Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin)

Alison Bechdel, the creator behind the syndicated comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, brings us a tour-de-force graphic novel dissecting growing up with a closeted gay father.

 

232 pgs. B&W with blue accent colors; hardcover; $19.95
(W/A: Alison Bechdel)

 

Imagine a sort of "Daddy Dearest" with allusions to Proust and The Odyssey. Make it witty. Wittier. So witty it drips with drollery—intellectual "nerdcore," if you will. And make it emotionally evocative. And complex. And lesbian. And, oh yes—make it a graphic novel.

 

In a tour-de-force work seven years in-the-making, Alison Bechdel joins the ranks of Watchmen/Dark Knight/Maus/fill-in-yr.-favorite-sequential-masterwork-here with Fun Home, her superlative hardback memoir.

 

For more than 20 years, Bechdel has pumped out the syndicated strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Her wiseacre humor, sensitivity to the struggles of her like-minded characters, and chronicle of lives changing over two decades has made her comic something special, ghettoized as a lesbian treat, unfortunately, but worth reading for any fan of good writing or comics.

 

Fun Home, the true story of her relationship with her bitter, closeted gay father who killed himself at age 44, invokes the trademark wit, humor, and emotional undertow of Dykes but raises the stakes.

 

The cover to Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Click thumbnail for a larger image.Bechdel's dad is drawn (literally) as a quietly enraged mass of sexual repression, bitterness, and effete obsession with rehabbing and antiques. The "arctic" relations between father and children are epitomized when Bechdel kisses her father goodnight—on his hand (the face would just be too much for Dad). Fun Home is family-code for Funeral Home, which doubles as the Bechdel residence. Dad's cavalier way of embalming bodies with the kids wandering through the premises isn't always received lightly; the author recalls a moment of curious horror at seeing the "red cave" inside a body. For Dad, it's a sort of perverse test: can Alison handle this? I guess we'll see.

 

Each chapter is loosely organized around the theme of a particular lit classic—The Odyssey, Remembrance of Things Past, The Great Gatsby, An Ideal Husand, and so on. It's a conceit that works, in part, because the Bechdels are apparently a family of readers who communicate most easily through literary references. But for the most part, it's simply a natural fit. Dad's trial for corrupting a minor (he liked to buy beers for guys, some of them underage) calls to mind Oscar Wilde's own famous sodomy trial. Dad is emotionally absent, much as Odysseus is physically absent, for 20 years. The references deepen the tale.

 

Then there are the ironies of a closeted gay father interacting with his daughter, coming-of-age as a lesbian. He likes boys. She wants to look like a boy. He forces her into dresses. She marvels at his "sissified" fondness for gardening and Victorian décor. They're both aliens in their own skin, and magically, not long before Bechdel's father died, the two finally opened up about a few things. Dad had given Alison a book by lesbian icon/author Colette. "It was just a guess," he demurs. Before the pair can work on their nascent adult relationship, so sorely missed when Alison was a child, her father jumps in front of a bread truck and ends it all.

 

Dad is so much more present to Alison as a ghost than as a living man. And so her need to understand the man inside the girl, to sound a cri de coeur bottled up for 20 years, is finally met. And what a beautifully wrought, novelistic, subtle, and resonant memoir is produced for the lucky reader.

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