Saturday, June 19, 2021

Believe Care Invest, Comics Memoir Week: Fun Home

  • Alison Bechdel tells us of her memories of her life before and after her father’s death by suicide in 1980. Her father spends all his time renovating their house, and also runs a funeral home (The central irony: They shorten “Funeral Home” to “Fun Home”)
Bechdel is a passive hero. Her central action in the story is getting a phone call telling her that her father has died. She will find out some of her dad’s secrets before his death, and some after, but she mostly learns them because her mom drops them unexpectedly, not because she’s actively pursuing the mystery. This book’s primary value is that it’s thoughtful. She has, in retrospect, given a lot of thought to her relationship with her dad and now she’s got 242 pages of fascinating insights. That’s not an easy sell, but the book turns out to be easy to love simply because it’s so well written (and drawn, but the art’s not the main focus).

She could have structured the book by building up to the shocking reveal of his death, or the shocking reveal that the seemingly-accidental death was probably suicide, or the shocking reveal that her father was pursuing affairs with adolescent boys, but all three of those facts are mentioned very early on. We sort of move outward in concentric circles from these central facts, adding a series of layers to the narrative.

So Bechdel had a lot of work to do with BCI. She had to get us to connect with a passive heroine on an inner quest that doesn’t build to any catharsis in real time. How did she do it?

There is no shortage of reasons to believe in this character and this world. Bechdel has the ideal material of every memoirist: She kept extensive diaries as a girl and still has them. That means she has hundreds of details ready at hand. The diaries themselves are fascinating: She became increasingly unsure of herself and started to add a qualifying “I think” in tiny letters after every sentence. Eventually she just creates a shorthand symbol to express this, and soon she’s just scrawling the symbol on top of every word.

Some other ways she gets us to believe:
  • Characters usually reveal themselves in what they compliment in others, but her backhanded compliments towards her father show what she doesn’t value: “He was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of décor.”
  • In response to her unloving father’s obsession with interior design, she develops a motto: “When I grow up, my house is going to be all metal, like a submarine.”
  • Sense memory always makes a character come alive. She remembers one of the few times she felt close to him: “My mother must have bathed me hundreds of times. But it’s my father rinsing me off with the purple metal cup that I remember most clearly. The suffusion of warmth as the hot water sluiced over me… …the sudden, unbearable cold of its absence.” Later, she has to remind herself, “He really was there all those years, a flesh-and-blood presence steaming off the wallpaper digging up the dogwoods, polishing the finials, smelling of sawdust and sweat and designer cologne.”
  • We see the books he’s reading and often they’re red flags to his secrets.
  • Her grandmother has unique syntax: “Why he was all over mud, dears.”
Obviously, the main reason to jump ahead and reveal her father’s death early on is that it makes it easier to care about her right away. If she had waited to wallop us with it later, we might not have gotten as involved with the narrative. Other ways she gets us to care:
  • Foreshadowing through the use of parallel characters: In a moment that is fairly typical of the book’s philosophical bent, she remembers her father lifting her up on his feet, and tell us that she now knows that it’s called “Icarian Games” in acrobatics. She then talks about how Icarus and Daedalus became parallel characters for her and her father. (And then this leads to a discussion of Joyce’s character Stephen Daedalus)
  • Her father cares more about restoring the house than playing games with her.
  • Her father calls a room he’s decorated “slightly perfect.” Nothing is ever good enough for him.
  • Her father insists on pink and flowers for her room though she hates both. She hasn’t figured out yet that they’re both gay.
  • Her father hits both her and her mother, and at one point she flees the house in fear of violence.
  • “I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children and his children like furniture.”
  • Everything is a risk, “If we couldn’t criticize my father, showing affection for him was an even dicier venture.”
We never fully Invest in Bechdel to solve the book’s mysteries. In the end, she gives it all a lot of thought, and reaches some fascinating conclusions, but she has no big breakthroughs or catharsis. It’s a gentle, melancholy book. Nevertheless, here are some reasons we invest:
  • She’s defiant: “I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his Nelly. Utilitarian to his aesthete.”
  • Rides a bike: “I bicycled back to my apartment, marveling at the dissonance between this apparently carefree activity and my newly tragic circumstances.”
  • She’s brave. She comes out to her parents as soon as she figures it out, though she has reason to suspect they won’t approve.
  • She’s a classic book-taught amateur: She decides she’s gay totally hypothetically, comes out to her parents, then reads every book ever written on lesbianism (braving potentially-disapproving librarians), then launches into her first relationship fully informed.
Ultimately, Bechdel forges a universal story out of observations that are very specific to her odd circumstances. It’s the ultimate testament to this story’s fundamentals that it was able to be translated into a hit Broadway musical, despite having none of the elements one generally associates with musicals.

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