Alison Bechdel is arguably the most famous lesbian in the comics industry, as the creator of the seminal comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, but for all the criticism and commentary she included in the strip over its twenty-five-year history, it wasn’t as personal as her graphic memoir Fun Home, which chronicled her own childhood, sexual orientation, and her complex relationship with her father.
That relationship certainly was complex; as we’re told early on, shortly before his death but after Alison had come out to her parents, she found out that her father had had relationships with other men. With so little time to talk to him before she died, Alison is left to figure out his sexuality on her own, examining old memories and re-contextualizing them with this new information.
The whole book is about context and subtext, looking at incidents and bits of dialog and asking, “What does this mean?” It’s almost similar to the kind of literary analysis that takes place in classrooms and book clubs, which makes it appropriate that the book is heavy in literary references. Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and a voracious reader, so Alison is constantly comparing his life to the books he loved, from the works of Fitzgerald and Camus to James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey. But while an English student will be asked how the events of an author’s life will influence their work, Alison is asking how their work influenced her father’s life.
The memoir is very dense in allusions and references, but not to the point of incomprehensibility to the average reader. I still found myself looking up the occasional word or fact, more out of curiosity than confusion. Fun Home is definitely a book that could benefit from an annotated edition.
As a narrative the book is not straightforward or chronological. Instead, it takes the format of human memory, Alison remembering certain incidents and laying out the circumstances surrounding them, then taking the future knowledge of his queer identity and his death and factoring that into each situation. This happens almost every chapter, with memories repeated and reiterated to the point where it feels like Bruce Bechdel dies not once, but again and again, brought back to life at the start of every chapter so a new incident can be re-examined. Knowing what will happen just feels like we’re circling a drain, going around and around until we finally fall in.
Fun Home is full of detail and heart, and it’s never boring. Alison Bechdel has a good mind for detail (as we learn, she’s been keeping a daily diary since she was 10) and each scene is loaded with nostalgia, inspiring me to think back on the shadows of my own childhood. But at the same time, her childhood is much darker and enigmatic, an emotional drain mitigated only by the choice of making the last chapter more positive. This is where Alison talks about those few incidents where her and her father found common ground, most notably through literature. While drawing on facts presented earlier in the book, it still feels off-kilter as we reach the conclusion, a hurried attempt to find meaning before the last page is turned. Perhaps this is how we should feel, to better reflect real life: unsatisfied and confused, but hopeful.