Let me preface this review with this: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is not an easy read. This memoir took some guts – and not a little bit – to write. Bechdel writes about growing up with a father obsessed with accurately restoring their Gothic Revival home. The opening scenes of this graphic novel show the author playing the game “airplane” with her father, he lying on his back on the floor, the author putting her stomach on his raised feet, and she says, “It was a discomfort well worth the rare physical contact, and certainly worth the moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.”
This book was all about discomfort – told in flashbacks, Bechdel is reviewing her childhood after the death of her father. He is hit by a truck, and she is sure it was suicide, having found out four weeks before that not only is her father gay but that he has molested young boys in earlier years.
Bechdel struggles with her own identity even as a child, and there are frames where her gender is unclear, preferring to wear typically-boyish clothes, pulling barrettes from her short hair. Her father, on the other hand, is, as she describes, much more like Martha Stewart than Jimmy Stewart, particular and precise, harsh and unyielding. Her two brothers are present, but the family is very isolated from one another, each preferring his or her own company to the company of sibling or parent. Bechdel’s mother plays the piano, reads, acts out scenes from plays. At one point, she is working on her Master’s thesis and preparing to play in The Importance of Being Earnest.
“Fun Home” refers to the family business, undertaking. Of course, in this small Pennsylvania town, the business is not strong enough, and both Bechdel’s parents work as English teachers at the local school. However, death is ever-present in the Bechdel home, as is art, literature, music, and tension.
When Bechdel goes off to school and realizes she is a lesbian, she comes to the realization by reading about it in a book. As she describes about her feelings after her father’s death, she “attempt[s] to access emotion vicariously.” She knows no other way of feeling or learning to feel.
I really felt for this family, each one of them – they seem to flail about in search of some affection from anyone. I felt the anxiety and oppressive air of the home in which they lived. The panels are extremely well done, and in some frames, the words seem superfluous. Some of them are quite explicit. I could tell this was cathartic in many ways for Bechdel but could not help wondering about her remaining family when reading this. I wonder if they’ve read it. The book is in no way calling for torches and pitchforks; it does paint Bechdel’s father in a sympathetic light although arguably what he did was child molestation. I haven’t found any specific reviews that discuss that particular aspect, but it is certainly there. At times, I felt that Bechdel wants to reconcile her father’s death with his apparently quite painful repression, and I can understand that need. Other than that, though, it doesn’t seem self-revelatory in regard to her father’s behavior. In fact, she seems to identify with him near the end, wanting to discuss his own homosexuality (which is natural). He even attempts to take her to a gay bar but fails because she is underage. In her mind, she doesn’t register that what he has done with young boys is wrong, just that for the first time in her life, she and her father have some connection, something that links them.
The book is interesting. It will definitely have me thinking for a while about memoirs in general and about how much more difficult it must have been for people to deal with their own sexuality in past generations. I know it’s no walk in the part today either, but I do like to think that it’s getting better. My brother is gay, and although I won’t say his coming out was easy on my family or on him, I will say this: we love each other. We talk to each other often. He is happier than I’ve ever seen him. My family is one odd, mixed-up jumble of people, and I absolutely love each and every one of them. And after reading this book, I am all the more thankful for just that.