For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Our fourteenth book is Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and the review is written by Wijnand Kerklaan.
So, a graphic novel. For my first book club. Oh boy. Sure, I’d read some long form webcomicy things before (Riceboy, Scary Go Round) but that’s not comparable to the good stuff (i.e. capital L Literature) right? While certainly entertaining it doesn’t quite pack the punch of the latter. It’s just some harmless fun, whereas the good stuff challenges you and shakes you up and leaves its mark. Serious distinctions, right? The good stuff becomes part of the cultural forces that shape the way we look at other things, other people. This is how Bechdel uses it here as well, using allusions to Literature as a means of understanding relationships between herself and her family, especially her father, and anchoring her ideas of who she is. But then Fun Home is quite a serious affair itself, hardly the lighter fare comics are supposedly made of.
At its core this is a memoir of a girl and her father. As she looks back on her father’s death and her own queer identity and their relationship she recreates her formative years in the family home and later college-life, exploring feelings of mourning and grief by quite literally showing us how she remembers past events. The narrative meanders along, shifting back and forth in time, revisiting some experiences, weighing them again in a new light, adding nuance where it feels needed. So while her father appears overly standoffish and unlikable at first, later on he becomes more humanized as she re-evaluates and mourns over him. By showing what has happened over the course of their lives, over the course of time, she explores her own feelings and experiences, taking us along for the ride as they take on different shapes and meanings over the course of the book.
This style may seem a bit inconsistent or disingenuous, but it’s also similar to how our memory works. It’s messy and ever-shifting and often ambiguous. Building an understandable narrative out of human lives just isn’t straightforward. Bechdel tries to make sense of her own story through her childhood experiences and the way she interpreted her father’s influence on her life (and vice versa) to have been. She continually probes her relationship with her father, theorizing why he might have stepped in front of the onrushing Sunbeam Bread (sometimes memory is eerily specific?) truck.
If this all sounds a bit Proustian and cerebral, you’re right. But then so is the book. All throughout it’s peppered with literary references, true to Bechdel’s upbringing in a house full of books and subsequent college lit-classes. Instead, I only have some watered down knowledge of most of these works from generalized culture. Halfway through I seriously started to feel like I should’ve read more Literature. Then again, this didn’t stop me enjoying the book. I actually raced through it in an evening, which, admittedly, is very doable since it’s mostly artwork, but still. All in all, I found Bechdel’s story and methods compelling. She doesn’t pull any punches or shy away from sharing painful experiences, imbuing the narrative with a real sense of raw humanity, which isn’t something I’d expected to take away from a graphic novel.
(Apparently the musical adaptation is quite good as well, as its initial success has propelled it to the bright lights of Broadway. Oh boy.)