You have heard of this book. It will very likely emerge as the most heavily-praised original graphic novel of the year. It deserves what’s been said about it. A good deal has been said.
But I do think there is room for more discussion of the composition of the work, so vital is it to the book’s cumulative effect (of course, when is it not
?). Writer/artist Alison Bechdel
has not created a chronologically proceeding birth-to-maturity type of autobiographical comic, nor has she settled herself down to concocting a potpourri of amusing anecdotes and eminently relatable happenings - rather, each of the seven chapters of Fun Home
constitute something of a free-standing story, all of them concerned with Bechdel’s relationship with her family, all of them eager to cite and allude to sundry works of literature, all of them freed to hop and skip across the timeline of the author’s life as a child and a young woman, the death of her father and the event’s accordant fallout a spot of cessation for time’s march. It’s ok, we can always double-back; the man’s death is evident by the close of Chapter 1, but the author’s approach allows for endless circling of major familial events and memories of days gone by.
Thus, sequentially, there is little ‘beginning’ or ‘ending’ to Bechdel’s story, only a septet of adorned reminisces, rich in intertextuality and glowing in hyperlinked self-reference. Did you know
Bechdel drew the virtually the entire book from photo reference, and that many of the childhood objects and letters featured throughout were copied straight from their (archived!) originals? It shouldn’t be surprising; through its structure, Fun Home musters both classic literature and momentous familial events into a grand puzzle of being. Echoes of what was loud and vivid in one chapter can be gleaned in the next. A single anecdote is recalled a bit down the line.
The first page of the book’s story depicts Bechdel’s father balancing the young author on his feet. The last page sees him reaching out to catch her as she leaps into a pool, still young. This is not an accident. Their stories are parallels, yet mirrors - both are homosexual, but one elects to settle down into a nominally heterosexual life, to the point where the younger Bechdel ponders if she’s not merely ‘claiming’ him as a homosexual; both are artists, though one’s impulses are subsumed into home and personal decoration, while the other, er, drew the book you’re reading; both are simultaneously Daedalus and Icarus. One builds a labyrinth of personal artifice, the other a maze of memories. Both have their fallings.
“But in the tricky reverse narration that implies our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt
Allow me to elaborate.
Chapter 6 is titled The Ideal Husband
. After reading the chapter, it is evident that this is an allusion to Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband
. Wilde’s play concerns the follies of an idealized domestic life, very much a status engaged by Bechdel’s comic - as early as page 17, Bechdel’s father is identified by appearance as “an ideal husband
,” a sentiment the author’s (constant) narration immediately qualifies with: “But would an ideal husband and father have sex with teenage boys?
” We get back to that, at least in the context of one of the book’s reflections, in Chapter 6, pages 153-186.
As the chapter opens, young Bechdel is writing in her diary, and presents her father’s admission, when she was thirteen years old, that he was going to see a psychiatrist. Right on the next page, 154, Bechdel the narrator expresses a bit of self-consciousness: “There was a lot going on that summer. I’m glad I was taking notes. Otherwise I’d find the degree of synchronicity implausible
.” It’s a jarring line, the type commonly used by an author who’s distinctly aware of his or her limitations and seeks to deter criticism via the smoke of nervous admission. But Bechdel avoids such trickery, as her entire book is notably reflexive, practically commenting on pages as soon as they’re drawn, the whole sprawling, looping thing a sort of thinking-out-loud oral storytelling excursion in pictures. Detailed, arranged pictures.
Also on page 154, we see that Bechdel’s mother is preparing for a role in a play (we’ve seen this before, page 66), Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest
, another work about marriage. Also, Watergate is coming to a head, and the young Bechdel is menstruating for the first time. Plus: locusts are emerging from the ground, a symbol of both plague and the onrushing of maturity. All of these themes will become prominent, and few are left unremarked upon by the author; in the context of such a work, few symbols can pass without us being told of them, and few literary references can go without explicit discussion. Again, this could easily have become irritating, or even infuriating. Again, it does not, as Bechdel has structured both the book and her very voice to forestall such a possibility. She is earnest about her introspection, and that is important.
