Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

I love a memoir, y’all, and you know what I love more than a memoir?  A graphic novel memoir.  Delicious.  My library has a new section on their ever-growing graphic novels shelf, which is Biography.  When I went in yesterday (collecting films for my poor sick little sister and lots of excellent books for me), I took three of the five books from the new wee little section.  Including Fun Home – which I remember the library not having last time I checked, and I was well cross about it.

Fun Home is Alison Bechdel‘s memoir about her father, a closeted gay man who ran a funeral home and was (by accident or design) hit by a truck when she was nineteen.  In the book, she deals with his sexuality and her own, both their struggles with mental illness, and all sorts of things, painstakingly documenting everything with recreated photographs, letters, diary entries, and maps.

The structure of the book is loopy and self-referential, rather than chronological – she returns to crucial moments in her self-discovery and her discoveries about her father, several times in some cases, giving the reader more context each time.  I like this because that is what growing up is like – how you learn new things all the time, and then you come back to something familiar and you have to recast it in your mind, shedding the light of your new experiences on it.

I read an interview with Alison Bechdel where she said that she was nervous about herself as a writer when she began doing this book.  As I was reading it, I was struck by the elegance and thoroughness (for lack of a better word!) of the writing.  Where she’s describing scenes from her childhood, it’s very sensory, evoking the sounds and smells as well as, in the drawings, the sights.  And she is also very self-aware, exploring her own thoughts about and motives in dealing with her father – as an obsessive thought-examiner myself, I wondered whether this was another symptom of her OCD.

As I say, the writing was lovely, but there were times in the book when I thought there were too many words for the pictures – it got a bit frenetic sometimes, and I would have loved to have seen a few full-page or two-page spreads without any words in, to break up the words.

Oh, but she uses the word “perseverate”!  My anxious and obsessive (but self-aware!) family use “perseverate” all the time, just ALL THE TIME, but you don’t see it out there in the world all that often.  Shame because “perseverate” is one of those words that feels defining for my obsessive thinking – like my endless attempts to consider all the sides of any issue, and give a fair hearing to all viewpoints, it sounds like it should be a good thing, so close to “persevere”, which is a good thing.  But in fact it keeps going, past “persevere”, “perseverate”, doing it too much and it’s time to stop.  So I like seeing it being used.  Perseverate.

Bechdel makes use of myths and literature throughout the book – she talks about a book she read at a certain time in her life, then carries on talking about its relevance to her life, her sexuality, her relationship with her father, whatever – while the characters in the panel carry on discussing the book.  I am so impressed by this.  The captions shift focus, but the characters from her past are still paying attention to the literature, and she uses passages from the books/plays/whatever to deepen the meaning of what she says in the captions.  And I am not just praising this technique because there’s a chapter that features The Importance of Being Earnest, making beautiful use of Lady Bracknell’s lines.

(I’m not!  Really!  I mean, do I like it when a book makes reference to Oscar Wilde and how he is funny and brilliant?  Yes!  But do I require more than that to be happy with a book?  …Well.  No.  Actually.  Pretty much, you compliment Oscar Wilde and I am going to look upon you with favor. However, Fun Home would have been great without featuring The Importance of Being Earnest.)

And my perennial problem with memoirs: The Family.  In her acknowledgements, Bechdel thanks her mother and brothers for not trying to stop her from writing this book.  I had to go look up interviews with her – she says that she did let her family read it, and changed some of the things they objected to, and argued for keeping others.  Quote:

Bechdel indefatigably researched her family during the seven years it took to create Fun Home, whose title refers to their common abbreviation for “funeral home.” When her mother found out she was doing a book, Bechdel was cut off: ” ‘No more information about your dad,’ ” Bechdel remembers her saying. “She felt quite betrayed. And justifiably so. Essentially I used information she had given me in confidence over the years.” Currently, although “it’s painful for her to have the information out there,” her mother, Bechdel said, “also understands writing and the imperative of storytelling, and there’s a way that she respects the project, despite her discomfort.”

Eeek!  I feel so anxious about this when I read a memoir!  I am a very private person, and if I had had all these problems in my marriage and my life, I sure as hell wouldn’t want the whole world to know about it.  And look, neither did the mum:

I do feel that I robbed my mother in writing this book. I thought I had her tacit permission to tell the story, but in fact I never asked for it, and she never gave it to me. Now I know that no matter how responsible you try to be in writing about another person, there’s something inherently hostile in the act. You’re violating their subjectivity. I thought I could write about my family without hurting anyone, but I was wrong. I probably will do it again. And that’s just an uncomfortable fact about myself that I have to live with.

