Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is the latest work from the highly skilled, insightful, neurotic and wry-humored pen of Alison Bechdel, best known for her "Dykes to Watch Out For" comic strip. (One of the longest-running queer comic strips, "Dykes to Watch Out For" is over 20 years old, has been syndicated in hundreds of papers, released in over 10 books, and is available online via the author's website.) Fun Home is Bechdel's graphically rendered account of growing up in rural Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 70s with a particular focus on influences of her father's life and death.
Beginning with some of Bechdel's earliest memories of her father, readers meet a man who was an intelligent, emotionally distant yet volatile, narcissistic perfectionist who struggled with secrets. Trapped in the town not only of his youth but that of his ancestors for several generations, Bechdel's father worked in the family business, a funeral home (known in the family as the "Fun Home") established by her great-grandfather in the 19th century. In addition to his interest in local history and historic preservation, Bechdel's father was a closeted gay (or bisexual) man who had a string of affairs, primarily with younger men, throughout his life.
Divided into seven chapters, each of which deals with particular themes in her childhood, Fun Home contains a strong emphasis on literary references. Chapters weave back and forth in time, revealing aspects of Bechdel's childhood and details of her father's death. Books and literature were an important influence in Bechdel's life growing up. Her father taught English Literature at the local high school while her mother studied theater and performed in community plays. The gothic revival home the family lived in (and which her father had restored) boasted a library. At one point Bechdel admits, "I employ these [literary] allusions … not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms" (66). It becomes apparent that literary discussion was one of the primary modes of communication between herself and her father.
Bechdel came out to her parents via a letter in the spring of 1980. Her declaration prompted her mother to point out to Bechdel that her father had been having affairs with men for years. Initially, this information appears to have been news to Bechdel, who reflects, "I'd been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parents' tragedy" (58). This "upstaging" is revealed as a theme in Bechdel's life as childhood milestones, such as her menarche, were overshadowed by the family preoccupation with and response to her father facing charges of "contributing to the delinquency of a minor." Apparently, her father's extramarital activities added strain to the family. Her coming out was further upstaged when her father died in a questionable "accident" (it may have been suicide) just four months after her letter.
Bechdel spent years feeling shut down yet very guilty regarding her coming out and how it may have influenced her father's death. Fun Home details the results of Bechdel's intellectual and emotional processing of her father's death, and her relationship with this complex, intelligent, conflicted, and often remote man. A powerful example of her self awareness includes her admission, "[evidence that he was considering suicide months before Bechdel came out] would only confirm that his death was not my fault. That, in fact, it had nothing to do with me at all. And I'm reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond" (86).
Book-length graphic stories are not a mainstay of this reviewer's reading. However, Bechdel's clean, distinctive illustration style with its wry observations and amusing details is fun to read and examine, and drew this reader into her story quickly. Indeed, it's regrettable that this review can only include quotations and not excerpts of Bechdel's drawings. Several delightful and revealing images are included, such as her grandmother chasing a "piss-ant," her early identification with Wednesday Addams, the summer of the locusts, her teenaged diary entries, and several aspects of her own adolescent self-discoveries. One cannot help but identify with Bechdel. However, despite the pain and struggle Bechdel has had facing her father's life and death, the book is neither morose nor depressing. The author has found peace with herself in regard to her father, her childhood, and who she is today. As she says in the dedication (to her mother and brothers) " We did have a lot of fun, in spite of everything."
Fun Home is a wonderful graphic memoir that is engaging, heartrending, funny, and thoughtful. Readers will definitely want to stop by the Fun Home for this viewing.