Monday, February 1, 2016

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

A letdown, given the hype

 When it was published in 2006, Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home received rave reviews from critics, with many major media outlets placing it on their annual ten-best lists. I am a lifelong comics fan and a firm believer in the graphic novel as literature. That said, the confessional memoir is one category of graphic storytelling that has never appealed to me much. Such books tend to be exercises in excessive self-indulgent navel-gazing. Although Fun Home is skillfully written and drawn, it has done little to improve my opinion of the genre.

In Fun Home, Bechdel explores her relationship with her father. She begins by detailing his obsessive devotion to the interior decoration of the family’s home, which also serves as a funeral parlor. In addition to being a mortician, Mr. Bechdel is an English teacher, and a love of literature is one quality that father and daughter share. Mr. Bechdel has restored the family’s historic home with laborious care, creating an environment like something from a Victorian novel, yet the house’s ornate, picturesque facade masks the dysfunctional dynamics of the family who dwells within. The father is a distant, cold man who keeps secrets from his children. Shortly before his death, the adult Alison, a lesbian, discovers that her father was gay and had affairs with a number of men, some of whom she knew. When her father is struck by a truck and killed, the author asserts­—not entirely convincingly—that his death was a suicide.

The art, printed in black and blue ink, is capably done, but as a graphic storyteller, Bechdel doesn’t rank among the greats. The figures are a little too simplistic, and the deadpan facial expressions can’t quite pull off the emotion the story requires, but Bechdel’s knack for detailed background scenery is admirable and does much to draw the reader into the narrative. I think it’s safe to say, however, that the prose is the main attraction here, not the illustration.

Fun Home has been the target of censorship in the form of bannings from libraries and schools. Any assertion that the book is pornography is unfounded; it is a bona fide work of art and literature. However, just because it deals with controversial subject matter doesn’t make it a landmark in the history of the graphic novel. The story just isn’t that compelling. Bechdel’s coming-of-age as a lesbian may be inspirational to some, and there are some touching moments when she and her father connect, but they are few and far between. One might argue that the only thing particularly interesting about this memoir is that the two main characters are gay. Beyond that, it’s just another story about a bad dad who cheats. To overcompensate for this, Bechdel draws parallels between her family’s story and great works of literature, including Marcel’s Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Homer’s Odyssey. That may explain why it was such a critics’ darling, but it comes across as a pretentious dressing up of a mildly interesting personal narrative in high-brow literary trappings. As Bechdel admits at one point in the book, “Maybe I’m trying to render my senseless personal loss meaningful by linking it, however posthumously, to a more coherent narrative.” Bingo. Fun Home is not bad, but one expects more from a book that has had so many golden laurels heaped upon it.
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