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Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

April 3rd, 2007 (11:30 pm)

current music: The Decemberists: tracks from Her Majesty...

I was introduced to Alison Bechdel's work about ten years ago by pennypaperbrain, who in turn had learned of the Dykes to Watch Out For and their creatrix from the_marquis. I've been a semi-regular reader of the strip since it went online.

It's taken me a few months to catch up with Fun Home, the graphic novel with which Bechdel's work has jumped from a small to a large publisher, and with which the publishing world recognises the relevance and appeal of Bechdel's queer tales beyond the LGBT and alternative press where her art has appeared until now. I eventually picked it up from Amazon after finding it all but unputdownable in Waterstone's - therefore putting myself in a similar position to the perky and moneyed consumer at Madwimmin Books in this instalment of DTWOF.

Fun Home is eloquent in its description of family relationships built on foundations that have been purposely hidden; so well hidden that the narrator does not consciously know that she is participating in someone else's artifice until she is twenty years old. The chapters approach the issues with which the narrative is concerned from different angles: Alison's father's secret is stated in the narration early on but it is revealed slowly, allowing the reader to take in Bechdel's discovery and exploration of her own sexuality - an orientation which is presented as complementary to her childhood rejection of her father's obsession with the decorative, the precise and the ornate. These characteristics play into established stereotypes about gay behaviour, but are rooted in Alison's father's frustration with his failure to live up to his aesthetic ideal, stranded teaching English and sustaining the family undertaking business in Pennsylvania, thousands of miles and decades away from the Europe of cafes and bohemian intellectualism which he glimpsed in the writing of Joyce and Colette and seemed to have within reach when stationed in Europe in the late 1950s as a US serviceman. His devotion to historical restoration leaves his children growing up in a house that the young Alison recognises could have been a model for Charles Addams; and as children the young Bechdels could be forgiven for thinking that they would end up like Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies.

Alison Bechdel's style is deceptively simplistic; part of her storytelling is in the detail that at first goes unnoticed among the firm but slightly undulating strokes and the open faces that change expression with the slightest tweak of a moderate, precise line. On page 31 young Alison is depicted holding a loaf of Sunbeam Ranch bread. It is a Sunbeam van, as we are told several times in one form or another, that killed her father; the 'ranch' recalls the outdoor life which Alison's father's "old school chum" is calling her to join; and Alison's father is buying 'Sealtest milk', as if every invitation to join masculine pursuits - though the friend assures him that "You don't hafta shoot nothin'" - is another test of his closeted gay identity. Correspondingly, throughout her consideration of her relationship with her father, Alison is looking for clues, imagining him as having underlined passages for her in his Camus or his Fitzgerald or his Salinger which she has found echo aspects of her upbringing or her father's personality; instead, she has only one conversation with her father about their shared "predeliction", shortly before his death, which ends when his attempt to take her to a gay club ends because Alison is under 21, and they leave "in mortified silence" as if their self-expression is cowed by society's judgement on their transgressive nature.

Bechdel's sensitivity to the human condition is always displayed, but she is never cloying, nor superficially honest; Fun Home contains a lot of questions but few answers with which its author is satisfied. It's a memoir about learning to live with voids, and that finding the reasons for asking the questions can achieve some sort of reconciliation even where resolution is not to be had.


Posted by: zephyr (vescoiya)
Posted at: April 4th, 2007 12:05 pm (UTC)

You know I first read the gothic twists as gothic twins and now feel very stupid.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 4th, 2007 02:20 pm (UTC)

No need - Alison Bechdel's art is heavily Gorey- and Addams-influenced and there is often a sense of lowering doom over all, so if twins turn up in her work, they could probably be described as gothic...