Fun Home
by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

You can hide the smoke, but what are you going to do with the fire?

This is the question Alison Bechdel sets out to answer in Fun Home. Dense, highly literate and lush with words, it is an exploration of a life that begins with a death in the family -- her father, Bruce -- and crisscrosses through time to answer the question of her father's real identity as a closeted gay man living a straight life that was slowly killing him. Was it suicide or an unfortunate accident? Who was Bruce Bechdel, really?

There are few cartoonists who have had the impact on the industry, and gained as much critical and national acclaim, as the brilliant Bechdel, author of the wildly popular cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For. You'd have to look at Charles Schulz, Gary Trudeau or Berkley Breathed to find serious competitors for her observational genius, social awareness and finely tuned wit. With Fun Home, Bechdel gives us a glimpse of the childhood forces that shaped her writing and art. In the tradition of Blankets and Persepolis, those shaping forces are formidable indeed.

Crammed to bursting with carefully parsed details, Fun Home is also one of the most aggressively self-exploratory graphic bios on the shelves today. Bechdel's father was, in addition to being a funeral director, a high school English teacher who lived a tortured existence as a closeted gay man until his tragic death just six months after Alison herself came out to her family. He died at age 44 in Beech Creek, Pa., where he was born and had lived all his life.

Bittersweet is the word to describe this bio, as a daughter draws closer and closer to understanding her father's outlaw status, a stranger in a strange land even in his own hometown, even in his own home. He could deal with the dead more effectively than he could deal with the living. His escalating depression and subsequent rages were furiously channeled into his fetish for restoring their Gothic Revival house, out of which the family funeral business (hence the title, "fun home") was run. It is literally a house of the dead where artifice and the semblance of life are of the utmost importance. Although it was inherited, the setting could not have been more sublime, nor could any writer have concocted a more apt metaphor for the senior Bechdel's long, slow death as an artist and a gay man trapped in mediocrity and falsehood.

Bechdel does not indulge in self-exploration for exploration's sake. On the contrary, she comes from a position of respect and deep curiosity for the ties that bound her father's spirit. It is a coming-of-age story in which a young girl learns to put her obsessions with images and the written word to better use. It is also about a father hiding a secret that is eating him alive, causing him to emotionally abandon his wife and children. It is not so much a matter of exposing her father's secrets, as it is a matter of acknowledging the elephant in the family living room.

Bechdel doesn't much care if you like her father or not. Some of the things he did weren't just inappropriate but morally questionable, especially with regard to his relationships with local teenagers. Most children would have flatly refused to acknowledge anything like that where their parents were concerned, but she shows it, warts and all, in a bracing, disturbing confessional that by all means should leave her father open to condemnation, to anything but the empathy you cannot help feeling as you realize that, while we all have choices to make in life, it's what informs those choices that takes us down the most peculiar roads life has to offer.

Bechdel realizes this beautifully in her reminiscences about family vacations, cutting virtual swaths through emotional mountains, matching the terrain of a map of her hometown to the map of her father's life and how it intersected, and broke off, from her own life. Nature in all its fury and beauty provides ready made analogies for her family's emotional state of being, whether it's the mountains that surround the road leading into and out of Beech Creek, the sharp burst of a sudden summer storm or a sunset full of color.

Her father was not unaware of the emotional wreckage he was causing, but his inability to stop himself was matched only by his terrible self-image. What choices were left for a man for whom life itself had been a cage? And how do you put out a fire you didn't start? Bechdel's ability to humanize characters in a way that makes you feel as though you know them, or someone very like them, is put to effective use describing a man who was probably more Oscar Wilde than Dorian Gray. It is Bechdel's immense compassion for her characters that is the hallmark of her seminal cartoon and it is obvious where she gained that particular virtue: Bruce's pain is so perfectly illuminated that it is impossible to place value judgment upon the man. Only extreme psychological suffering could have driven someone to do what he did. And in some ways, only she, as a young gay woman, could have truly understood the terrible sense of being constrained.

Lacking real communication with her parents, Bechdel tries to find a road to them through shared myths: her mother's acting in The Importance of Being Earnest, her father's devotion to Fitzgerald and her own exploration of Ulysses and The Wind in the Willows. Bechdel moves easily back and forth in the terrain between Hemingway, Proust and Joyce, authors deeply loved by her father, all of them obsessed with roads, with artifice, with false states of being. The shared theme is one of journeys of the self, modern-day odysseys into the opaque areas of our souls where things that have been concealed for years can lunge at you, bringing destruction. Or freedom.

Circumference, circumscribed lives, containment; lines can restrict or provide an egress into another world. Lines of words on the page match the lines of art, the lines of life, the lines of a road on a map. Showcased in deceptively simple but beautiful art, the lines Bechdel draws are sure, straightforward, and confident, pulling the reader in right away.

Fun Home stings hard but it's fascinating and absorbing. Bechdel walks the long road home but has already found herself. And as all roads, all lifelines, lead home, she ends right where she began, in her father's arms, with him catching her before she hits the ground.

review by
Mary Harvey

19 January 2008

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