Autobiographies, Graphic novels

Review: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

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Good evening!

Today I’d like to tell you about a graphic novel that I read a few months ago and that I have already mentioned in a previous post (this one) because of a recent polemic with some freshers from Duke University who refused to read this graphic novel which was on their summer reading list.

I thought it was time to tell you more precisely about this book which I didn’t absolutely adore but which is, I believe, one of the most accomplished autobiographical graphic novels ever written.

In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel recounts her childhood, teenage years and the beginning of her life as a young adult. The author mainly focuses on two important points of her early life: her relationship with her parents, and particularly with her father, and her discovery of being a lesbian.

Unlike its title may suggest, Fun Home doesn’t recount the story of a home where everything was funny for the author, on the contrary. Fun Home actually stands for “funeral home”, because the author’ s father had inherited a funeral parlor founded by his grandfather, where the whole family lived for a while when Alison Bechdel was little before moving to its imposing Victorian house. What makes this book quite interesting is the fact that the author tries to analyze her father’s complex personality and their as complex relationship – Bruce Bechdel really is the main character of the book – but in the end of the book, her father still remains as enigmatic to her as to us. His death itself is absolutely enigmatic and brilliantly ends a life surrounded by mystery, secrets and lies: hit by a truck while crossing a big national road, he may actually have committed suicide – this is at least what the author suspects even if she doesn’t and will never have formal evidence.

 

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Bruce Bechdel is indeed a very shadowy character who remains ununderstood by his own daughter despite their similarities. A part-time English teacher at the local High School, Bruce Bechdel appears to be a repressed gay who probably had affairs with underage or very young men (Alison and his brother’s male babysitters, Bruce’s high school students…), as the author understands when she grows older. Probably not meant to be a father, Bruce only starts to get consideration for his children (and especially Alison) when they grow up and become his “intellectual companions”. Very erudite but obviously unhappy and very frustrated with his life (he is ALWAYS represented with a sullen look in the graphic novel), he is an obsessive restorer of the family’s Victorian home and looks happier reading books or restoring furniture than spending time with his own children.

 

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What transpires from this very bitter family portrait is the frustration for the author of being the child of careless parents who are more interested in their own passions than in their children. But it is at the same time the story of a child who develops their own taste for arts and little by little turns into an artist: “From their example, I learned quickly to feed myself. It was a vicious circle, though. The more gratification we found in our own geniuses, the more isolated we grew.”

 

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Finally, this book is also the story of a brave coming-out. Unlike her father, Alison Bechdel accepts and openly claims her homosexuality, as soon as she discovers it at the age of 19, when she’s a College student. This is of course a very beautiful and interesting part of the book, which I don’t want to spoil by saying too much about here. I also would like to emphasize how rich and beautiful this graphic novel is. Its artworks are beautiful but its writing is also very beautiful and poetic. The author studied literature and this is obvious: intertextuality is very present throughout the graphic novels and allows the author to draw interesting parallels between her father’s life and some books for instance. Allusions to Proust dominates and make much sense.

My only regret is that this graphic novel is so clever that it becomes almost too “cerebral” to really moves the reader. That’s at least what I felt. I deeply enjoyed reading this novel and spotting its numerous literary references. However, it did not move me as it could have because the analytic and subtle way the story is told tend to take away the emotion and this is a bit of a shame. Despite this, please go and read this graphic novel, you will not regret it!

Any graphic novel to advise me guys? I don’t have any unread graphic novels left on my self, I will need a refill soon!

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Published by Jonathan Cape, 2006.

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