FUN HOME A FAMILY TRAGICOMIC
By Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition
By Alison Bechdel
Published by Houghton Mifflin
“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” - Leo Tolstoy, from Anna Karenina
Alison Bechdel's 232 page memoir of growing up in a troubled family with a (semi) closeted gay father and a long-suffering mother has the written density of a prose memoir, and such a highly detailed recollection of events (told in an overlapping, non-linear way) that I came away with an emotional feeling for the people involved, but with more than a few questions bouncing about in my head.
The artwork is expressive with beautiful long brushstrokes, though the pictures themselves are purely reportorial. The lightly-sketched style with it's simple lines but abundance of detail effectively creates a picture of a place and time (generally the late 1960s to the 1970s). Miracle Gro fertilizer boxes, Time Magazine covers, the Sunbeam logo on a swiftly moving bread truck are presented convincingly as background items in panels, but they also provide hints to what is occurring, pop-culture detritus as literary allusions to the family condition. Bechdel works her story at a number of levels for the reader, but provides explanations in the written narrative for many of the visuals, and like an inveterate English student takes the trouble to pinpoint motifs, making sure the reader doesn't miss the visual clues. Part of this is because Bechdel herself adopts the voice of a student studying her family who is likewise finding motifs and literary echoes, some of which she suspects were deliberately laid by her dead English teacher father (who is also, not without meaning in this story, also a part-time funeral home director).
The examination of her father tends to blot out the rest of the family, much in the same way the man dominated it in life (judging from the tale) he dominates also in this memoir, though a kind of self-celebration breaks forth when Bechdel is talking about her own rites of passage from neurotic child to an increasingly self-confident lesbian college student. The two other siblings are as backgrounded as the antique furniture that seems to clog the house, and while both mother and father are repetitiously drawn with heavily lidded, self-absorbed eyes that hardly notice the children around them, it is only the father that has opportunities to move into a narration that transcends the story as a magnification of Bechdel herself.
It's in that sense of a dual biography, Bechdel the daughter and Bechdel the father, that the book comes together. The father cannot escape from the small town he was born, is working and will die in, and he seems to not particularly care. The daughter cannot puzzle this to a satisfying conclusion, because she is able to see the endless opportunity of the cities they visit on family trips which give her glimpses at a the kind of freedom she is craving. It's interesting that Bechdel the daughter continuously examines her parents as individuals who did or did not make choices that Bechdel the daughter can comprehend (at least explicitly in the narration) but it is the damaged, yet stable atmosphere the two provided for three young children that allowed Bechdel the daughter to develop and exist.
It is not a heroic tale (as Bechdel the father states in a letter: "I am not a hero" referring to not acknowledging his secret gay life) but it is something that the father and mother repressed their own lifes to a degree that allowed their children to grow up in a relatively normal manner. She highlights the sight of her parents late night open warfare over an elusive problem that was not identified for the kids until later, at which point the reader realizes to what lengths the parents have shielded the children from the sad, brutal reality of their parents lifestyle. Bechdel speculates that her father, if he had "come out of the closet" would have only died eventually from the aids epidemic, but there is a self-destructiveness to the man on many fronts that seems to have only been tempered by family loyalty, or at least, family obligation. How the father died, and the details around it only add to the confusion of choices in which to behold the man's actions.
Bechdel utilizes a number of graphic techniques which reinforce the written narrative, adding a physicality to the tale that creates a concise visual map of events, not the least because Bechdel actually uses a number of actual maps to trace events in the story of this family, and especially the father. The house in which they all live is presented as almost a member of the group itself, and the restoration of the family home from a well-worn Victorian into a showplace (actually called "The museum" not a few times by people in the tale) plays a major part of the family history. Bechdel ruminates more than a little on the artifice and facade of the place as equal to that which lay over the family, but at the same time there is a romantic narrative vision of childhood which threads inbetween the anger, and a real taste for nostalgia is fundamental to the tale. Instead of creating a suffocating and claustrophobic atmosphere where the father's constant philandering and the mother's bitter silence rule over three growing children, instead there is a palpable sense of loss.
Original page February 8, 2007 | Updated July 2011
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