The Short Version: Alison Bechdel’s memoir deals both with the story of her coming out and the circumstances surrounding her father’s death (and his closeted life). But more than that, it is the story of a father and daughter and how they tried to both know and not know each other.
The Review: Well, kids, you know what they say about how the book is always better? I think that needs to be revised, just slightly, to say that the book should always be read first.
I’ve had the privilege of being able to see several stages of development (a reading, a workshop, a “developmental” production, and now the full production) of the Jeanine Tesori/Lisa Kron musical at The Public – all of this before I read the actual graphic novel (or, as the subtitle puts it, tragicomic). And so the differences between source material and adaptation are overwhelmingly clear to me, as they should be, but they lean towards the musical and not the text. This is to say, I think I prefer the musical.
BUT – I won’t get into the differences between the two or critique the musical here. I will, instead, address the book. This is, after all, a book review blog. So:
I’d be curious to know if anyone comes to this book without knowing who Alison Bechdel is, at least in some way. Does it get assigned in classes where students wouldn’t already be familiar with “Dykes to Watch Out For”, Bechdel’s comic strip? I’d argue, of course, that it’s not necessary to know in advance that Bechdel is gay – but also, knowing it, that ‘storyline’ feels… I don’t know, flat, I guess. There’s little drama in this book having to do with her coming out – it is a marvelous discovery, to be sure, and she explains that she was pretty aware of her sexuality from a very young age, which I suppose is important to show that not all coming-out narratives need to be dramatic. But the story itself feels like it’s being told somewhat impartially, as though from an external observer – whereas the story of Bechdel’s father feels inherently much more engaging.
There’s a twisting, turning chronology to Fun Home and one that might, on a first read, give the reader a little trouble in the determination of who-knew-what-when. We understand that Alison comes out to her parents in a letter and that they eventually warm to the idea (a generous simplification, I know) – and we see that Alison comes to figure out the realities of her father’s sexuality by the time he dies, but the actual moment when she puts it all together is… hazy. And perhaps that’s the point – wonderfully so, if it is. The best thing about this book is the way that it handles memory and the way we synthesize memory, constructing narratives out of what we know happened and what we now know was happening, if that makes sense. For example, we see the story of the Bechdel camping trip with the snake… THEN we see that Alison was in the midst of a major OCD spell during that trip, which colors our understanding of the events differently. I have to assume this was intentional, because the entire book is essentially the same device: we see the interactions between Alison and her father, her father and other men, and then we get another piece of information that forces us to shift in our understanding of those events. This, too, is rather how Alison is handling the telling of the book as well: she’s putting the pieces together.
I do wish that the story was more… in-depth regarding the family. I know that Bechdel has since written a follow-up of sorts, about her relationship with her mother – alleviating one of the major early critiques of this book, namely that it seemed to give the rest of the family the short end of the stick. But I never really got to see any of the family members (or any of the supporting characters at all, in fact) as multi-faceted except for Alison and Bruce – and that, from a narrative perspective, strikes me as problematic. Anyone who’s been a part of a family (blood or otherwise) knows that everyone has different takes on what’s happening and that all narratives are subjective… but the marginalization of these characters in pursuit of the larger story feels detrimental, artificial even. I couldn’t tell you the names of Bechdel’s brothers (or even her mother) if you pushed me – because they feel like little more than “The Mother” or “This Brother / That Brother”.
But, strangely, the narrow focus doesn’t diminish the emotional impact of the novel as a whole. In what is easily the strongest and most moving sequence (spoiler: it’s that way onstage too), Alison and her father make an unexpected connection while in the car on the way to the movies. The potency of the moment pops off the page, evocative in a way that is unlike anything else in the book (which is not to say the rest of the book isn’t evocative, just that it isn’t as evocative). It’s that moment where you realize that your parents are not just abstract ideas, the people who gave birth to you and protect you – that they had lives as wildly varied as yours, except they’ve lived twice the time. And considering the struggle both within and between these two Bechdels, the moment cannot help but provoke a tear or two. And the same can be said of the ending moment, another memory – one seen more clearly by the light of everything that has been revealed and, at the same time, one that strikes powerfully regardless of all those things, too.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Bechdel’s art is absolutely fantastic – and her writing, certainly, owes a lot to the menagerie of novels her English-teacher father pressed on her throughout his life. But the focus, tight and narrow, keeps this from achieving the soaring heights of other memoirs – there’s just not enough understanding of a life overall but instead just the facts of a particular aspect of that life. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does seem important to temper certain expectations that come with the term of “memoir”.