Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

My first contribution to the IDT readers' blog--and it's a graphic novel! I'm not sure whether that's auspicious or ominous. Anyway, this is one of the better ones I've read this year.

I'd been getting a little morose about the state of the graphic novel genre--read enough of them and you can easily find yourself hemmed in by shoegazing white boys. I like some of those shoegazing white boys, but if I spend too long reading their stuff I start to feel like my iPod's "Alt/Folk/Indie" playlist is on endless shuffle. I love me some Sam Beam and Sufjan Stevens, but after you've been through them and the two Damiens and Jay Tillman and all those other sad white boys, you sometimes start to crave something a little different. Say, with estrogen. Or more melanin. Or Prozac.

Alison Bechdel doesn't have any more melanin than those guys, and she's not exactly cheerful, but she's a dyke, so points for her. You may know her from her longstanding syndicated strip Dykes to Watch Out For, or you may have smoked dope and read Kate Millett with her at Oberlin. Her latest book, Fun Home, is a memoir and a coming-of-age story. From there, it's all in the details.

Bechdel really does have a story to tell, which is a good start. Her father was a closeted homosexual who taught high school English and ran a funeral home out of their house. (They called the funeral home the "Fun Home." It took me a while to get that, mea culpa.) He was a demanding and distant perfectionist, and he spent his marriage having affairs with young men, some of them his students. Bechdel's mother was, for lack of a better word, longsuffering. When Bechdel was away at college, her father was hit by a Sunbeam bread truck and killed. His death may or may not have been a suicide. There's story in there, you have to admit.

Bechdel's father was a frustrated intellectual, a close reader of Joyce and Proust, and her memoir is shaped in part by an overlay of her own college readings of her father's editions of Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past, complete with his notes to self. She uses the device transparently and self-consciously, pointing up her own need to add meaning to the sadly, frighteningly meaningless. At the same time, her art is clever and humane, loaded with the homely little details of childhood: saggy bathing suits, bad haircuts, socked feet.

More than anything else, the book's tone is relentlessly, recursively inquisitive--Bechdel is trying hard to understand her mysterious father, and her own conflicted feelings about him. It's rare to find a book exploring a woman's relationship with her father in such depth, and kunstromans (kunstromen?) for lesbian artists are pretty thin on the ground too. This puts Fun Home on its own sparsely populated island in the stream--unlike so many of those shoegazing white boy books, this one doesn't have a crowd of its fellows already out there in the market, providing some context and a ready-made audience. Maybe that's in its favor. It's an honest, original, sad, funny book. I was surprised by how moving it was, and by how much I liked it.

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