting them from differing perspectives, adding layer upon layer to the complicated relationship between father and daughter.

Memoirs work best when they reject the chronicling of events on a straight time line and instead, as described by Sven Birkerts, use a double vantage point – then and now – to build meaning and develop themes. Bechdel’s memoir is a beautifully constructed example of this.

Bechdel makes abundant use of literary allusion to try to make sense of the tangled threads of story in her family. She employs these allusions to writers such as Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald “not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison.”

In Albert Camus’ A Happy Death, the book her father was reading before he died, she finds a passage he has highlighted: “He discovered the cruel paradox by which we always deceive ourselves about the people we love – first to their advantage, then to their disadvantage.”

Her father reveres Ulysses, and she wonders how he could “admire Joyce’s lengthy, libidinal “yes” so fervently and end up saying “no” to his own life? I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.”

Her mother’s favourite poem is Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning, perhaps, Bechdel says, “because its juxtaposition of catastrophe with a plush domestic interior is life with my father in a nutshell.”

One of the dangers of writing a memoir is seeing patterns where none exist. Bechdel is aware of this trap, and does not try to make her own narrative exactly match fictional ones. She is also ambivalent about the way she links the personal to the larger political events happening at the same time: “Maybe I’m trying to render my senseless personal loss meaningful by linking it, however posthumously, to a more coherent narrative.” Referring to the onset of her puberty, she says: “This juxtaposition of the last days of childhood with those of Nixon and the end of national innocence may seem trite. But it was only one of many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family during those strange, hot months.”

I hope the passages I’ve quoted show that Bechdel is a skilled writer as well as an accomplished artist. The entwined stories of father and daughter advance not just by words, and not just by pictures, but by the two forms together forming an integrated whole. For example, over five panels, she writes:

“My father could spin garbage …
… into gold.
He could transfigure a room with the smallest offhand flourish.
He could conjure an entire, finished period interior from a paint chip.
He was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of décor.”

The panels illustrate each of these abilities.

Near the end of the book, 24 small panels over two pages illustrate an awkward, unsatisfying conversation between father and daughter when Bechdel tries to broach the subject of their parallel sexualities. This is one of many artistic-literary masterstrokes in the memoir.

Respecting copyright, I cannot reproduce any examples of her work, but you can check out her style on her website, Dykes to Watch Out For.

If you’re not a fan of “comic books”, don’t be deterred. Fun Home is a tour de force.

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