on July 27, 2006
FUN HOME A FAMILY TRAGICOMIC is the latest work from the highly skilled, insightful, neurotic and wry-humored pen of Alison Bechdel, best known for her "Dykes to Watch Out For" comic strip. (One of the longest-running queer comic strips, "Dykes to Watch Out For" is over 20 years old, has been syndicated in hundreds of papers, released in over 10 books, and is available online via the author's website.) FUN HOME is Bechdel's graphically rendered account of growing up in rural Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 70s with a particular focus on influences of her father`s life and death.
Beginning with some of Bechdel's earliest memories of her father, readers meet a man who was an intelligent, emotionally distant yet volatile, narcissistic perfectionist who struggled with secrets. Trapped in the town not only of his youth but that of his ancestors for several generations, Bechdel`s father worked in the family business, a funeral home (known in the family as the "Fun Home") established by her great-grandfather in the 19th century. In addition to his interest in local history and historic preservation, Bechdel's father was a closeted gay (or bisexual) man who had a string of affairs, primarily with younger men, throughout his life.
Divided into seven chapters, each of which deals with particular themes in her childhood, FUN HOME contains a strong emphasis on literary references. Chapters weave back and forth in time, revealing aspects of Bechdel's childhood and details of her father's death. Books and literature were an important influence in Bechdel's life growing up. Her father taught English Literature at the local high school while her mother studied theater and performed in community plays. The gothic revival home the family lived in (and which her father had restored) boasted a library. At one point Bechdel admits, "I employ these [literary] allusions ... not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms" (66). It becomes apparent that literary discussion was one of the primary modes of communication between herself and her father.
Bechdel came out to her parents via a letter in the spring of 1980. Her declaration prompted her mother to point out to Bechdel that her father had been having affairs with men for years. Initially, this information appears to have been news to Bechdel, who reflects, "I'd been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parents' tragedy" (58). This "upstaging" is revealed as a theme in Bechdel's life as childhood milestones, such as her menarche, were overshadowed by the family preoccupation with and response to her father facing charges of "contributing to the delinquency of a minor." Apparently, her father's closet was not entirely secret and his extramarital activities added strain to the family. Her coming out was further upstaged when her father died in a questionable "accident" (it may have been suicide) just four months after her letter.
Bechdel spent years feeling shut down yet very guilty regarding her coming out and how it may have influenced her father's death. FUN HOME details the results of Bechdel's intellectual and emotional processing of her father's death, and her relationship with this complex, intelligent, conflicted, and often remote man. A powerful example of her self awareness includes her admission, "[evidence that he was considering suicide months before Bechdel came out] would only confirm that his death was not my fault. That, in fact, it had nothing to do with me at all. And I'm reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond" (86).
Book-length graphic stories are not a mainstay of this reviewer's reading. However, Bechdel's clean, distinctive illustration style with its wry observations and amusing details is fun to read and examine, and drew this reader into her story quickly. Indeed, it's regrettable that this review can only include quotations and not excerpts of Bechdel's drawings. Several delightful and revealing images are included, such as her grandmother chasing a "piss-ant," her early identification with Wednesday Addams, the summer of the locusts, her teenaged diary entries, and several aspects of her own adolescent self-discoveries. One cannot help but identify with Bechdel. However, despite the pain and struggle Bechdel has had facing her father's life and death, the book is neither morose nor depressing. The author has found peace with herself in regard to her father, her childhood, and who she is today. As she says in the dedication (to her mother and brothers) " We did have a lot of fun, in spite of everything."
FUN HOME is a wonderful graphic memoir that is engaging, heartrending, funny, and thoughtful. Readers will definitely want to stop by the Fun Home for this viewing.
on May 29, 2006
Wow. I've been trying to figure out how to start this review, but every opening sounds like it's belittling: "Proving that she can do more than her comic strip ..." or "Moving beyond her "Dykes"..." does a great disservice to Bechdel and the comic strip world she has been superbly chronicling for the past twenty-odd years. Bechdel isn't moving beyond anything here; she's just done something different.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that Bechdel is capable of producing such a great work -- she has proved time and again in both her comic strip and other media (her hilarious and much missed wall calendars from the 90s) that she can blend words, drama and humor as sharply as any. The surprise to me here is just how deeply Bechdel allows us to glimpse into her life.
