Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel brings her troubled journey into adulthood to life in this groundbreaking graphic memoir. She chronicles a tumultuous relationship with her father while using lighthearted graphics, heavy literary allusion, and tough personal topics which redefine what we might come to expect from the “comic book” or “graphic novel” genre. Alison recalls moments from her childhood that may have led to the discovery of her father’s closeted homosexuality and his eventual suspected suicide, all while simultaneously discovering her own identity as a lesbian. Bechdel never quite comes to terms with her father’s actions or the truth behind his death, but it becomes a poignant story about making peace with the man that he was and the part he played in who she became.
Fun Home is a graphic novel that tackles some heavy concepts in an unconventional medium. The coined term “tragicomic” aptly describes the feelings of isolation Bechdel struggles with while growing up with her distant and private father, who is a staunch perfectionist with a quick temper. Her father’s fate is quickly revealed, and his supposed suicide sets the tone for the rest of her story. Despite the somber faces drawn on her cartoonish characters, there is the distinct undertone of a child who sorely wants to just be a normal child—and to be loved and noticed by her parents.
Fun Home is also able to effectively describe the struggle of a child trying to make sense of their identity when everyone around them is giving them contradicting signals. Its an important coming-of-age story for LBGTQ+ youth, as we see the signals in Bechdel’s childhood that she only took notice of in her adult years. However, this definitely isn’t a children’s graphic novel. There are mild but definite depictions of sex and masturbation as well as the unfortunate story of her father’s cavorting with his English students that present some rather mature discussions. The novel in all aspects is meant to make you think and reconsider the fear of recognizing your own identity and facing the judgement of your peers. There is a complex understanding between Bechdel and her father that translates to the reader as we try to decide if we feel sorry for her father having been born in a time he felt he had to hide his sexuality, or if we feel the same sympathy for her mother after dealing with years of infidelity and covering up her husband’s affairs with young men. We are also presented with the aftermath of Bechdel’s coming out, where she is rejected by her mother but is able to develop a novel relationship with her father in his last few weeks of life. If anything, these conflicts and tough emotions make for a profoundly honest story, because real people aren’t always easy to understand.
Her father’s career as an English teacher and his passion for literature passed down to Bechdel herself adds another layer of depth to Fun Home. Books play a huge role in how Alison comes to embrace her sexuality, and later a way for her to connect with her father who has always struggled with honest communication. Bechdel’s father hides behind his books, and uses them as a way to communicate his truth without coming out with it. He presents Bechdel with a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce, and the novel not only becomes an important part of her coming out as a lesbian, but serves as another point of comparison for the complicated relationship she shares with her father. Indeed, throughout the book Bechdel references James Joyce works to illustrate her story, creating a layered story that might be somewhat exaggerated as a memoir, but becomes a novel that takes Bechdel’s life and makes it relevant to so many readers in an important way.
The end of the novel makes it very clear that there are no cut-and-paste methods to make peace with the loss of a parent, especially to set back years of complicated emotion and pain. Bechdel was only able to connect to her father in the months before his death, and this was not nearly enough time to come to terms with her childhood and the actions that he took while he hid who he really was from the world and let that action tear him apart inside. As you finish the book, you as a reader can feel the unfinished resolution that comes from death. Alison Bechdel’s story as an individual is unfinished, as evidenced by her continued and successful career as a writer and a champion of LGBTQ+ representation, but the enlightenment she gains from her memoir resonates with any person that is struggling or has struggled to find themselves.