Alison Bechdel has been writing and drawing the lesbian soap opera Dykes to Watch Out For for decades. Her comic strip characters are true to life, with one in particular resembling her and her attitudes closely. In her new book, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, she sets aside the fictionalization to present a memoir of her childhood.
The book revolves around her relationship with her father. As she describes him, he was an obsessive redecorater, consumed with the 18-year historical restoration of their house. He was demanding of his family, more interested in his projects than their feelings or interests. They learned early to leave him alone, not expressing affection or even commenting much.
From an early age, she formed her tastes in opposition to his. His love of the decorative and elaborate created in her a desire for the simple and functional. However, they had something significant in common, although again their expression differed greatly. Bechdel has created art from her lesbianism, while her father kept his homosexuality hidden behind the facades he carefully created.
From the beginning, she uses classical allusions for comparisons. It seems as though she’s using poetic description to distance herself from still-painful material. Bechdel handles her emotions in a way we today consider much more healthy, but both she and her father have a remoteness to their presence. Growing up, Bechdel was a tomboy, rejecting anything feminine in an attempt to balance her father’s lack of masculinity, apparent through contrast with the other men in their small farm town.
They both also have a love of literature, of naturally using references to books and myths to explain themselves. Sometimes, it’s the only way they can communicate, through lending each other reading material. Bechdel seeks explanation of her parents’ relationship through a variety of literary models, including Proust, Fitzgerald, Henry James, Wilde, and Camus.
It’s not a surprise to learn that, while her father made a living as an English teacher, the family profession was running a funeral home. The way that occupation looks back at life, serving as guardians of etiquette while remaining unaffected by the lives they touch, is a perfect match for the story Bechdel tells. In a similar way, she’s examining her father’s life and death, seeking to find meaning and closure so she can live on. There’s also a certain perverse curiosity to tales involving embalming fluid and corpses, as so much television entertainment attests.
Bechdel’s style is straightforward. Her detailed drawings strive to present what she remembers accurately and with detail. The book is black-and-white with a blue-grey watercolor wash that provides depth and adds to the feeling of memory. Her characters are solid and realistic, only they rarely smile, and when they do, it’s a struggle. Maybe that’s also true to life.
One of her lessons from his life is that pretense lived thoroughly becomes real. I don’t know whether creating this brilliant book helped her finally experience the emotions she says are so remote to her and settle her suspicions about whether his death was a suicide; I’m just glad that I got the chance to read such an insightful, powerful exploration of life, death, and family relations.
Bechdel discusses her mother’s reaction at Slate.