"Fun Home" is no easy narrative: the story of Bechdel's family and especially her difficult father bends, buckles and then turns to reveal more truth as each chapter goes by. The art and detail are so well done that I didn't feel as though I was looking at pen and ink drawings but real photos reminiscent of Italian "fumetti" comics. When the book ended, I felt the need to go over it again and put the pieces together like a puzzle.
I first discovered Bechdel when I was a junior in college 15 years ago and I've been following her work ever since. Part of me wants to selfishly keep her as one of my own, somebody that I discovered before the mainstream and after I died, friends and family would find her books among my collection and think, "This is brilliant, if only we'd read her years ago!"
I'll probably spend the next few months saying, "You liked 'Fun Home'? Amateur! *I've* been reading Bechdel since 1991." But this book (and Bechdel's work in general) deserves a wide audience and all the success it gets.
Bravo Alison, bravo.
From Alison Bechdel, author of the comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For," comes a memoir of coming out and coming to terms with both the life and death of her closeted father. The funny "gay" memoir seems to be the latest trend, and I'll admit that I approached this book with more than a little trepidation. However, "Fun Home" has proven a happy surprise, a unique and first rate comic work by a truly serious artist.
It took me awhile to set down and attempt to put into words what I found so special about this book. First, this is a graphic book (a "comic" book if you will), and one that is equal parts graphic and comic in its depiction of a very real American family. Being raised in a funeral home in small town America could prove a challenge for anyone. Being an adolescent girl awakening to her own lesbianism with a closet case father who is both your High School English teacher and the local funeral director, is the stuff of great literature.
The author has an acute sense of the absurd, and an unparralleld ability to communicate life's little ironies. Without ever losing affection for her emotionally remote parents, Bechdel cuts to the heart of the matter and draws them warts and all. "Fun Home" is a genuine marvel, a truly tragicomic memoir and one of the highlights of the publishing year thus far. Don't miss it.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
I'm somewhat impressed that I somehow managed to read one of the New York Times' Notable Books of 2006 while it's still 2006, and before they named it as a notable book. Completely unlike me. But there it is. My closet trendiness is finally leaking out.
And as tempting as it is to use that paragraph as a segue into a review of Fun Home, I can't figure out a way to do it that isn't monstrously cheesy, so I'll leave it where it stands.
As sick of the whole memoir thing as I am, there are still a few that generate enough buzz from the trustworthy to merit picking up while they're still somewhat fresh. Fun Home has been one of them since months before it came out, and for the most part, the buzz seems warranted. (The part that's not "most" is because, well, it's a memoir, and in today's climate, where everyone from the Bush's pet dog to the janitor of the local brothel is publishing a memoir, publishing a memoir in and of itself is cause for skepticism.) Bechdel takes her childhood journal and reworks it with an adult sensibility, but doesn't throw out the awkward, painful bits. Or, if she did, she left enough of them in to make it scan.
At its heart, Fun Home is the story of the conflict between Bechdel and her father, both of whom were struggling with sexuality issues during Bechdel's adolescence; she eventually came out, while her father stayed closeted until his death (whether accident or suicide, a question unanswered to this day). Bechdel picks at the relationship, worries it like a dog at a neighbor's welcome mat, piecing her father together from a tapestry of memories and journal entries, telling the story of the rest of her somewhat dysfunctional family (yes, only somewhat; no Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris here, thankfully) in the process. And while she was doing so, I kind of wondered where it was all going, as I usually do with memoirs-- whether it would resolve, or whether it would just end. Because life is not well known for its resolutions.
