My Year of Banned Books book club met this month and we discussed Fun Home. I had read it before, seen Alison Bechdel speak, and attended a local college production of the musical. I love the book and I love the things that Bechdel has to say, both in person and through her work.
But what I had forgotten since the last time I had read her graphic memoir is how wonderful the work is as a piece of literature. I tried to let the conversation in book club flow naturally, and kept mostly silent as I didn’t want to discussion to turn into a formal class. But I can touch on some of those points here.
I fell in love with the roles that queer literature played in the lives of both Alison and her father, Bruce. It’s something they both use to connect with each other; his English class is the only one she enjoys at school. She also talks to him throughout college about his reading selections, and it gives him a chance to discuss with (lecture) her while she’s away. It’s an intellectual and adult way to grow a relationship. But it also sets them off on separate paths.
Bruce uses his books both like a badge and a shield. The queer characters let him keep that part of himself separate; they are, after all, both fictional and completely different people than him. He can hold public discourse in his classes about Catcher in the Rye and express all sorts of thoughts on that sort of behavior, and still not acknowledge it in himself. Even in his own realization of queerness, it’s an action that takes place, then followed by (partial) identification through books.
Alison is the opposite. Between both fiction and nonfiction, she begins to see herself in all of it. Virginia Woolf, Our Right to Love, Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin: these all let Alison Bechdel recognize sparks within herself and openly embrace them. It is only after researching sexuality does she find comfort, or at least recognition, with her own. There is one strange line that connects her father’s journey and her own.Earthly Paradise: An Autobiography Book by Colette acts as a bizarre filament between them, serving each of their own regard for self. Her father gives it to her while she’s on break. It’s the catalyst that eventually leads to her lesbian epiphany. It could be a beautiful connection between their queerness. But it’s not, because her father uses it as yet another book to distance himself from being open. He uses it as a silent method of testing the waters without drawing anything into the light.
Like his own queerness, his outreach goes as far as testing the waters. If prompted for more, he can proceed. But if rebuked or ignored he always keeps the option of feigning ignorance.
Then there’s the narrative structure. One of the book club members came up to me about a week before the meet up and said that while she loved the book she was bothered by the fact that it seemed to repeat itself so much, circling back to the same memories repeatedly. But when I was reading that it felt like that was the natural path for the story. Bechdel mentions her diary, and explains the evolution of her journaling. It begins as a straightforward log of her life, but slowly morphs into something more opaque and complicated. Eventually her journals are filled with brief, idealized versions of her days, or simply omit complicated but details altogether.
Fun Home itself is her attempt to reconcile these different versions of her past into a single, unified narrative of her life. Each version holds a truth about herself, either with literal facts or as a historical document showing how she attempted to reconcile her outer life and inner self. By putting a record of the most factual memories side by side with her own personal revisions she’s giving the most complete and honest account of her own past as she can.
Which is something her father never does. We’re shown only a few moments of his life from multiple perspectives, and even then they aren’t connected in a linear fashion. Let’s look at one of the core moments of Bruce Bechdel’s life that shaped him and his sexuality from his perspective:
And now from her mother’s perspective:
These two descriptions of the same event are about 160 pages apart with no explicit connection drawn between them. They are two fragments of a moment, each from an unreliable narrator, nearly book-ending the memoir. Neither one has enough context to be a definitive truth, and likely the real event was something in between both of those recollections. This entire book is Alison attempting to reconcile her own memories in a way that her parents clearly never managed to do with their own relationship.
Similarly open-ended and ambiguous is her father’s own take on her coming out. Ambiguous read of her father’s reaction to her choosing to coming out. His reactions across her memories range from somewhat bemused to outright dismissive, but never explained. The longest he ever goes on about the topic is when he writes her a letter which ends up focusing on his own queerness rather than hers. The most direct he gets is that brief and ultimately unfulfilling conversation they have in his car on their way to see The Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Is he dismissive because he feels he did fine without coming out? Is it because it never occurred to him that it was an option later in life, after getting married and having children? Is it envy of his daughter’s openness, starting a life that he never had? We never get a clear answer because Alison doesn’t, but that lack of closure hangs over her story for us as much as it does for her.
An aspect of this book that I was ready to point out to the group, but was pleasantly surprised when they all pointed it out to each other, is her use of artistic styles on the page. One reader mentioned that her character style was good, but nothing amazing. While reading the book, she couldn’t help but notice that different styles kept popping up. It was when she got to a page with a recreation of a photograph that she realized how technically adept Bechdel is, and that the more cartoonish aspects of her style are from personal choice and not from artistic limitations.
She does go through a great many different styles for the visual mediums she creates, or recreates, on the page. There are printed pages from books and forms, various handwritten letters in other people’s handwriting, the aforementioned photographs, maps, and even drawings of illustrations in other books. All of this makes the pages look great. The variety of styles makes the pages eye-catching, while the three-tone color palette keeps everything looking unified and clean. I also imagine the act of copying out these pieces of memories by hand must have been incredibly personal in the creation of this book. Copying words in the hand of the person who wrote them into her own book, and creating line drawing versions of photographs that had embodied moments and feelings from her own past- well, all I can think is how personal it must have made this book. Taking these external, yet personal, artifacts and making them completely her own makes for an added layer of depth to them when she includes them on the pages.
I had read this book a while back and enjoyed it. The art engaging, the narrative good, the story one I hadn’t seen before. But re-reading it for book club, there were so many aspects to it as a piece of literature that hadn’t struck me before. Her writing is so engaging that she could have written a fantastic prose memoir. The graphic edition she did write, though, is such a sharp and intelligent use of the medium that I think upon reflection it has become one of my favorite books. It’s not an obvious choice. Even for a comic the colors aren’t splashy and the art doesn’t have the sort of detail that would make a reader quickly take notice of that part of writing this book. The layers that Alison Bechdel works into Fun Home are fantastic, and I think this really is one of the great comic books and an amazing entry into the canon of American literature.