Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

51WkgRRm22L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel is a graphic novel memoir of the author, set in rural Pennsylvania. It focuses on Bechdel’s relationship with her father, Bruce, who was killed by a truck on July 2, 1980 when he was crossing the road. There are different versions of this story, an element of alternate endings, a postmodernist feature.  The versions include that Bruce committed suicide by purposely putting himself in front of the truck, and that something startled him and he jumped backwards to be hit; he may have been startled at the sight of a snake, one that she had once seen in the woods when she was a child.

Alison, in the memoir, is a lesbian who comes out when she is in college, after her father also come out. He was a closet homosexual for the most part of his life as his sexual choice was at a time when homosexuality was unacceptable. Bruce has relationships in the military as well as with his high school students who were family babysitters, and even family friends.

The novel, also chronicles Alison’s own sexuality, through transcripts from her childhood diary, anecdotes about masturbation, and tales of her first sexual experiences with her girlfriend, Joan. Both she and her father want to be free from their assigned gender roles (Judith Butler on gender as performative). They are similar in other aspects too, “I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his nelly. Utilitarian to his aesthete” and “Not only were we inverts, we were inversions of each other. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him, he was attempting to express something feminine through me. It was a war of cross-purposes, and so doomed to perpetual escalation” (Bechdel 15, 98). Bruce is seen as Fitzgerald character (84-84) and Helen, her mother “stepped right out of Henry James- a vigorous American idealist ensnared by degenerate continental forces” (66). They met at a performance of The Taming of the Shrew.

The narrative is postmodernist as it is no-linear and is being constantly modified in light of new information and memories. Some techniques include: Camus and notes-28, medicine labels- 37, flashback of Bruce as a child and wall chart- 42-43, newspaper clippings, photographs, letters to Alison- 49, definition of queer in the dictionary- 57, letters to his wife when he was in the military- 62-62, dictionary definition of lesbian-74, letter from Helen- 77, journal entries -78, Joan’s poem-82, dictionary entry of eighty-six (106), Beech Creek (125- 127), journal entries 140 onwards that is also a question on her memory and truth,  map in Wind in the Willows– 146, locusts (155), police report- 161, dictionary entry of orgasm- 171, psychiatrist report of Bruce- 184, newspaper eprot-195, dictionary entries of father and beget- 197, letter and course descriptions- 202,

There are also numerous references to the visual arts, Greek theatre and popular culture: a perfect mixing of high and low culture. List of works mentioned/described: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1), It’s A Wonderful Life (10-11), The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin (19), Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling (21), A Happy Death by Albert Camus (28), The Addams Family (34-35), The Myth of Sisyphus (47), The Sun Also Rises (also 200-201) and The Great Gatsby (61), The Far Side of Paradise by Arthur Mizener (62, biography of Fitzgerald), The Heiress by Henry James (66), The Taming of the Shrew (69), Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (70-71), The Role of the Reader by Umberto Eco (74), Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (75, 1977 documentary film), The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (75, 1928), Our Right to Love edited by Ginny Vida (75),  Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin (76), The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren (76, 1974), La Bâtarde: Batarde (French Literature) by Violette Leduc (76), Our Bodies, Ourselves by Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (76), Roget’s’ Thesaurus (77), the World of Pooh by A. A. Milne, Dream of A common Language by Adrinne Rich, and Beginning with O by Olga Broumas (80),  “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens (82-82), Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (92, 119), The Worm Ouroboros by Eric Rücker Eddison (116), The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (130), The American Dream by Albee (131), Baby and Child Care by Dr. Benjamin Spock (138), Importance of Being Earnest (154), Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien (198), Ulysses (also 226, 228), Dubliner and Portrait by Joyce (204, 206), Earthly Paradise by Collette (205, 220,221, 229), lists: Orlando by Virginia Woolf, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule., Cecil Beaton’s dairies, and The Homosexual Matrix by L.A.Tripp (205), Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton (207, 208), Letter of Woolf (209), Flying by Kate Millet (217, 218), and Coal Miner’s Daughter? (222),

bechdelThere is also the element of simulacra and simulation; the Bechdel household is set up as a museum where Bruce constantly remodels and reconstructs the house (“monomaniacal restoration of our old [Victorian] house” (4)). Bruce is described as, “an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of décor” (Bechdel 6). He is both Daedalus and Icarus. Bruce: “He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but o make things appear to be what they were not” (16). “It’s tempting to suggest, in retrospect, that our family was a sham. That our house was not a real home at all but the simulacrum of one, a museum” (17). Also different kinds of fake flowers (90) and photographs (passports, Alison’s, Roy’s (their babysitter), Bruce (120) and Helen (164). Alison and her friend, Beth, dress up as Billy McKean and Booby McCool in Bruce’s old clothes- 182-183.

Some examples of commodity culture and capitalism: Bruce as a funeral director, Vogue and Esquire magazines, the house and its decoration, food, and different labels in the panels.

Bruce Bechdel was a funeral director and high school English teacher in Beech Creek, where Alison and her siblings grew up. The book’s title comes from the family nickname for the funeral home, the family business in which Bruce Bechdel grew up and later worked; the phrase also refers ironically to Bruce Bechdel’s tyrannical domestic rule.


Teaching resources:

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

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