(Throughout 2011, every month CCLaP staff writer Oriana Leckert is looking at a different graphic novel from a "girl's" point of view, examining this notoriously male-dominated medium from a female perspective, and sometimes aided by her fellow members of a Brooklyn book club devoted to the same subject. For all of Oriana's J&C essays, please see her main article index here at the site.)
By Alison Bechdel
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
Just by the way: this review is out of chronological order in my reading life; I read it about a year ago, before I started this CCLaP series. What's funny is that I've been wanting to read this book for years, but somehow I never made myself do it; it's almost like I started the Jugs & Capes book club in order to somehow give myself permission to get around to it.
But I suppose who cares about the machinations I forced myself through to make it to this book? I am so glad I did. Fun Home is absolutely spectacular. It's dense, fraught with meaning, stuffed with beautiful prose and complimented by simple illustrations. And in addition to being incredibly smart, incredibly illuminating, and incredibly inventive, it's also incredibly sexy. There's a scene where Alison and her girlfriend are in bed together making out, while reading the dictionary. Sexy nerdery! Incredible!
For those who don't know, Fun Home is a memoir about Alison Bechdel's childhood and early adulthood. She has two younger brothers, an actress mother, and a father who both teaches high-school English and runs a funeral home. Oh, and (slight spoiler) Dad's a deeply closeted homosexual.
I'd like, as I always do with well-done memoirs, to invoke one of the blurbs on my favorite-ever memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: Finally, someone with a life worth writing about has got the skill to write about it. Oh, Alison, what skill! What a life! What a uniquely wonderful way of telling it!
Fun Home has seven chapters, each of which is structured around a book. And I'm not talking about lowbrow or predictably canonized books, either; we've got Icarus and Dedalus, Camus's A Happy Death, The Great Gatsby, Proust, The Wind in the Willows, Henry James, and Ulysses. Holy moly, Alison is one smart cookie. She shrewdly and exhaustively catalogues and examines the parallels between these disparate works and the structure and choices and emotional makeup of her family, enhancing an already fascinating story with layers of intertextual readings and adept analysis. She says: "I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because 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." That makes me shiver.
Her language made me shiver a lot, actually, which is not something I generally expect from a graphic novel. Her prose is complex, lyrical, intelligent, and apt. She describes a summer afternoon in Greenwich Village by saying, "the city was reduced, like a long-simmering demiglace, to a fragrance of stunning richness and complexity." In a section which covers her own puberty as it coincides with a cicada summer, she says, "Next the locusts settled down to an orgy in our tall maple trees, cloaking us from dawn to dusk in the ambient noise of their conjugal exertions." In the chapter about her own journey of coming out as a lesbian (which is also the Ulysses chapter), she says, "I was adrift on the high seas, but my course was becoming clear. It lay between the scylla of my peers and the swirling, sucking charybdis of my family." Gorgeous.
And I haven't even gotten to the art yet. I'm still working out how I relate to graphic novels, and it turns out I'm both too harsh a judge and also too easy. It takes little to impress me artistically--much less than it takes to impress me literarily, for sure--and so I find almost any art to be good. On the other hand, though, when I read graphic novels, I can't stop wondering why the author chose this format to tell his or her story, which is certainly not something I ever stop to consider with straight prose. Due to this, I actually find myself a little bit distracted, over-examining many of the frames in order to try to parse just why this story needed illustrating. I did that a lot in this book too, and while I didn't come to a clear answer, I did find many frames that were not just augmented, but wholly changed, for the better of course, by the compliment of the illustration.
For example, there's a half-page frame at the end of a chapter that shows Alison visiting her father's grave. With a short text phrase that only harkens back to an anecdote related earlier in the chapter, the reader is free to attach all the end-of-chapter meaning to this large image, which is the graveyard, at twilight (probably; the shadows are long), empty but for Alison lying on her back in front of her father's monument, her bike on its side next to her. This is such a beautiful, aching image! And she didn't have to bother spelling out her loneliness, her puzzlement, the hours she spent in silent communion with her dead father. It's all there, exquisitely bare. Or in another image, full page, she compares a picture of her father at twenty-two to a picture of herself at twenty-one. In this one she does use words to enumerate certain similarities--pained grin, flexible wrists, angle of shadow on faces--but still the illustrations augment these bare-bones descriptions brilliantly. One last example: as she discusses the artifice in her childhood diary (she has written, "We might have to move! How horrid!"), the text reads, "How horrid has a slightly facetious tone that strikes me a Wildean. It appears to embrace the actual horror--puberty, public disgrace--then at the last second nimbly sidesteps it, laughing." The illustration here? Alison and her father watching, on TV, as the Roadrunner eats "free birdseed" and then speeds away just before the anvil comes crashing down on his head. So there's the wry literary analysis of herself as an over-dramatic teen, the sharply augmenting pop-culture parallel, and then also the overlay of she and her father laughing together, in a rare moment of closeness. What a sensational, multi-layered whole!
There's so much left that I didn't talk about yet, but I suppose it won't do any good to say much more. This book is an absolutely astonishing delight, and if I haven't convinced you of that yet, I'm not going to bother trying anymore.