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Fun Home is a graphic novel
by Alison Bechdel, the creator of the long-running and inspired Dykes to
Watch Out For comic strip series. Departing from her Dykes cast and
their political and person escapades, Bechdel's new work is a memoir,
chronicling her own family's story. And what a story it is.
Bechdel, her two brothers, and
their parents lived in a small town in Pennsylvania. Her parents were both
teachers, and on the side her father ran a small funeral home that had long
been in the family. The children referred to the funeral home as the "fun
home"; hence the title. But Bechdel's father's passion was in restoring
their Gothic revival home to its original glory. From re-doing the woodwork to
landscaping to furnishing the house with ornate period pieces, her father's
main focus in life seemed to be the house. "My brothers and I couldn't
compete with the astral lamps and girandoles and hepplewhite suite chairs.
They were perfect. I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture
like children, and his children like furniture." Lest you think that
this is another chronicle of a parent's shortcomings and insensitivities, think
Bechdel's father Bruce had a secret.
"He appeared to be an ideal husband and father, for example. But would an
ideal husband and father have sex with teenage boys?" Bruce dies in a
suspicious accident while Bechdel is still in college. "There's no proof,
actually, that my father killed himself," she writes. "There's no
proof, but there are some suggestive circumstances. The fact that my mother
had asked him for a divorce two weeks before. The copy of Camus' A Happy
Death that he'd been reading and leaving around the house in what might be
construed as a deliberate manner." And of course the fact that Bechdel
had recently come out to her parents as a lesbian, an occasion which prompted
her mother to tell her that her father had been having sex with men for years.
"And with my father's death following so hard on the heels of this doleful
coming-out party, I could not help but assume a cause-and-effect relationship.
If I had not felt compelled to share my little sexual discovery, perhaps the
semi would have passed without incident four months later." For it was a
semi, a Sunbeam bread truck, in fact, that had struck her father on a highway
as he was removing some brush.
What is notable is that all of this
comes out in the first thirty pages or so. The rest of the novel fills in the
story as Bechdel tries to make sense of her family in light of this new
information. She illustrates her parents' courtship, her childhood
experiences, and her first forays into adulthood in college with beautiful,
expressive drawings. Bechdel re-creates the worlds of the 1960's, 70's, and 80's,
with their evolving fashions and styles, perfectly. She also illustrates her
feelings of alienation mixed with connection to her charismatic, volatile
father. In a graphic novel the drawings are what garner attention at first,
but Bechdel's writing should not be underestimated. She developed
obsessive-compulsive disorder when she was ten, and her description of it is
better than one will find in any book on psychological disorders. Her final
chapter, The Antihero's Journey, weaves her college reading of Ulysses, her
father's vicarious involvement in her classes, and "the book's theme that
spiritual, not consubstantial, paternity is the important thing." At the
end, Bechdel mourns her father, and so will the reader.
Fun Home evokes some pop
cultural references, including most obviously Six Feet Under and Brokeback
Mountain. But Fun Home is entirely its own; funny, moving,
uplifting and heartbreaking.
© 2006 Elizabeth
O'Connor, Ph.D. is co-author with Suzanne Johnson of For Lesbian Parents
(Guilford, 2001) and The Gay Baby Boom: The Psychology of Gay Parenthood
(NYU Press, 2002).