Book Review: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

My copy of this beautiful book (I love the green cover!).

After a rather lengthy previous book, it was time to switch it up and I can’t say I went lighter necessarily, but I did switch up the format. I read Alison Bechdel’s (and if that name sounds familiar, as it did to me, that’s because Alison conceived the Bechdel test to measure the misrepresentation of women in film in 1985) 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. As a cartoonist, she also did the cartoon work for the book.

Despite the title, which alludes to the Bechdel Funeral Home business she grew up in, i.e., funeral, the fact that, “Dad showed us the bodies,” is perhaps the sixth most interesting thing about Bechdel’s life growing up in 1970s rural Pennsylvania is a testament to how dynamic Bechdel’s book is. Set in the backdrop of Watergate and resulting resignation of President Richard Nixon — an all-too trite metaphor for the loss of innocence in Bechdel’s personal life, she acknowledges, but still rather apt —, Bechdel’s father is depicted as a tyrant of the household (the way he loomed over her, her siblings and her mother, disrupting their “peaceable home” when returning from work), obsessed with the interior design and layout of the home, and who is likely not only gay (although Bechdel acknowledges that she selfishly applies this label to him to feel kinship toward him), but seems to have preyed upon young boys (the babysitter, kids he taught English to). He even gets in trouble for trying to give alcohol to a minor and he probably would have done more if the minor’s older brother didn’t recognize his vehicle.

Then, he kills himself by jumping backward into a Sunbeam Bread truck when Bechdel is 20-years-old, and had only just recently told her parents in a letter about being a lesbian. At least, Bechdel thinks it is a suicide, whereas newspaper reports at the time depicted it as an accident. He was gardening, crossing the road, and maybe he was scared by a snake and jumped backward to avoid it resulting in the collision with the Sunbeam Bread truck. The Sunbeam Bread truck is a brilliant, if macabre, motif throughout the book, not just in comic representation (little Sunbeam logos throughout), but in reflecting what the book is about: The absurdity of life. The absurdity that her father was a funeral home director and who embalms the funeral home director? The absurdity that her father was killed by a Sunbeam Bread truck while gardening. The absurdity is such that Bechdel finds herself laughing when returning to college break trying to tell someone her father died. They don’t believe her because she’s laughing. Grief is weird, though. Grief is absurd.

For a father so obsessed with interior designing — and I’m about to do something young Bechdel detested, which is literary criticism and drawing metaphors out of literature — to the point of perfectionism, which arguably is why Bechdel developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder at a young age, he was a decidedly messy person on the inside. Conflicted. Opaque. Troubled. Unblossomed, if you will. Or maybe more like a root spreading outward under ground, unseen. And for a father so obsessed with literature and literacy (again, he was an English teacher, kept an extensive, well-cared for library, and also gave Bechdel many books and literature coaching lessons when she was in college), he left nothing behind to give more insight into his conflictions, his opaqueness, his troubles. He only let a few musings slip, first in a somewhat ambiguous letter responding to Bechdel coming out and then on the way to a movie with her. But there was no suicide note, no further writings to elucidate who this man quite was. In that way, as Bechdel reflects at the end, she was noticeably close to her dad in that others noticed how close they were and not close at all because she didn’t and will never know the real him.

Bechdel also can’t escape the fact of her father’s death being the beginning of hers, as if his aforementioned roots were her tree, to stretch my metaphor (sorry, Bechdel). She states at one point, “Or more precisely, that the end of his lie coincided with the beginning of my truth.” That aspect of the memoir is also riveting: Bechdel’s awakening into her homosexuality and then being able to put the word “lesbian” to it, to joining the Gay Union in college, to devouring all the feminist and lesbian books she could get her hands on, to her own sexual awakening from her first period (and the start-stop awkwardness of telling her mother about it), to discovering the orgasms resultant from masturbation, to her own lesbian sexual experiences with her girlfriend. Juxtaposed to her father, who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, the 1970s are conveyed like a radical time of exploration and representing yourself truthfully and authentically.

I want to read Bechdel’s 2012 follow-up work, Are You My Mother, because while this “tragicomic” is primarily focused on her father, we do get tidbits about her mother, such as the way she held together the house together for 20 years despite the “absent husband” (because he was having affairs), or how hard she worked to complete her thesis and work on a play (she not only remembered her lines, but the lines of everyone else just in case), but also because of that, she comes across like a distracted mother; not to mention, she is disapproving of Bechdel’s lesbianism. As with her father, Bechdel’s relationship with her mother is complicated and can only be understood through looking back at Bechdel’s diary entries and back even further through works of literature by comparison. One of those a-ha moments in their relationship comes when her mother talks about how she can’t do it anymore with her father and it occurs to Bechdel that her mother is speaking to her like an adult, a peer. That is always a weird moment in one’s maturation.

I mentioned earlier that the funeral home is only the sixth most interesting thing about Bechdel’s memoir. For posterity, the preceding five:

  • Her father’s likely suicide and how she comes to understand it and think about it.
  • Her father’s likely predation of boys and the way Bechdel sometimes feels like she’s trying to soften the blow of that fact.
  • Her father’s closeted homosexuality and the way it compares to Bechdel’s own emergence.
  • Her mother’s industrious aloofness and how that left Bechdel (and the other children) on islands of their own creative making in their huge house.
  • Bechdel’s own blossoming lesbianism and how it in turn, helped her to feel closer to her dead dad, if not further away as well. Because life is paradox. Life is absurd.

A book about suicide, funeral homes, the difficulty of coming out and accepting who you are, and the complicated relationships we have with our parents and even the way we come to understand, think and talk about those relationships, shouldn’t be this humorous as well, but for someone use to cavorting around caskets and dead bodies, this is a feat Bechdel is more than capable of, bringing us in intimately, pulling us back out to ask the Big Questions, and all the while, not pretending to have the answers, just an approximation. Which, when dealing with our parents, is the best we can do and hope for.

And I don’t want to sleep on the cartoon work itself. The cartoon work is as impressive as the quality of writing; you can’t imagine one without the other. You see young Bechdel’s quizzical face or her consternation at the absurdity she’s referencing. But you also see her father and the grimaces and also, perhaps, his quiet turmoil. Maybe I’m doing that thing Bechdel hates again, imbuing the art with more meaning, but alas, that is one way we try to wrap our minds around the absurdity of life.

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