Alison Bechdel – Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

“In the circus, acrobatics where one person lies on the floor balancing another are called “Icarian Games”. Considering the fate of Icarus after he flouted his father’s advice and flew so close to the sun his wings melted, perhaps some dark humor is intended.

“In our particular re-enactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky.”

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

So begins Alison Bechdel’s groundbreaking work of memoir and comics, Fun Home. It’s an apposite beginning: at once literary, darkly humorous, and reservedly dramatic. Here, as throughout, Bechdel’s father is centre-stage, for this is a story of the last twenty years of his life, and the first twenty of Alison’s.

Bechdel’s artwork is fantastic; stylised and thorough with a wonderful eye for detail, and often playful. Sometimes she points out her small flourishes of authenticity, like part of a Halloween costume worn well after the event is passed. A fine example of more subtle detail is in a panel that follows several pages discussing the Gothic Revival house Bruce Bechdel has restored and in which the family live;  below the caption “Yet we really were a family, and we really did live in those period rooms” is a scene of the family in their 1860s living room. The children are playing and the parents are watching television whilst sharing a bucket of KFC. The anachronistic nature of the scene speaks for itself.

As any honest work of memoir must be, it is at times brutal in its depiction of events and character. Bruce Bechdel is portrayed as a man of violent tempers, intolerant cruelty towards his children, and central in driving the comic’s author into an obsessive-compulsive disorder. He is also shown as capable of simple acts of kindness and warmth, as a master of period restoration and interior design, and as a highly-cultured, well-educated man. The picture that emerges, overall, is of a man with severe problems, tragic weaknesses and admirable strengths.

The book is split into seven chapters which all circle around the central fact of Bruce Bechdel’s death. Each chapter focuses on a different facet of his life and how it interacted with Alison Bechdel’s; a slow process of exploration is thus established, with each cycle layering greater detail, depth and understanding upon the events depicted. Sometimes events are returned to, where with the benefit of hindsight simple statements or actions have a suddenly greater meaning. Indeed, these intertwining narratives – mirroring the spiralling fall of Icarus from the sky – emphasise how tightly bound Alison and Bruce’s lives are. When Alison realises she is a lesbian and comes out to her family, this event is a catalyst for revelations about her father’s affairs with teenaged boys. And following her father’s death, Alison remarks that “his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him”: this book is part of an attempt to explore and understand that resonance.

Ultimately, the conclusion that this reader reached is that, for all of his problems, Bruce Bechdel was for better or worse a part of his family. This sounds tautological, but it would have been easy to disown him; families have fractured over less. It’s a story of acceptance, of a slow and grudging process of attempting to understand someone with whom one shares an intimacy at once familiar and estranged, and of efforts to establish common ground.

True understanding is of course impossible, as the fact of Bruce Bechdel’s death – suicide or accident – can never be established, and nor can a line ever be put under something so complex as a human life. But as an endeavour to understand and portray a flawed man as a human being worthy of respect and sympathy, it is an overwhelming success. Fun Home is a breathtakingly sophisticated and taut work of cathartic memoir, and a work that I see myself returning to again and again.

Alison Bechdel | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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