On page 157, Bechdel and a brother stand by a maple tree in their yard and record the locusts mating via microphone and tape recorder. Documentation, maturity, the home. On page 163, we see Bechdel’s mother using a recorder to rehearse her lines (we’ve seen this before, page 132, where the tape recorder acts as a symbol for inadvertent communication, a more ‘truthful’ role to play). Documentation . On page 170, Bechdel presents her first experiences with masturbation. Maturity. On page 178, we see that a climactic storm, having blasted through the area, fells one of the maple trees and several other trees, but there is no wound to the family house. The home, damaged, yet somehow unscathed.
Working backward (since the author likes to do that too), that storm also messes up Bechdel’s mother’s thesis paper (page 177). It’s the culmination of anxiety she’s been through for the entire chapter - on page 164, Bechdel draws her own comparison between photos of her mom in everyday life, and in character as Wilde’s unflappably ruthless creation. “a Victorian dominatrix to rival Wilde himself
.” But it is artifice, and not just in terms of work-related anxiety; Bechdel’s father (Old Father, Old Artificer
, as Chapter 1 is titled), is at great risk in this chapter, having been caught by the police providing alcohol (and perhaps more) to a high school boy (page 161). Hence his need for counseling. Nixon and trees falling, etc.
You see how this is working out? Let me get back into page order, since Bechdel’s chapter does work well as a single story, tracking the events of that summer of age thirteen.
Speaking of artifice and maturity; on page 168, Bechdel depicts her mother’s performance in the play, immediately followed by the return of the young Bechdel’s “secretion
.” On page 169, she depicts how her own diaries, that chapter-opening symbol of reliable narration, have grown increasingly unreliable with her body’s changes: she uses codes for menstruation and masturbation (“…the implosive spasm so staggeringly complete and perfect that for a few brief moments I could not question its inherent moral validity
.”). On page 172, she (explicitly) connects her journalistic artifice to Nixon’s mistruths. On page 173, she (explicitly) connects Nixon’s to her father’s. And then comes the storm of pages 175-179, instantly followed on page 180 with her father’s court hearing. Helpful Bechdel provides her own comparison to Wilde’s trial (featuring Wilde’s own classicist allusions), and on page 181 depicts Nixon throwing in the towel. The tree is felled, but the house is safe.
Yet pages 182-183 show us Bechdel and a peer (herself interested in boys, which Bechdel is not), dressing as male dandies and having their own little play. They can’t keep it up for long, and Bechdel writes about it in her diary, the entry partially a lie. The whole book can be seen as a scrupulously complete collection of small lies and their uncovering. Bedchel’s very comic is her own, overriding diary, one that will now, as the product of a grown author, leave no stone unturned.
And on page 186, the chapter closes by reflecting its first image: the maturing Bechdel’s diary is open and blank:
“By the end of November, my earnest daily entries had given way to the implicit lie of the blank page, and weeks at a time are left unrecorded
And what is unrecorded cannot be presented, not in a tome such as this, Wilde's playacting characters real enough to bear analogy to Bechdel's own world - but what is not written, is not on the page.
The entire book is like this, each of the six remaining chapters. They all stand alone, and fit together. They all cover the same general time, but different moments. The author constantly acts as her own set of SparkNotes, but again, this is not a book that could stand much more encoding. Bechdel is already fixated on assembling the bits of her life into something to talk about, and talk she does - to you. Her assemblage is often stunning, even as her visual art is strictly representational - again, it matters not with as vivid and multifaceted a gem as this one. Fun Home is both a book that tells you everything up front, then demands you dive in deeper, to uncover the whispers that only drawings and arrangements can make. Bechdel’s art and her voice are so profound, that you might initially feel intimidated - she is so very thorough and complete.
But I think it is rewarding to dig, and catalogue, and draw lines, and make your own lists.
I fear that even now I have not gotten across the humor of the work (there is a lot), or the breadth of its sweep (those James Joyce bits in Chapter 7 are killer
in both standing alone and summing up the book's core themes). You'll find it all, though, now or soon, or whenever you read the book.
Some books can wait, and are just as fine later on.