Here’s another review from Donny….
Fun Home, A Family Tragicomic
by Alison Bechdel
If you know her name already then it’s probably from the “Bechdel Test.” This originated in 1985 in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. To pass this simple test of approximate gender balance a movie or work of fiction must contain at least two [named] female characters who talk to each other for at least one scene about something other than a man. It started as an in-joke in the lesbian community, but the Bechdel Test has since become widely used in cultural criticism, and in Sweden they even use the Bechdel Test as part of their ratings system – and it’s surprising how many movies, comics, and TV episodes still fail it. Then again, a 2014 study of 120 movies found that only 21% had a female protagonist or co-protagonist. (In a country where 1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted and only 1 in 5 movies feature a female lead, these numbers indicate that the feminist movement still has some distance to go.) Another interesting study found that those movies which passed the Bechdel Test generally were made on a lower budget and had an average 37% higher return on investment, so one hopes this evidence will encourage Hollywood to become more gender equal. (Then again, only 2% of moves are made by female directors, and the screenwriters’ guild also remains a boys’ club.) There is a movie database kept at bechdeltest.com .
So… Fun Home. Here’s the “log line” description written by Lev Grossman and Richard LeCayo: “a stunning memoir about a girl growing up in a small town with her cryptic, perfectionist dad and slowly realizing that a) she is gay and b) he is too… Bechdel’s breathtakingly smart commentary duets with eloquent line drawings. Forget genre and sexual orientation: this is a masterpiece about two people who live in the same house but different worlds, and their mysterious debts to each other.”
Alison’s father’s self-loathing over his homosexuality drives him to kill himself shortly after she comes out. Maybe. Maybe it was just an accident and not a suicide. Or maybe that’s not why he did it. The book is a labyrinth, winding and turning around these questions. It is, among other things, a story about the loss of objective reality. We’re trapped in the maze of Alison’s memoir, and if even she isn’t sure what’s real and what’s just her own projection or interpretation then how can we be? Alison ironically tells us that in college she distrusted literary theories because she “didn’t understand why we couldn’t just read the books without forcing contorted interpretations on them,” while the whole time she is trying to force some kind of literary logic onto her experiences with her father.
Bechdel’s prose is absolutely poetic. Even separated from her wonderful drawings, just listen to the words: “When I think about how my father’s story might have turned out differently, a geographical relocation is usually involved. If only he’s been able to escape the gravitational tug of Beech Creek, I tell myself, his particular sun might not have set in so precipitate a manner.”
Then there’s this, as well: “It’s true that he didn’t kill himself until I was nearly twenty. But his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him. Maybe it was the converse of the way amputees feel pain in a missing limb. He really was there all those years, a flesh-and-blood presence steaming off the wallpaper, digging up the dogwoods, polishing the finials… smelling of sawdust and sweat and designer cologne. But I ached as if he were already gone.”
When Alison was young, her father was a distant and volatile presence who could explode if the children disturbed the perfect, gilded world he was trying to create. Bechdel is a great observer of human nature. When she describes living with her abusive father she adds that, “the constant tension was heightened by the fact that some encounters could be quite pleasant,” – a paradox that will be familiar to many who were unfortunate enough to grow-up with an abusive parent.
The book opens (and closes) with several explicit references to Daedalus and Icarus and James Joyce and his Stephen Daedalus. In fact, the book is itself a kind of Ulysses, and the parallels are made consciously overt in the final chapter. One effect reading Fun Home had on me was that it made me really want to re-read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and review Joseph Campbell’s James Joyce essays, Wings of Art.
This book bleeds intertextuality. Fitzgerald, Henry James, Wilde, Shakespeare, Salinger, Camus, and Proust are all very much a part of this book, and this graphic novel is in conversation with these great authors. It’s a book about books – about Alison’s attempt to understand her bibliophilic father through books. She uses books to find herself and to search for her father. However, the non-highly-literary reader shouldn’t be put-off. I can see why college lit professors love this book because it’s a primer on intertextuaity. Every few pages introduces a new and surprising literary reference, but remarkably most are explained enough that as long as you have a Wikipedia understanding of the work referenced then you can catch what she’s getting at. She doesn’t just mention Camus’ A Good Death; she goes on to explain it a bit, to summarize, and to overtly relate it to her father’s life… and death.