Bechdel, however, should be. The final, page-sized frame of Fun Home is both a surprise and the only correct ending to the book, and it moves the book from "okay, decent memoir" to "wow, that works." She does what she does, and she does it well. Well enough that sometimes it sneaks up on you. ***
on July 10, 2014
I'm not sure what to make of this book. On one hand, there are some really interesting characters and heartfelt scenes that present their relationship. The graphics really emphasize the emotions in interactions between Alison Bechdel and her father. Although Bechdel does repeat sections of her past, she builds on them each time with expanded visual elements to provide new perspectives on ideas presented only briefly earlier on in the book. Those are the strengths of the book. On the other hand, Bechdel spends a lot of time comparing her family members to literary figures, which makes the characters seem much less interesting. I was familiar with the references she made, but I think it would be hard for someone who wasn't familiar with Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Proust to understand large chunks of the book. There were also some semi-graphic sex scenes that I didn't think added to the story; they seemed to be included just for a little shock value rather than literary value. When Bechdel wasn't elucidating on literary characters, the story was really intriguing and the visuals just added levels of meaning to the story, but other times the story just fell flat.
on June 20, 2006
I suppose it's difficult enough to reveal one's life on the page, but it must be quite another to then augment the dissertation with personal graphic illustrations that might carry the danger of simultaneously adding dimension while subtracting imagination from the reader's experience. But Alison Bechdel has achieved a triumphant balance with startling fecundity in FUN HOME, her autobiography that's both an explanation of her coming of age and of her father's coming out, sort of. The "fun" is in the observations of life with father as we romp through her pre-pubescent diary and consider the axioms she posits regarding the nature of her burgeoning sexuality.
Ms. Bechdel flits from one year, back to another, forward to another, yet offers the reader a soft landing each time. Within one chapter we find Alison as a young, cut-off wearing child eager to gain favor from her distant father by vacuuming the Fun Home and without warning, boom, she's in her college library, thumbing through lesbian literature. The flippant chronology somehow works to the advantage of the unfolding story, and she displays fabulous, tight literary prose, although I could do without rushing to the dictionary every fourth page to learn the meaning of "welter" or "tautology." She didn't propose that one medium explain the other: the graphics, composed with a brilliant eye for the emotional range of the characters in her life, primarily her father and herself, feed on the written narrative and our imagination, a task made tougher by the intimate subject matter that translated to the comic while stepping along the borders of pathos. It's like Rembrandt adding masturbatory commentary to his muddy self-portraits. The result is a magnificent, if fractured fairy tale.
The only rub was the liberal use of literary analogy to explain her innermost discoveries as she grapples with her father's nature and demise. Even she battled her English professors' propensities for drawing far reaching parallels from simple narratives, which tickled me. She's a smart cookie, and Fun Home is a brave, new work, but I might have thought that her observations of a father who spent the bulk of his free time flowering his garden, reading Fitzgerald and Joyce, decorating his library and ignoring her mother, all while she made a hobby of studying other men in her life might have led her to an inescapable conclusion, but then rationalization is a powerful process. Look at Zelda, for Chrissakes.
on May 20, 2006
This is a sharp, literate, excruciating, and mature piece of autobiography, which should with any justice nudge Alison Bechdel from cult favorite to widespread critical recognition.
Her always appealing and humane art is given emotional depth and shadow with a layer of ink wash, which Houghton Mifflin has thankfully payed out to print in faded royal blue.
In terms of content, Bechdel ably and appropriately includes themes from Proust, Joyce, Homer, and F.Scott Fitzgerald as she strip-mines the contorted relationship between her younger self and her English teacher father.
This is a work of real emotional honesty, paired with a professional execution. It's also a welcome change from the relentless brand of masculine self-loathing dished out by R.Crumb and Harvey Pekar, and more mature than the delicate, achingly self-aware recent works by Craig Thompson.
The overall quality and insight of the work brings it beyond being just a female, feminist, or queer genre piece (all of which Bechdel has done with great aplomb in the past); with any luck it should make itself felt across the demographic bar chart.
I got this as a gift for my wife, but I couldn't help but check it out when she was done. I read it one day. I would read a chunk of it, put it down to do something else, but the next thing I knew I'd have it in my hands again. I'd first heard of Alison Bechdel because of the "Bechdel Test," in which (to briefly define) you would take note of a television show or movie in which two women talk to each other about something other than a man. It's an intriguing notion that has stuck with me ever since I first heard it and means even more now that I have a daughter, which has heightened my distaste for sexism.
This story is of course autobiographical, focusing on Bechdel and her father. I won't say more about the plot, just in case you want to avoid any hint of a spoiler.
