“Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel, is probably the most powerful memoir I have ever read. That being said, I know that I have possibly set myself up for ridicule and debate. Yes, I know, it’s a cartoon.
I was a skeptic. The last comic books I’d read were when I was a child: Casper the Friendly Ghost, Archie Comics, Little Lulu. They were for children. “Fun Home” is definitely for adults.
Alison Bechdel is both the writer and the artist. Although I appreciate art, I have nothing to compare Bechdel’s art to other than the comic strips I’ve seen through the years in the newspaper. I would compare her art to that in the comic strip For Better or Worse, a strip that came out of Canada. Other than the similar drawing styles, the other thing that Bechdel borrowed from this strip was that the characters changed with time.
Bechdel does much more in each frame than Lynn Johnston ever thought of doing; and the reader has to really be paying attention. I’ve read it twice and still feel like I need to go back for more. “Fun Home” is like one of those movies where you’re sure you missed something so you have to go back and try to find the place where the clue was hiding all the time. Remember “The Sixth Sense” with Bruce Willis, how surprised you were when you discovered Bruce was dead all along? “Fun Home” is like that.
Bechdel strings comic strip frames together to make a scene. Other times, a single frame tells a whole story. Then Bechdel took her frames and she shuffled them around until they would give the impact that she wanted them to. The fun part about Bechdel’s structure is that not only did she take great pains in choosing the sequence of her frames, but due to her medium she had other places where her choices were endless.
One of her main themes throughout the book is maps. She introduces her first map on page thirty when she shows the close proximity between certain occurrences in her father’s life: where he was born, where his children were raised, where he died, and where he was buried. She says, “This narrow compass suggests a provincialism on my father’s part that is both misleading and accurate.” Then on the following page is a map of where the rest of the family lives, indicating that they all “…displayed a similar reluctance to stray.”
Bechdel has a fondness for maps. Maps translate well to the frames within her story. On page 146, she shows again two maps. One is her favorite page from her Wind in the Willows coloring book. The other is of Beech Creek, the small community where she was raised. As a child she had seen similarities between these two maps. The details and labels that she adds to each of these maps help the reader to see things as she did.
When a tornado comes through their town and destroys two silver maples and various other trees in their yard, Bechdel states that, “it was as if a tornado had touched down precisely at our address” (179). Though this is not a map such as the others, it is an aerial view of their house and their yard. She uses this to show what a narrow escape this had been as the house was without damage as were the neighbors’ houses. It also sets up the theme of narrow escapes for further pages.
Drizzled throughout the book as well are conflicts: conflicts between father and daughter, conflicts between mother and daughter, and internal conflicts.
Bechdel and her father battle throughout the book, but it boils down to her trying to please him and never measuring up. When she writes a poem, he finishes it. When she colors a picture in her Wind in the Willows coloring book with her favorite midnight blue, her father intervenes to fix the picture. “That’s the canary colored caravan. Here. I’ll do the rest in yellow, and your blue side will be in shadow” (131). Bechdel called it a crayonic tour de force.
Throughout the book, Bechdel’s mother is shown either fighting with her father or secluded in her make-believe world of plays. Her lines are mostly role playing read from plays that she is practicing for. Rarely is there a genuine conversation. When the family goes on trips, often the mother is not there. She is involved in a play, unable to take part in reality. As a child, Bechdel escorts her mother to practices, where she says once her mother “argued with a strange man, as if she knew him intimately” (131). Bechdel is portrayed in the picture as a child involved in a child’s game. The conversation is going on stage left. Taking the drawing, the captions, and the dialogue, the reader is left with the notion that Bechdel was confused by these grown-up relationships.
Eventually, when Bechdel is older, her mother uses her to read opposite her as she practices these roles. We are shown this for a reason. Bechdel has chosen very carefully how she will reveal this information because she wants it to say something very specific to the reader. On page 154, each frame shows Bechdel and her mother, sitting opposite each other. The drawings indicate that the distance between them is quite far apart. In the dialogue bubbles are the lines from The Importance of Being Earnest. The scene from the play is an argument between mother and daughter. The daughter states one thing and the mother shoots it down. The captions above the frames are what are really going on in Bechdel’s life. Watergate was coming to a head. I got my first period. Bechdel sees a certain synchronicity between what was going on in the world and what was going on in her own life. “This juxtaposition of the last days of childhood with those of Nixon and the end of that larger, national innocence may seem trite.” Then she talks about pubescent girls being more prone to poltergeists and she sets us up for the “many heavy handed plot devices [that would] befall my family during those strange, hot days” (155).
Worst of all are the internal conflicts. She begins to exhibit compulsive tendencies. She counts patterns, recites incantations as she goes through doorways, and she writes in her diary. Her shoes represent her mother (right) and her father (left). She lines these up exactly “so as to show neither one preference” (137). The next several pages document her struggle to lose the compulsivity. It becomes an obsession. By page 149, her tennis shoes are tossed to the floor. (Mother is upright, Father is upended).Her diary is one of the devices that Bechdel uses throughout the book to lend a sort of reliability to her story. She refers back to it often.
On page 183, the reader is told that the entries regarding a particular night are false. She has written what any parent picking it up would want to hear. That their daughter is just like other girls her age: glad that her football team won the game, and that she missed her ride to the dance for which she was greatly disappointed. In reality, we know that Bechdel is battling a sexual conflict. She doesn’t know who she is but she’s pretty sure of what she isn’t.
At the same time, Bechdel runs a parallel story about her father’s trial for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. She compares her father’s trial with that of Oscar Wilde. It is at the end of this section that Bechdel has the opportunity to tell her mother about her periods. Their conversation is brief, stilted. Neither knows how to speak to the other.
Bechdel is a maestro at running storylines next to each other. Her book is called a memoir, but it is also called a tragicomic, and aptly so. While playing out her own family tragedy: the individual tragedies of her mother, her father and herself, she is running other simultaneous stories. These aren’t necessarily her stories. In fact they are the great American plays: The Taming of the Shrew, The American Dream, Mornings at Seven, and The Importance of Being Earnest and the Greek Tragedy, The Odyssey. They are however relevant to her story. The cartoon frame accommodates this style. Its very structure was made for this kind of parallel storytelling and it supports the convergence of these stories in the end.