In life, too, Alison and her father communicated through books. They exchange hints about their sexualities by exchanging memoirs: her father gives her a copy of Earthly Paradise, an autobiographical collection by the lesbian novelist Colette, and soon after, in what Alison describes as “an eloquent unconscious gesture,” she accidentally leaves a library copy of bisexual, feminist, and gay rights activist Kate Millett’s memoir for him.
Bechdel is a real master of comic book storytelling, and the book is full of wonderful page after wonderful page. For example, page 7 features one of those great visual-textual puns that work so well in comics: We read, “Historical restoration wasn’t his job. It was his passion,” [emphasis added] and we are shown Alison’s father carrying a long, salvaged porch post down the street in imitation of Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha. The most skilled comics’ artists understand how the separate meanings of the words and the pictures can combine and re-frame to create new meanings, puns, or ironies. 1 + 1 = 3. Page 12 is another great example of this: The text is re-telling the story of the Minotaur and Daedalus’s labyrinth while the pictures tell a parallel story about Alison and her abusive father trapped in the house together. You couldn’t do this in a prose novel nor would it work as well in a film. This is what I call “pure comic book,” and I could go on and on with such examples, but instead I’ll just advise you: while reading Fun Home pay as much attention to how she’s telling the story as the story she’s telling and ask yourself frequently, ‘Could this work as well in any medium besides a comic book?’
Another way to read Fun Home, I would suggest, is that it makes a fine companion piece to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003). Both are memoirs by females and minorities (a lesbian and a Muslim), doubly-underrepresented voices in comics, and both have an elegant, beautiful cartooning style. Reading these two masterworks back-to-back might be doubly enlightening.
I haven’t said enough about Bechdel’s art. Fun Home is drawn in a beautiful style of mostly black-and-white with washes of grey-green tones selectively used, much in the style of Dave McKean’s Cages (which I think might be the most beautiful comic book ever drawn). She spent seven years creating Fun Home, not only re-writing and perfecting the language, but she also used extensive photo-references and always photographed herself (as seen above) in the poses of all of the characters she drew. Her perfectionist working method (she also writes about her OCD in the memoir) paid off since there’s hardly a page in here one could think of improving. Many of her panels are full of revealing background details in much the same vain as Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen (e.g. the things showing on the TV in the backgrounds). Bechdel has said, “I don’t like pictures that don’t have information in them. I want pictures that you have to read, that you have to decode…” That is what makes her a truly great visual story-teller.
Fun Home spent two weeks on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller list, and Time magazine named it number one of its “10 Best Books of the Year.” It was adapted into a musical play in 2013 (there are clips on Youtube), and in 2014, Alison Bechdel received a Macarthur “Genius” Award. In 2012, Fun Home was followed by an equally well-crafted sequel Are You my Mother? which explores Alison’s relationship with her mother by way of Virginia Woolf and Sigmund Freud.
While winning critical praise the book has also been the subject of public controversy. A library in Missouri temporarily removed Fun Home and Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Blankets from its shelves because a couple of citizens said the works were pornographic and would be read by children (presumably just because they are comic books… although the idea that many young children would be interested in picking up a complex, Modernist memoir that namedrops James Joyce and Marcel Proust seems pretty unlikely.) Two years later, a Christian extremist student of the University of Utah tried (and failed) to force the university to remove the book from the syllabus of one of its mid-level English Lit classes. However, the most public incident occurred in South Carolina where Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council challenged the inclusion of Fun Home as a reading selection for incoming freshmen at the College of Charleston. The College stood its ground, so the Republican-led South Carolina House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee cut the College’s funding by $52,000 (the cost of the summer reading program). Rep. Garry Smith, who proposed the cut, said that by choosing Fun Home the College was “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.” A public debate ensued during which fundamentalist bigots compared Fun Home and Bechdel to slavery, Charles Manson, and Adolf Hitler. In response, Bechdel herself pointed out the irony since the book “is after all about the toll that this sort of small-mindedness takes on people’s lives.”