Book Review

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

this is not a test, it's a memoir

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Alison Bechdel, probably most famous for the test named after and invented by her, is an American comics artist. A graphic novelist, an illustrator, a cartoonist, a writer, a cultural critic, however you want to call her. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a book from 2006 and was an international smash (building on the success of her long-running serial, Dykes To Watch Out For) and in 2015 was made into an award-winning musical. It is a personal story, about loss, development, youth and truth, about small town life and changing social mores, about repression, unhappiness, suicide and sex, but most of all about literature, family, and the body. It is EXACTLY my kind of thing.

Bechdel grew up deep in rural Pennsylvania (ouch, that’s hard to spell) in a small town/village populated by her father’s extended family. Her mother met her father when they were both students, but he – like all of his family – ended up dragging his wife and his children back to the same small town. He bought a dilapidated mansion and, over the course of a couple of decades, restored it to an impression of its former glory, using cheap materials but huge amounts of time and effort, subsisting as he did on a school teacher’s salary plus the money he earned running the small town’s funerary home. Yes, he was also the undertaker.

The “Fun Home” of the title is what Bechdel and her siblings (as well as her father and his) called the family funeral home. Growing up around death, they are inured to mortality from a young age, they see the inside of the chest cavity, crushed skulls and bloodless bodies as a matter of course growing up, with every death in the small community affecting someone one of the Bechdels knew, even if not well. They had a position of importance within the town, Bechdel’s parents were both teachers in the school and her father and his family were the longstanding undertakers. Education and embalmment, two ends of the human tale. But it is not death that haunts these pages, the reflective 40ish Bechdel sees little to be fascinated by in this part of her childhood and adolescence, it is instead the rumours and the repercussions of her father’s homosexuality, especially his predilection for teenage boys, that is the driving thrust of the piece.

Bechdel – in case you didn’t know or hadn’t guessed from the title of her serial comic – is a lesbian. Fun Home explores her discovery of this as both a sexuality and an identity, starting from a  young age. She doesn’t like “girly” things, her cousins nickname her “Butch”, she likes to dress up as a boy (or a man) and she is envious of male models in magazines, because of how they get to dress and look. Bechdel is open and honest and charming, recounting how she finds a way towards personal understanding through burying herself in lesbian and gay literature when a student, and how surrounding herself with activists gave her the confidence to tell her parents, tell her straight friends and engage fully with herself. We see her discover masturbation and, later, sex, and this volume of memoir concludes with romantically and emotionally happy, even though it ends only a few months after the death of her father, who she was close to.

Fun Home is the narrative of two people’s lives: Bechdel’s and her father’s. The text is filled with literary allusions, and has a weighty focus on Ulysses towards the piece’s end, collating her paternal relationship with the confused bond between Stephen “Dullest Character in Western Literature” Dedalus and Leopold “One of the Best Characters in Western Literature” Bloom. Bechdel writes and draws about the value of Ulysses in a way that made me forget about how much of it is turgid crap.

ASIDE: For a few hours today, I considered re-reading Ulysses in its entirety. Thank god I remembered how much of it is Dedalus before I put myself through that pointless torture. Bits of it are worth reading, but the whole thing isn’t. And I’ll stand by that until my life reaches the magical, impossible, point I’ve long dreamt of where all I have to do is read and think and write about books. It’ll never happen. No matter how many days I go without drinking, how hard I refrain from self-harming, how much exercise I do or pleasant things I say to people who are probably utter fucking dickheads, I’ll never get anything even approaching the life I want and thus the time to reread Joyce… if i was happy i wouldn’t need this blog four fucking years ive been doing it now and what has it achieved nothing im as depressed and unsuccessful as i was when it started what utterutterutter bollocks life is at least back then i had hair and antidepressants and hope for the future and youth now i ache im nearly thirty ive got a bad knee no hair no future no hope no hope no hope still im starting therapy soon for the first time in a couple of years and maybe that will help me find a way other than suicide or the bottle out of this life but maybe not probably not i want to die in my sleep

Bechdel discusses her father’s repression and her parents’ mutually destructive marriage with affection and regret, with pity and despair. Could her father have been happy living in a big, liberal, city rather than a small, conservative opposite-of-a-city? She doesn’t know, she will never know, and (rather bleakly) points out that if he had decided to – rather than jump in front of a truck – come out after his daughter did and his wife decided to divorce him, he may well have contracted AIDS, it was that era. Even if he hadn’t come out and continued his occasional sex trips to New York and maintained his marriage, he may’ve contracted AIDS and  given it to Bechdel’s mother. There are dark thoughts here, lots of them, huge emotions about weighty ideas and experiences, none of them brushed over, except for possibly the notion of appropriate age when discussing her father’s lovers.

Bechdel’s dad fucking teenage boys isn’t explored as or defined as paedophilic – these are the only male lovers he can find in his part of the country, he is not attracted to their youth. Bechdel makes clear that all her father’s lovers have agency, physical strength and an understanding of circumstance, or at least an implied one. She also draws them with definite adult masculinity: these are young men, never boys. I struggle to know how comfortable I should feel, though, giving “the benefit of the doubt” to her father’s desire, because he was still a teacher who fucked some of his students. Other than the initial revelation, there is never a tone implying or expecting disapproval of Bechdel’s father’s sexual exploits. Fun Home is framed as the narrative of a repressed homosexual, rather than one of a predatory sex pest teacher. And when reading Fun Home, that’s how we feel, and given that Bechdel also made me forget about the overratedness of James Joyce, it’s no surprise that she is able to make a reader forget to hate everyone who has sex with anyone under 18 (the law says 16 in the UK, but I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t make a mental note to never ask for babysitting from a friend who started dating a 16 year old). What defines paedophilia, is perhaps what Bechdel wants us to ask? If an individual is post puberty and wants to fuck their English teacher, should it matter what paper age they are?

I dunno. I neither want to sound illiberal or like an apologist for people who are (according to broadly accepted societal ideas) paedophiles. It’s not easy being balanced, liberal, fair, is it? It’s not easy being anything, really, other than run of the mill, uninquisitive, and happy to be exactly the same as all the people that came before you. Life isn’t easy, is it, unless you’re dull or unpleasant?

Fun Home is a beautiful book, weaving together sex and adulthood and literature into a mesmerising, deeply moving, tale. I loved it, and will certainly be reading more of Bechdel’s work. Anything that makes me cry, and reminds me that being sexually repressed is perfectly normal, those are my bags.

YAY-UH!

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