Propaganda – Fun Home
In the hands of a lesser writer this would be a memoir full of venom, hatred and a self pitying abasement in front of the reader. But this is Alison Bechdel. She’s been writing accessible yet ground-breaking graphic fiction for years in the pages of the brilliant Dykes To Watch Out For, and it should be no surprise to anyone that this, her first major piece of autobiography is a strong contender for inclusion on the ever-growing list of classic graphic novels.
Bechdel’s moving and insightful story centres on her father and her difficult relationship with him that is investigated in flashback after his suspected suicide under the wheels of a truck. She details a cold and distant man who combined teaching English with running the family funeral home (the Fun Home). Throughout her childhood she grew used to his his distance and difficult behaviour; quick to temper, obsessively houseproud, prizing a love of literature above love for his family. But as she struggled through adolescence dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder and her growing awareness of her homosexuality she somehow managed to overlook her father’s unusual behaviour as he too struggled with his sexuality. The truth emerges years later, when Bechdel comes out to her parents. Her mother’s response is to inform Bechdel that her father has had affairs with his male students and with the family babysitter. Somehow Bechdel’s revelation doesn’t seem so grand anymore at that stage.
Bechdel’s tale takes no linear route but instead circles dramatically around the central facts of the tale; Bechdel’s sexuality, her father’s death and his secret life. It’s Bechdel’s sensitive and considered investigation of these moments that turns Fun Home from run of the mill shock autobiog into something far richer and important. Throughout the book, literature plays an vitally important role, as a bond between father and daughter, a means of Bechdel’s sexual education and a way for her father to express his true sexuality. Bechdel sometimes leans too heavily on the literary referencing, but it’s a minor mis-step along the way to telling a masterful tale of family and self-discovery.
Fun Home’s serious content is softened by Bechdel’s cartoony artwork. Her simple character linework contrasts with her highly detailed backgrounds all augmented by a green wash. Her art never allows the story to overwhelm the reader, no matter how mournful the moment is. Bechdel’s writing is clever enough to deliberately lighten the mood throughout the book, almost descending into high farce at times before once more coming back to the inherent sadness of the tale. It’s only rarely however that she allows her art to become as serious as her words, but when she does it’s beautiful, poignant and deeply moving:
(A poignant moment from Fun Home that perfectly captures one little girl’s wish to be closer to her cool and distant father. A wish that sadly, never came true.)
At it’s close Fun Home proves itself to be a beautiful, complex and profoundly affecting work that, although it focuses on the troubled relationship of father and daughter, is primarily about Alison Bechdel herself, her relationship with words and the safety of the literature. In Fun Home she writes: “My parents are most real to me in fictional terms” and it’s obvious that the disfunctional family was kept at bay by Bechdel and her father by a retreat into fiction of many different forms.
Her father was by no means perfect, but his influence on Bechdel has been far reaching, and her subsequent choice of career as a writer and cartoonist is directly attributable to the father. That Bechdel uses her talents and her joy of writing to tell the tale is fitting.
(Bechdel reading from Fun Home in 2007. Photo borrowed from Exism’s Flickrstream.)
Alison Bechdel’s next major project is further autobiography, this time concentrating on her relationships. If it is anywhere near as good as Fun Home it too will be essential reading.
Richard Bruton was planning to write his own autobiographical comic entitled Welcome to the House of Fun until someone pointed out that was a song by Madness.