Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home: A Family TragicomicFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alison Bechdel is best known for the Bechdel test, which a movie passes if it has two named female characters who speak to each other about something other than a male character. It's a low bar for gender representation, and yet a minority of mainstream films pass it. Bechdel introduced the test in her webcomic.

Fun Home covers far different material than what Bechdel has online. It's a memoir in graphic novel form, of a childhood spent in rural Appalachia under the shadow of her closeted gay father. She only learned the context for a lot of the events of her childhood after her father commits suicide (maybe) and her mother reveals the truth young Bechdel was sheltered from. Bechdel blames herself for her father's suicide, which she's convinced was sparked from her coming out as a lesbian.

The story is told mostly as a series of flashbacks and musings. Bechdel starts each chapter with a seed of memory: a photograph, a letter, a book, or just musing about a childhood recollection. The picture emerges in pieces, of her father's perfectionism, about her museum-quality house, of the family funeral home business and the strange attitudes about death that lends itself to.

Interestingly, the father is never presented as a villain. Bechdel could have exposed his lies and secrets, and blamed him for all the ills in her life. Instead, she presents him as a flawed but sympathetic figure. Her mother suffers for his choices, and Bechdel never glosses over that, but her own attitude is of curiosity and regret. She seems to find, at least in these pages, the sense of closure her father's death left her craving.

Some of the narrative is woven into classical allusions that, unfortunately, went straight over my head. Fun Home assumes some familiarity with Ulysses, which I've never read, and it offers none of the contextual clues that would've brought it together. I can only assume this book is more profound if you share Bechdel's reading list.

I wouldn't have thought the graphic novel format would lend itself to a memoir, but it was used to good effect here. Bechdel illustrates several concepts that don't work in prose, and reproduces photographs to offer context that we'd otherwise have to take her word for. For all the strangeness of the relationship with her father she describes, nothing captures it quite like her vividly illustrated dreams, or her scene stagings that show him off to the side, engaged only with his inner world. And her childhood home is hard to grasp without the illustrations capturing their pristine perfection.

This is probably the most profound graphic novel I'll ever read. It's short, but that doesn't mean it's a quick read. It's dense with meaning and emotional resonance. It was excellently done.

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