FUN HOME: A Family Tragicomic

Fun Home by Alison BechdelAlison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin ($19.95)

by Stephen Burt

Don’t expect Yet More Dykes to Watch Out For from this smart, moving, attractively drawn, and decidedly serious memoir in comics form. Alison Bechdel's long-running Dykes strip is witty enough for anyone—the lesbian Doonesbury, if you like—but this first full-length work from the award-winning cartoonist does, and reveals, more than any strip can.

Fun Home follows, simultaneously, Bechdel's youth and the adult life of her father, who returned from Europe to run the family funeral home in rural Pennsylvania (hence the title); became a high school English teacher obsessed with remodeling his Victorian home (hence the pun in the title); carried on covert romances with his male students; and got hit and killed by a truck, perhaps a suicide, weeks after the college-aged Bechdel told him she was gay. The matter suggests Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby (Bechdel acknowledge Cruse's inspiration): the clean lines, blue halftones, and sympathy for children bring the book close to Craig Thompson's Blankets. (If you like any of the three, run, do not walk, toward the other two.)

Bechdel's story stays clear, but visual bravura abounds: a rectangular panel doubles as a meticulously mowed lawn; other panels become the rooms in the all-too-well-kept house, where "my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture." Bechdel knows when to splash and when to compress, how to incorporate visual jokes, and when to leave clean lines well enough alone. Just as impressive is her emotional range: from funny-ha-ha to funny-peculiar, from the weightless hilarity that can accompany sudden, severe grief, to the shock of belated recognition. ("Not only were we inverts, we were inversions of one another," the butch Bechdel realizes about her fey father.) Each of six chapters weaves in repeated comparisons between events in the life of the Bechdel family and moments from canonical modernist texts: Joyce, Proust, Fitzgerald, Wilde. The father's literary sensibilities make these tie-ins not only appropriate but necessary, a way to convey regrets and wishes at which the reserved (or closeted) characters cannot otherwise do more than hint.

If this wonderful book has a flaw, it is perhaps Bechdel's over-reliance on words—both on her own writing, and on the many panels which give close-ups or odd views of handwriting, typed pages, print. Even these panels, though, contribute something to what's not just a first-rate queer memoir, but a fine achievement in the formal repertoire of the graphic novel—solemn, at times, but also a can't-put-it-down read.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006