I rate this five stars because the story was very compelling and interesting, but in truth I'd knock it down half a star if I could. There were times when Bechdel chooses to use a fancy word when a simple one would suffice, which isn't to say someone shouldn't have a good vocabulary, only that sometimes it pulled me out of the story. If the narration feels like a distraction, I feel like it's an unsuccessful sentence or paragraph. I also felt that the story fell apart a bit toward the end, relying too heavily on James Joyce's Ulysses and losing some of the sharp focus that the early and middle chapters had. However, these are small criticisms within a much larger picture, one that deserves plenty of praise from readers and critics. The only book I could compare it with is Maus, by Art Spiegelman. Both are tremendous, using the form of the graphic novel to support the tale and present it in the most effective manner. Even if you wouldn't normally think to read a book in this format, I highly recommend this.
I don't typically read graphic novels, not because I dislike the genre or haven't read some brilliant graphic novels in the past. My predisposition is toward novels and history/non-fiction. In the case of "Fun Home", I listen to the podcast "Books on the Nightstand" and this was one of their recommendations. I've had great experiences when reading one of their recommendations and hadn't read a graphic novel in several years so decided to change things up.
"Fun Home" is an entertaining and poignant autobiography of Bechdel's childhood. Her family owns a funeral home in a small town so her father works as an English teacher, her mother an actress. They buy a charming fixer-upper which her father lovingly devotes much of his spare time to restoring to grandeur often enlisting Alison for assistance. Much more, this is Alison's story of growing up as she starts to realize she is a lesbian, her coming out as well as learning that her father was a "closeted" gay man. Her father dies after being hit by a car and Alison wonders whether this was an accident or suicide, unable to fully express himself and his true sexual orientation. It is also about the unspoken bonds between Alison and her dad after she tells her parents she is gay --- she can never quite come to ask him about his sexual orientation and he never directly broaches the subject with her before his death. The illustrations only serve to enhance the development of the Alison and her family and deepen the emotional engagement with their struggles. There are moments of sadness, but more moments of joy and discovery to be found in this exceptional autobiography.
on August 15, 2015
This graphic novel is a monumental autobiographical exposé by a talented artist and writer. There is no doubt about that. But I struggled to find it worth reading to its end, but I did. The author had an interesting childhood, being raised by a father and mother who were emotionally distant. Both were teachers who communicated their introverted personalities and subversive motivations vicariously through restoration of architecture and studying classical literature (her father’s pursuits) and dramatic theatre and acting on stage (her mother’s). From the paternal influence Alison found solace in literature from a young age. There seems to have been little maternal influence so this book deals mostly with the father-daughter relationship. Alison, her parents and her two younger brothers were emotionally a fractured family, each being primarily preoccupied with their own interests. Affection and heart-to-heart conversations were lacking.
The book is mostly interesting for its tell-all character—literally and graphically. Don’t be fooled by the title “Fun Home” or the “comic” element in the subtitle. Fun House is a cynical allusion to the family’s ancillary source of income: a funeral home. Alison had an early and frank introduction to naked dead bodies and the technicalities of embalming. She gradually realizes her father’s secret attraction to young boys, including underage ones. When she attends college she discovers her own sexual same gender attraction and has a lesbian relationship. Her father gets caught providing alcohol to a minor. When he dies after being hit by a truck she surmises that it was no accident but suicide. That he no longer could face living a charade.
This is definitely not a book for preadolescents (due to mature subjects) or anyone ignorant of Greek mythology, classical literature or nineteenth century writers á la Marcel Proust or James Joyce. Discussion of literary theory and references is the author’s hobby horse that she rides on the highways and byways of her thoughtstreams. Consequently her work has been endorsed by academia and included as assigned reading for students by lecturers, to the chagrin of some.
No doubt the author needed to write a memoir to get her childhood sorted about her attraction and repulsion towards her father. Hopefully she was rewarded by a personal catharsis. Personally, as a reader, I found this book tragic and depressing with very little humor to be found. Compositionally it is a staccato performance, the flow continually being interrupted by retrospective incidentals. However, it should be said that the art is good, excellent in detail. It is a tale of Alison’s self-discovery and coming out. But the shadow of her father’s controlling influence and deceptively counterfeit lifestyle looms darkly throughout.