Fun Home is an autobiography in the form of a graphic novel (or comic book, as I called them when I was a kid). Alison Bechdel is also the cartoonist of Dykes to Watch Out For, a comic strip about a cohort of lesbians living in San Francisco. In Fun Home, Bechdel writes about her childhood and about her father, a high school teacher, undertaker and a meticulous restorer of old houses.
Fun Home is a collage of memories and impressions rather than a linear narrative. In many ways, Fun House is about feeling overshadowed: overawed by her father’s intellect, afraid of his temper, forever in the shadow of her father’s withholding personality. Even her own coming out as a lesbian was overshadowed by learning that her father had affairs with young men. She writes: “I had imagined my confession as an emancipation from my parents, but instead I was pulled back into their orbit.”
It is this tension that creates the narrative flow of the book. The push and pull fuels Bechdel’s view of her own personality, and how she excavates it. She uses that tension to explain her near compulsive behaviors as a child, and to define her self in opposition of her father: “cropped, curt, percussive. Practically onomatopoeic. At any rate, the opposite of sissy.” It defines her relationship with her father, especially after he commits suicide: as she grew older she found a kind of shared passion in literary and artistic aesthetics, despite their other differences. The tension between her and her father’s personalities makes the book compelling, and gives it an arid sort of humor, as when she is arguing with her father about wearing pearls. “What are you afraid of?” He shouts. “Being beautiful?” Or when she fails to see the humor in Charles Addams’ cartoons because the resemblance is too close to her own life.
Although a summary of the book sounds dark, almost dreary, Fun Home has a quiet humor and sense of diligence that makes it very engaging. There is an implicit optimism in the fact that Bechdel becomes connected to the gay community despite the disconnects in her home life, that she can become an artist despite the fact that her father’s lack of fulfillment made her early childhood quietly desperate, and that she can walk a metaphorical line around the events of her child and young adulthood, both funny and sad, and make a story of it. If you enjoy biography, or graphic novels, you will find this an interesting read.