With Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel has convinced me that the term "graphic novel" is not an oxymoron. Without naming names, I'll just say that none of the other exemplars of this genre amounted, in my view, to more than a stunt. None of them seemed adult enough to merit association with conventional novels. Chris Ware's work has much more in common with cinema than it does with prose fiction; it's frozen film.
Technically, Fun Home is a memoir, not a novel. But it utilizes the narrative techniques of fiction. Its structure reminds me somewhat of that of Sophie's Choice. A handful of facts are established early, and then the gaps between them are filled in, culminating in a climactic recognition for the reader as well as for the narrator. The motion of the story is recursive, and with each pass the retrieved material takes on a deeper richness. Finally, there is Ms Bechdel's very firm grasp of her motifs. Where other entrants in this field do not appear to have done very much reading, it's clear that Alison Bechdel has had a thoroughgoing literary education. Indeed, her linkages to Proust and Joyce are completely successful, not for a moment appliquéd. Her craftmanship is astonishing.
I'm astonished and I'd like to remain astonished for a little while. I'm keeping the book out and from time to time reading individual chapters, the better to appreciate the unity that characterizes each of them. I expect that this will take some time. For now, the book vibrates to intensely for me to pin down its contours. The story is supersaturated in its principal elements; it sticks to its themes with a relentless rigor that would be unreadable without the support, now illustrative, now ironic, of the drawings.
It's interesting to note, though, that the main themes of Fun Home are excluded from "Old Father, Old Artificer," the book's first chapter. There is no funeral home, no fatal collision, no homosexuality, no inappropriate behavior. Even the unhappiness of Alison's parents' marriage is concealed. We're given a portrait of the author's family as it appeared to be, living in the assiduously restored Victorian house that was Bruce Bechdel's preoccupation. His unstable temper leads his daughter to compare him to the Minotaur, but his skill as a renovator reminds her of the Minotaur's labyrinth. These references are a way of denying the reality of her family. They were related, they lived together, they acted their parts, but Alison smelled a rat. "My father began to seem morally suspect to me long before I knew that he actually had a dark secret." She could not, for example, express affection for him; trying to do so felt ridiculous and embarrassing.
In a sequence of panels that depict a summer afternoon on which Alison is taught how to operate the tractor mower so that her father can plant a tree, Ms Bechdel lays out the emotional foundation of Fun Home.
Was he a good father? I want to say, "At least he stuck around." But of course, he didn't. It's true that he didn't kill himself until I was nearly twenty. But his absence resonated retroactively through all the time I knew him. Maybe it was the converse of the way amputees feel pain in a missing limb. He really was there all those years, a flesh-and-blood presence steaming off the wallpaper, digging up the dogwoods, polishing the finials ... smelling of sawdust and sweat and designer cologne. But I ached as if he were already gone.
Indeed, the man appears to have been unhappy about remaining on the scene. In panel after panel, he frowns irritably, glowering. Does he ever smile? What is he thinking? That's what Fun Home makes us ask. Why did he stay in his home town, continuing in his family's mortuary business - a part-time job that obliged him to teach high school English? Probably for the same reason that he never fully acknowledged his homosexuality. He was trying to be a good son, and he had grown up in a world of duty, not choice. By the time Alison was growing up, however, he had given up pretending to like his life, which he threw into his house. Even this does seem to have made him happy. His wife, who can hardly have been any happier with the situation, is usually scowling, too. She given a great deal less attention, in part because she is still alive, but principally, I believe, because this book is about the failure of two homosexuals to connect.
That's to say that Fun Home is about the possibility that Bruce Bechdel walked in front of a speeding truck four months after receiving the letter in which Alison announced her lesbianism to her parents (she was still a virgin) in order to prevent a connection that he may have felt unable to handle. Father and daughter had one brief and telegraphic exchange, in which she gently chided him for not figuring out that she was gay while he named a few early loves. Later, he wrote a somewhat confused letter - "Oh, hell. I don't know what I mean." By acknowledging her sexuality, Alison punctured the bubble of fakery that she had been brought up in; she may have punctured it for her father as well.
I have been trying to imagine what a purely verbal version of this book would be like. It's a tic, really, that comes of having grown up in the modernist era. If the narrative could work just as well in words only, then the illustrations are gratuitous. But wait - we've moved beyond such tests and formulas. Maybe a purely verbal Fun Home would be just as powerful as the one Alison Bechdel has given us. The simple fact is that it would be a different book. I will be puzzling over the interaction between text and drawing, and between text as text and cartoon-bubble text, for some time. Preliminarily, I feel that the drawings provide the color that usually comes from verbal modifiers and rhetorical flourishes. Ms Bechdel's prose is lean and straightforward. The nuance, the completion of each scene, these lie in the illustration. Ms Bechdel's graphic style is lean and straightforward, too, but her compositions are quietly artful, and every detail is meant to be noted. For a time, I considered Fun Home as an extremely elaborate and comprehensive storyboard - the prolegomena to a major motion picture. But the still panels serve the story better. You may look at them as long as you like, in or out of order.
I don't think that I have ever spent so much time on so few paragraphs. There are two reasons for that. First, the form of the graphic novel has never appeared to warrant serious attention before, and, now that it does, I don't want to say anything too stupid. There are many reasons - age is probably the chief among them - why I have been be resistant not only to the idea of graphic novels but to individual executions. But while it's possible that nobody will ever surpass Fun Home, Fun Home demonstrates what a first-rate narrator can do with the form, and it's serious. The second explanation for my plodding is the sheer fascination of Fun Home. Writing about it means picking it up and looking at it, and looking at it means being drawn into it. "Is this before that or after," I try to remember. I am very confident that you will be drawn in, too. Read the book briskly the first time, knowing that you'll be back. (July 2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press