I am glad that she acknowledges this – at least part of my concern about memoirs is that the writers aren’t giving any weight to their family’s privacy, and Bechdel, with characteristic self-awareness, makes note that what she did was problematic.  On the other hand, Fun Home is very wondrous and if Alison Bechdel had felt the same way I do about (her mum’s and her own) privacy, it would never have existed.  So I don’t know. Does this bother you when you read memoirs – whether the family wants their secrets aired in public?

Other reviews: things mean a lot, Farm Lane Book Blog, A Life in Books, The Written World, Books for Breakfast, Valentina’s Room, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, A Striped Armchair, Bookish, and tell me if I missed yours!

11 thoughts on “Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

  1. I think that the entire family should be respected by a writer. If that means that we, the reader, miss out on a story then we miss out. The plethora of memoirs that shame the family with no regard for its members is growing each year. It’s unfortunate. But I also read these memoirs so I oughtn’t to judge.

  2. I loved this book, but know exactly what you mean about the family. There were a lot of very private moments in this book. I can see why her mother would feel uncomfortable with this story being told, but hope she can see that it will have helped so many people who are coming to terms with their sexuality.

  3. I have always thought graphic novels delve into lighter subject than dealing with a gay closeted father. This one actually does sound very intriguing. Perhaps it’s a good idea to adopt this subject in a graphic novel so that this social issue can reach a wider audience. I am going to check this out!

  4. Petunia – I am SO GLAD I’m not the only one bothered by this! People say the worst things about their families in some of those books, and it’s even worse when they have kids. Actually, as memoirs go, Bechdel wasn’t saying anything nasty about living people – it’s more the betrayal of revealing their secrets. I can’t decide which is worse…

    Jackie – I hope so too, although if I were the mother, I’d probably be saying, pfft, there are thousands of books in the world about people and their sexuality that DON’T reveal humiliating truths about my marriage and my family life. On the other hand, it’s Bechdel’s story too, in a way her story to tell.

    Matthew – Before I started reading graphic novels, I had no idea how diverse they are in style and content. I’ve been reading more and more, and they go to some fairly dark places. This one is fantastic, I hope you enjoy it!

  5. I do wonder about that sometimes when reading memoirs. I can’t imagine the family being completely comfortable even when the story is a happy one. Sometimes I start thinking that it could have been changed into fiction, and what exactly was lost/gained by publishing it as non-fiction. But I do read and enjoy them, so like Petunia was saying, I shouldn’t condemn the writers.

    • Would fictionalizing it be better, do you think? It’s not like the family wouldn’t spot themselves in the mum and dad and brother characters. I find this a very vexing problem, and I just can’t come to any satisfying conclusion about it.

  6. Jenny, weren’t you disturbed at all by the fact that Bechdel never acknowledged the most troubling aspect of her father’s sexuality: the fact that he was preying on underage boys? These guys were teenagers, yes, but he was their TEACHER – and in several cases, their employer as well, so the balance of power was well tilted to his side of the scale. The novel was fascinating, yes, but I think Bechdel’s self-awareness stopped dead at this (to me) seriously creepy aspect of her father’s life. It seemed like she thought that the cultural forcing of his closeted life was excuse enough for what he did – I really have to disagree.

    • Yes, that was icky. People are icky. I found that photograph of their baby-sitter particularly disturbing – not just that the father took it, and Bechdel found it, but also that she copied it and put it in her book. If I were the babysitter and I read this book I would be plenty pissed. At the father and Bechdel.

  7. i happened to have read this a couple months ago–i really enjoyed it, particularly the literary framework/allusions.

    i don’t read many memoirs–this was a gift, and i was surprised to have enjoyed it, but i did! but the thought about the author’s family hadn’t crossed my mind, somehow. since i don’t acquire/edit memoirs i’ve never had to deal with it on that end, either. but… yeah, good point. how could a memoir amount to anything more than a betrayal, ever? hmmm. but is that reason enough to stop the writer? i guess it depends on the situation.

    • I wish I knew how authors of memoirs manage this – the extent to which they change names, consult involved parties, etc. Bechdel talks about it pretty openly, but I am so curious about how it all worked, what specific incidents they wanted gone and she declined to remove. I especially wondered if she contacted her first girlfriend – we don’t get to know the character that well, but it’s her relationship too.

      I expect it does depend on the situation, but I never know the situation well enough to decide how I feel about it. (Alas!)

  8. Pingback: Alison Bechdel – Fun Home « Fyrefly's Book Blog

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