Nearly 10 years after it was published and now that it’s a Tony-winning musical (!) I finally read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. (Hey, we all have gaps, right?) It definitely lives up to all the hype. The story of Bechdel and her father, mostly, it begins with her childhood in rural Pennsylvania, where she, her mother, and her brothers lived with a man obsessed with restoring their huge Victorian home, tending its gardens and generally maintaining and aesthetically pleasing appearance of a perfect home and family. He was also a part-time funeral director at his family’s funeral home, giving the Bechdel children and up-close and unflinching view of death. Really, up-close and unflinching is a pretty good descriptor for the book itself, the non-linear structure bringing the reader back to certain moments to re-examine them with new information or from an enlightened viewpoint. To say the book is peppered with literary references would be an understatement. Reading, bookishness and finding one’s own story are extremely important pieces of the narrative, every step of the way. It’s as much a love letter to reading as it is an autopsy of a father-daughter relationship.
Bechdel’s father Bruce was an English teacher, always reading something and encouraging Alison to read. It was one area where they really connected. Throughout Fun Home, Bruce and his story are presented to the reader through a literary lens: he’s Camus, Proust, Gatsby and Fitzgerald, and more tellingly, she likens her relationship with her father to Icarus & Daedalus, to Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom from Joyce’s Ulsysses, with the two of them switching between parts of the father figure / son relationship. Bechdel uses film, comics, and plays to describe her parents, as well, explaining it thus: “… my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison.” (p. 67)
Indeed, the structure of the book belies this distance as well as Bechdel’s investment in working out this part of her story. We come back repeatedly to the major events in the story: Alison figuring out she’s a lesbian, through books and the dictionary, naturally; learning her father was gay and had affairs with the babysitter and other young men; Bruce’s death, ruled an accident, but believed by Alison to be suicide. The two are magnets in constant motion, flipping between drawing each other with their similarities and repelling each other with their stark contrasts. All these things are presented with new information, in a new light as Bechdel picks up each piece and turns it over and over, looking, poking, prodding and seeking to understand. She presents her findings baldly, simply showing the reader what she sees. Presenting the whole book in black and white lends to the feeling that this is simply some piece of history to be examined, but does so while allowing her to give a visual representation of her father’s activities in the presence of his children. At the time, they didn’t understand, but looking as adults, things are painfully clear. Cool distance, sure, but these stories are part of what makes Alison Bechdel who she is; they’re pieces of her own story, and you can’t cut into your past without bleeding a little.
An interesting piece of evidence Bechdel includes are bits from her own childhood journals, which evolve from short-sentenced recaps of the day to literal blood on the pages. The interesting thing about it, really, is that finds her childhood self to be an unreliable narrator. She leaves out or glosses over major events in her own life, the family’s story and so on. At some point, the insidious phrase “I think” creeps in, in what Bechdel tells us was a bit of an early crisis about perceptions and absolute truth. In a book with so many layers to peel, it’s telling that her own early attempt at recording her life is undermined by her uncertainty in the truth of her story.
The third major player in Fun Home is storytelling, broadly speaking. Bruce and Alison both are constantly reading. In addition to the numerous overt comparisons and allusions, backgrounds of panels are littered with details like stacks of books on a table, Sesame Street on TV, someone off on their own reading. A clever and subtle way to point out that fiction was always in the Bechdel home, even beyond her father’s secrets, and that those stories were mostly what the kids had to try to understand themselves and their world. Whether we want to admit it or not, the stories we consume — particularly the ones that resonate with us or are connected to a certain moment in time — weave themselves into our own stories. Consciously or not, these narratives we let in shape our own. Sometimes they make us more Bruce, trying to construct and control the perfect artifice and sometimes, blessedly (and hopefully more often) they’ll turn us more Alison, with new perspective and a firmer understanding of who we really are. This is, after all, the point of stories. We have our own to tell, but are always intertwined with the stories of others, fictional or real.