Fun Home: a family tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home a tragicomic Alison BechdelRating: 

An erudite, self-aware feminist memoir, in graphic novel form, examining a lesbian’s childhood relationship with her parents – especially her closeted gay father. Fun Home is chock full of psychoanalysis, literary criticism and commentary on gender, sexuality and suicide. You may recognise the author’s name from her Bechdel Test, which ‘asks if a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man’ to indicate gender bias (Wikipedia).

I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.

Bruce taught high school English while also being a part-time funeral director. Renovating old houses, including his own, was his obsessive hobby. Affairs with men and sex with his students got him into trouble. Criminal charges were pressed when he gave an underage boy beer, code for the real accusation of homosexuality.

He KILLED HIMSELF because he was a manic depressive, closeted FAG and he couldn’t face living in this small-minded small town one more SECOND.

…and when we’d go to New York, he’d go out alone at night. Once he got body lice! But it’s not just the… the… affairs. It’s the shoplifting, the speed tickets, the lying, his rages.

A couple of weeks before Bruce’s death, Alison’s mother told Bruce she was divorcing him. If he hadn’t (maybe) killed himself by walking out in front of a truck, Bechdel ponders whether she would’ve lost him to AIDS a few years later.

I measured my father against the grimy deer hunters at the gas station uptown, with their yellow workboots and shorn-sheep haircuts. And where he fell short, I stepped in . . . Not only were we inverts. We were inversions of one another.

Bechdel suggests she compensated for her father’s stereotypical feminine qualities–for example, trying to force her to like and wear girly things, and his fondness for the tiniest details of decorating and gardening and flowers–by becoming more butch, masculine.

While Alison always wanted to be a boy, she loved dressing in boys’ clothes, Bruce confessed he’d wanted to be a girl. Interfered with as a child, his battle with gender and sexual identity issues and his manic depressive nature surely made for an exceptionally frustrated man.

Perhaps my eagerness to claim him as “gay” in the way I am “gay,” as opposed to bisexual or some other category, is just a way of keeping him to myself–a sort of inverted Oedipal Complex.

Although Bechdel seemed to resent her father in childhood, she ultimately felt closer to him after learning of their shared homosexuality. Her relationship with her mother, on the other hand, felt mildly distant and awkward especially in her younger years when a 13-year-old Alison struggled to tell her mother she’d started her period. But those years were fraught with anxieties as OCD gradually monopolized Alison’s childhood.

Fun Home is emotionally intelligent despite Bechdel’s self-confessed difficulty with expressing her feelings. Although it reads like she swallowed an Oxford dictionary, an Oxford Companion to English Literature and several psychology textbooks, it’s intimidating nature in its depth and astuteness is still accessible to those who haven’t read the relevant books.

Bechdel’s autobiographical journey is told through books and their relevance to her and her family. Most references are made to classic literature and their authors, some of which I haven’t read. Albert Camus. Ernest Hemingway. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The Taming of the Shrew. Venus in Furs. James and the Giant Peach. Wallace Stevens. Marcel Proust. Morning’s At Seven. Wind in the Willows. The Importance of Being Earnest and Oscar Wilde. Catcher in the Rye. James Joyce. The Odyssey. Earthly Paradise by Colette. Virgina Woolf. Flying by Kate Millett. The myth of Icarus and his father. And many, many more.

I’ve got to say I’m curious as to what Bechdel thought of her Philosophy of Art class, whether she found it as confounding as I did.

‘A graphic narrative of uncommon richness, depth, literary resonance and psychological complexity.’
Kirkus Reviews

Fun Home is the perfect book for studying. It’s themes of feminism, lesbianism, psychoanalysis and literary discussion are all written with self-deprecating black humour and irony, making for a compelling read.

Further reading:

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