I need to start out by saying that I was emotionally compromised while writing this review—right after reading the comic I went and listened to the cast recording of the musical version of Fun Home. The songs “Ring of Keys” (where younger!Alison first sees and identifies with the butch delivery woman in the diner) and “Telephone Wire” (Alison’s last car drive and conversation with her dad before his death) are giving me so many feelings.
I knew a bit of what Fun Home was about before picking it up, that it was an autobiographical comic of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s childhood and young-adulthood in small-town Pennsylvania in the sixties and seventies. In college, Alison comes out to her family as a lesbian, only to learn almost immediately afterward that her father has been sleeping with men and teenage boys for many years. Four months later, her father dies after he’s hit by a truck—presumably an accident. Alternately, deliberate suicide.
I love the structure, how it’s a nonlinear, multi-narrative story about Alison’s family, the house they grew up in, her dad (the main crux of the story), her mom, and Alison’s own coming-of-age, and coming out as a lesbian. The story is told over seven chapters, and each chapter contains each of these narrative threads, weaving in and out among each other into a singular piece of literature.
I love how circular each of these chapters are, which mirrors the circular nature of the story itself. All these themes, details, and actions fold back in on themselves again and again and again until it’s difficult to determine cause and effect for why things turned out the way they did.
That inability to determine cause and effect lies at the heart of what adult!Alison grapples with—did her coming-out cause her dad’s suicide? Did he even kill himself, or was it really an accident? Was her dad always so unhappy and bitter and violent, or did marriage magnify his unhappiness so that he took it out on his family? How much Alison’s identity is made up of her dad’s? Can she step outside his history, his narrative, his legacy, and develop a sense of self on her own terms? Does she want to? How can you disavow someone whose presence and narrative both wittingly and unwittingly shaped such a huge part of who you are? Alison Bechdel, the adult narrator, shines a mirror on these sources of tension, her frustration at trying to be fair to her father and reconciling his unpleasant behavior with all the things she never knew about him, and all the thing she still doesn’t know.
I love that even though Alison’s relationship with her dad is the main focus of Fun Home, Alison gives due attention to her mother as having her own role to play in the family outside of her identity as Bruce Bechdel’s wife and Alison’s mom.
I love how Bechdel incorporates references of several literary figures and their writings into the narrative. Some of them are people I’ve never read and never will (Marcel Proust and James Joyce), others I’ve read and loved (namely Oscar Wilde.) Ostensibly so many references of so many classic white male authors should have felt forced, but Bechdel expertly made each and every one of them relevant to the story at hand.
I love Bechdel’s writing overall. It’s so… so literary, for lack of a better word. She uses elegant language and vocabulary, as well as sophisticated metaphors, that I’m unused to seeing in comics (which isn’t meant to be a knock on the entire genre). Her voice is laced with sardonic humor throughout as she presents some of the more absurd aspects of her childhood that, for younger!Alison, were life-as-usual.
Lastly, I love how even though sexual identity and both Alison and her dad’s gayness is integral to the meat-and-bones of Fun Home, it isn’t a typical coming-out narrative—rather, Fun Home subverts it. Alison’s coming out is not the sensational revelation she expects it to be—her revelation that she’s gay is usurped by the bombshell that her dad is gay too. Afterward, Alison feels compelled to re-examine her sense of self, and has to come into her personal identity all over again.
Like the rest of the book, this journey defies linearity. She traces her sexual identity alongside that of her dad’s, exploring how his identity manifested in his controlling behavior and obsession over creating the perception of himself as a fashionable 19th-century gentleman and his house as a reflection of his refined taste and literary acumen. And Alison doesn’t use her dad to argue that she and him are exactly alike, or nothing alike. Rather, the points where they intersect and where they diverge are spaces Alison explores who each of them were/are as individuals, and how Alison and her dad used each other other to confirm or deny various parts of themselves.
(Full disclosure regarding Bruce Bechdel as Alison portrays him in Fun Home: I can’t stand him. He’s narcissistic, emotionally manipulative, and verbally abusive (and is suggested to have been physically abusive at times as well). I was infuriated at how he took out his own frustration and rage about his sexuality and inability to be the person and live the life he wants to on his wife and children. It’s a testament to Alison Bechdel’s writing and art that I could at least understand him, if not sympathize with him.)
In all honesty, I can’t think of anything I don’t like about Fun Home. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t pick it up sooner—there’s so much meat to this story, so many elements to chew on and analyze and marvel at how cleanly every part fits together into a cohesive whole. Fun Home is what I would consider to be the epitome of a memoir—thoughtful and meaningful use of time, chronology, and narrative, excellent thematic content, accountability, and just a plain old good story about a daughter trying to understand her father through the lens of sexuality, identity, and personal history. I know I’m possibly the last person on earth to have read Fun Home, but on the off-chance that I’m not, and you’re reading this review, I’m telling you right now—you should read it.