Created by: Alison Bechdel
Published by: Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618477942 (Amazon)
For some reason, and it may be a reaction based upon my own opposing predilection, attempts at overachievement bother me. When a person tries to act beyond the envelope of their abilities, I become put off. At least, I do when I notice. When an artist tries to create something amazing and succeeds without hiccough, I am wholly unperturbed—this due the nature of success. A clean success betrays no hint that the accomplishment was any kind of a stretch, no evidence that the achievement was anything other than perfectly in line with the creator’s gifts.
It’s when someone reaches beyond their comfort zone to bring into the world something that they might not have the skill to bring about and that struggle is evident in the final product—that’s when I begin to feel uncomfortable. As someone who frequently does not try hard enough and often creates plausible works far below his ken (likely in order to save myself from over-reaching), trying too hard embarrasses me. Reading Christopher Paolini’s Eragon was tortuous for this reason; the poor kid was obviously trying to write at a level quite beyond his grasp. He had the vocabulary but not the knack for putting it together.
And the first time I read Fun Home, I felt like Alison Bechdel was over-reaching, that she was just plain trying too hard. The literary allusions, while inventive, seemed forced. Her inclusion of such a wide variety of authors and themes seemed too pat, too cute. I felt she was trying to impress with the gravitas of prior works, fearful that her family’s story wasn’t strong enough to stand on its own.
I have, happily, revised that opinion substantially. Three cheers for second readings, eh?
There are still moments when I feel Bechdel is grasping for allusions beyond her ability to furnish,* but those instances are many fewer than I had originally felt. (Either that or my nostalgia for the book has since coloured my readings with good will and charity.) And on the whole, Bechdel’s incessant reference to the works of others doesn’t distract as much from her family’s story so much as I originally felt. Or, actually, it does but in repayment adds a more robust sense of who these people are. Their lives—at least the lives of Alison and her parents—are so thoroughly dominated by the writing and words of others that to tell their story without these grand allusions might have been to tell a hollow version of things. My second reading allowed me to appreciate more fully the depth to which Bechdel’s father was influenced by the Moderns and how substantially Alison was shaped by the writings of her own era and how those in turn influenced her readings of the others.
When first approaching the book, I was under the impression that this was Alison’s story—and to be fair, one can read for some distance before Fun Home's true object is made clear. Subtitled “A Family Tragicomic,” Fun Home is the story of Bruce Bechdel, Alison Bechdel’s father. Some might also mistake it as an exploration of the homosexual problem, but both Alison’s story and the unveiling of her own homosexual inclination merely serve to round out the portrait of Bruce the author has chosen to sculpt.
Even the recountment of Alison’s own struggles and coming out revelations are couched safely under the shadow of Bruce’s own toil and history and context. For the sake of the narrative, Alison’s discovery of lesbianism means nothing apart from the tether of her father’s experiences with young men. Alison complains at the revelation of her father’s dalliances, even as she has just revealed her own lesbianism: “Unmoored as I still was by my own queerness, this broadside swamped my small craft.”
Flaunting sundered expectations, Bechdel thoroughly engrosses the reader in the mystery of her father. Bruce Bechdel was a man whose life and death were foundered by his queerness upon the precipice between an era that would have none of it and the new dawn when homosexuality would begin to approach wider reception as a valid choice of life expression. Alison’s father is explored through his writings, through his reading, through his history, and perhaps most deliciously, through his family.
Fun Home is a hard book. Grave tragedy hangs over the entire reading as a spectre. Bruce’s death, possibly a suicide, is never far from narrative view. Bechdel returns to it over and again, approaching not just as the mortician (relevant to the funeral home atmosphere) but as coroner and detective as well. What, in the end, killed Bruce? Cosmic accident? The troubles of an era? Harmful needs that could not be quenched? A marriage that he continued to break and conversely seemed to break him?
In the end, was it a snake or a phallus that did him in? And does it matter which? Fun Home is a hard book, but—filled with love and hate and glory and discontent and tragedy and hope—it’s also a powerful one.
* It may be that the problems with the opening mythic allusion of the Icarus/Daedalus relationship coloured the remainder of my reading of Bechdel’s graphic memoir. In the opening two pages, she writes: “In the circus, acrobatics where one person lies on the floor balancing another are called ‘Icarian Games.’ Considering the fate of Icarus after he flouted his father’s advice and flew so close to the sun his wings melted, perhaps some dark humor is intended. In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky.”
A fine use of outside literature, right? comparing her father’s fall to that of Icarus? The problem here is twofold. 1) Alison and her father are shown practicing the described acrobatics and it is Alison who is hoisted aloft and Alison who falls. So, in the pictured “reenactment of this mythic relationship,” it really is the daughter and not the father who falls. 2) When Alison’s father falls, it is not because he ignored Alison’s advice. The second is a minor point and perhaps petty and stretching Bechdel’s metaphor, but the first requires a more careful wording in order to be workable.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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