Monday, June 16, 2008

Fun Home

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

(This was my third read for the Graphic Novel Challenge.)

How do I even begin to describe this, one of the best autobiographies I've read in a very long time? Bechdel's book is almost enough to make me give up on ever again reading another book in that genre that has always held a certain fascination for me: I-Come-from-a-Very-Dysfuncional-Family Memoir. The book has also, if not exactly awakened, at least moved my desire to read James Joyce from dead to deep sleep. This is not your typical dysfunctional family memoir, nor is it your typical autobiography, and not only because it happens to be a graphic novel (although, technically, I guess, it's referred to as a "graphic memoir").

For one thing, Bechdel's use of literary allusions is brilliant. You know her parents' marriage couldn't possibly have been anything close to a match made in heaven when you read this,
"If my father was a Fitzgerald character, my mother stepped right out of Henry James -- a vigorous American idealist ensnared by degenerate continental forces. "(p. 66) She's also heartbreakingly honest, a trait that shines forth in a quote that comes a few panels after that one, "I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms." (p. 67) I can so relate to that quote, because it seems the neat boxes into which I tend to fit people I know are based, more than anything else, on fictional characters, or types of fictional characters.

I love the fact that the subtitle of this book is "A Family Tragicomic." That's exactly what it is, both literally and figuratively. I, who if I'd seen a book such as this one 25 years ago, would have described it as a "comic book," found myself wondering at times, "How can a comic book be so gut-wrenchingly sad?" The panels in this book do a far better job of getting at the heart of family understandings and misunderstandings and their accompanying pain than some of the in-depth descriptive prose I've read. Bechdel has a wonderful wry sense of humor, though, to ease the pain. This sense of humor reveals itself both through her drawings (what she chooses to portray) as well as the words she chooses to describe them.

Now that I've read my third graphic novel, I'm full of generalizations. One of these is that maybe this is the perfect medium for autobiography (at least, if one has the artistic ability to produce pen and ink drawings). To be able to capture facial expressions along with descriptions of feelings (or sometimes with no need to describe the feelings) packs a double whammy. I also love the details that can be conveyed in drawings that are often lacking in straight prose. For instance, when the beloved babysitter arrives, we get a picture of him rough-housing with the kids: one of them is thrown over his shoulder, held by one arm. The other child is being wrestled with the other arm, as the sister comes running. Soon all three are grabbing onto and/or being held by him -- expressions of joy on everyone's faces.

I'm also, I guess, beginning to get used to the shock of how "graphic" these novels can be. As opposed to the couple of panels presenting masturbation in Blankets, this book has not only a number of such panels but also quite a few devoted to lesbian sex (I'm quite surprised that this book was available at the Lancaster Public Library, given the "Christian" population here. I was even more surprised to find, when I went online, that it wasn't available at the Westport, CT public library, a library I used to frequent). These panels didn't really shock me that much (and probably wouldn't shock anyone who's ever looked at a Penthouse magazine) now that I know to expect such things. However, I do think that, at heart, I much prefer the power of suggestion over graphic portrayal when it comes to sex (think the sexiness of Anthony Hopkins in 84 Charing Cross, where there is no sex at all, versus, say Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman). The latter is sexy, yes, unless you're dead, but the former is (well, I can't think of anything subtle enough to describe it).

I'm also beginning to think that this medium just does not get its due, although I was very happy to see the NYT Book Review quoted on the back cover copy saying, "The most mysteriously compact, hyper-verbose example of autobiography to have been produced. It's a pioneering work...The artist's work is so absorbing you feel you are living in her world." Very well put and a sign that maybe people are truly beginning to sit up and take notice of the form, instead of being pleasantly surprised that one of these books can turn out to be beautiful and profound. (Then again, maybe that's just me.)

Anyway, I'm eagerly awaiting Bechdel's next book. My advice to you? If you don't think you're the graphic novel type, try this one. It very well might be the one that changes your mind.


IM said...

I'm reading a lot of graphic works too. I just finished Maus I&II and agree that it is a particularly powerful medium of portraying the past. Although American Splendor is a compilation (I think), you might want to try that.

Rebecca H. said...

Well, maybe I will try it. I did admire Maus I&II, the only graphic "novels" I've read, and I'm convinced you are right about the artistic possibilities of the genre.

Anonymous said...

I loved, loved, loved this book. I, too, didn't think that graphic novels were my type of book, but now I'm sure that if they're doing the types of things that this book did, I need to read them a whole lot more often!

Anonymous said...

STOP REVIEWING BOOKS!! YOU ARE INCREASING MY TBR PILE! In all seriousness - sigh - another one added to my amazon wish list...

Emily Barton said...

Ian, yes, your reviews of what you've been reading have really intrigued me. You seem to be reading some really heavy stuff. Are the graphics really disturbing? I'll add American Splendor to the mix.

Dorr, do try it. The nice thing about graphic novels is that they can be read so quickly. I imagine, even if you one doesn't like it, there's no feeling of having wasted much time.

JSP, I'm feeling the same way. I need to be reading more of these.

Court, sorry! But, as I told Dorr, this one can be read really, really quickly, and thus you can have the satisfaction of crossing something off your TBR list in no time. And maybe, one day, I'll review something I didn't like, just to stop being a pusher worse than any of the others I described in my previous post.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this sounds good! I'm always surprised about how graphic some things can be too. Not in a bad way, I just forget about the fact that I am reading a book with pictures. Go figure.

Emily Barton said...

Stef, what on earth is that with forgetting you're reading a book with pictures? I mean, it calls itself "graphic," and I still manage to forget until it forces me to remember.

Emily Barton said...

Dewey, still having problems with your comments (I think I must have accidentally deleted instead of publishing them), but I'm ready to explore Bechdel's Dykes...books as well.

nigel patela said...

I love everything Allison Bechdel has done.
In fact I had the cover to one of her books (Unnatural Dykes To Watch Out For) enlarged and put up on my wall.