Book review: Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

Hype to watch out for
By Geoffrey Dow
Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Original published at Edifice Rex Online
Not such fun hype

As every former child prodigy knows, high expectations are both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing, because past accomplishments open doors which might otherwise stay closed; a curse, because where others are free to hone their craft in obscurity, the prodigy is watched by every critical eye the moment they through that specially-opened portal.

Alison Bechdel was no child prodigy, but she had a long run as a strip cartoonist during which time she was able to hone her craft in a gradually decreasing obscurity with Dykes to Watch Out For, an episodic strip that managed (at least to some extent) to broaden Bechdel's audience from its lesbian (and gay) base to many people who simply liked good comics.

But getting your work noticed by The Comics Journal is not in the same league as creating Time Magazine's Book of the Year for 2006, as Bechdel's first graphic novel, Fun Home, was. My copy opens with three pages of review excerpts containing words like "Masterful" and comparisons to David Sedaris, Charles Dickens and Vladimir Nabokov, among others.

High praise indeed; not many books could live up to it all. Does Bechdel's?

No surprises: it doesn't. So why all the hype?

Fun Home: The (semi)tragedy of hype
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
By Alison Bechdel
Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin)
2006, 232 pages
ISBN-10: 0618477942

It's tempting to blame our times — an age in which celebrity gossip over-shadows news (and nevermind ideas) — when considering the success of Bechdel's memoir, but that's probably unfair. Prurient interest in gossip and oddities is as bold as the hills and, though Fun Home doesn't pander, it does deal a double-dose of topically perverse subject-matter. Its narrator, Bechdel herself, is a lesbian and the book deals, somewhat tangentially, with her coming-of-age; and directly, with her father, Bruce, a possible suicide who lived his life as a closeted homosexual and who at least flirted with paedophilia.

Such topics, in the guise of empathetic exploration, are likely to bring out the voyeur in all of us who live and breathe early 21st century air, just as most of us in the 1980s were at once distant enough from, yet close enough to, the Holocaust to make for a trend of memoirs and fictions that dealt with the 20th century's most notorious episode of mass slaughter — Art Spiegelman's Maus comes immediately to mind as an artistically successful example; the execrable Life Is Beautiful is an example I still regret not having walked out of the theatre on.

In other words, and regardless of an individual work's intrinsic quality, a form of magical thinking seems to take hold of public and critics alike when a book or film's topic intersects with the era's zeitgeist. (Fortunately, if unfairly, this dispensation doesn't usually apply to teenage poets, whose work is invariably Serious and Heartfelt by intent, if almost never by execution. But I digress.)

None of which is to say that Fun Home is a bad book. In fact, it's a pretty good one; judged strictly against its graphic novel peers, it is a very good book. Probably not one meriting a spot on the still very small shelf holding works of the first rank, but definitely one deserving inclusion on the second, not much longer, platform beneath.

But it was certainly not the best book of 2006 nor of any other year in recent memory, no matter what accolades crowd the front of the book.

The dropping of names
    Bechdel effectively uses a basic grid and a
    simplified linear style to tell her story; the blue
    washes add a visual depth to what might otherwise
    be too stark imagery.

Bechdel's novel is just that, a (short) novel, and is successfully structured as such. (All right: it's technically a memoir, but it reads like fiction and so deserves to be judged against that standard, at least in part.)

The story alternates in time between Bechdel's early childhood and her early adulthood, when she realized she was a lesbian, shortly before her father's death. Bechdel's transitions from one time and place to another (and back again) are accomplished and seamless, the work of an artist with full control over not just the visual elements of her craft, but over the structure of her story, as well.

As for the visual elements, the subdued, black and white drawings quite properly take a back seat to story and Bechdel's decision to use a blue wash rather than colour to her rather minimalist line drawings works both to reinforce the book's elegiacal tone and to provide a visual variety to what might otherwise have been too bleak and stark a style for such a long work.

But structural control and mastery of the visual grammar of comics by themselves don't make for a book which is, presumably, going to be one of Time's 100 best books of the century come the year 2100.

And it is, perhaps, the very control that makes of the book such a triumph of craft which at the same time serves to undermine its aspirations to Art.

Bechdel takes great pains to distance herself from her subject — or subjects, as the author's younger self is most definitely the co-star of the narrative, not just fifth business — and worse, she strains after allusions as if she believes the mere mention of names like Proust or Joyce will by osmosis lend her own work their depth and respectability of the Classics.

I have no reason to doubt that Bruce Bechdel was a man who loved literature, who could and did wax eloquent about Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Joyce; but Bechdel never convinced me that his life paralleled either the fiction or the fact of those writers; worse, her attempts to draw analogies to Icarus and Christ come off as sophomorically pretentious.

The Christ analogy, like others, comes off as sophomorically pretentious.

All that said, Fun Home feels about as honest as one can hope to find in a memoir about an abusive parent, while never once giving the reader the sense that the author is exacting some kind of posthumous revenge. Bechdel in fact manages to paint a portrait of remarkable empathy with a novelist's knack for fully imagining the Other.

Still, when I re-read Fun Home for the purposes of this essay, doing so proved a bit of a chore. Neither Bechdel's empathy nor her technical chops could disguise the book's fundamental flaws: its overly-descriptive prose (a sin at the best of times, it is a major flaw for a cartoonist to tell when she can show) and forced allusions, and the author's inability to break through the surface of subject, no matter how much empathy she brings to bear upon it.

If you're a comics fan looking for adult material, Fun Home should be a delight; if you're a lesbian, or are close to someone who is gay, the coming-out aspects of the story should provide many elements for identification; and if you were raised by a semi-paedophilic, closeted-homosexual father who doubled as a high-school English teacher and mortician with a passion is to renovate old houses, you'll be enthralled by the closely-observed details of that particular life.

The rest of us? Maybe not so much.

Or is it just me? Why did Fun Home become one of those almost non-existent cross-over hits — a comics both popular and respectable? Is it really "masterful" (The Village Voice)? Does it stand out "in an ocean of hype" like "a drink of pure water" (the Cleveland Plains Dealer)? Is it "stupendous", as a writer called Chip Kidd is quoted as having written?

No and no and no.

Magical thinking

I'll venture that what's going on here is the conflation of quality with intent and with subject-matter.

Just as the Holocaust had its day in the popular sun in the 1980s and 1990s, when the generation of survivors was reaching its natural span and collectively decided they wanted to talk about their experiences after all, so now are all things gay having theirs. For very different reasons, the varieties of human sexuality have come out of the closet like never before, with people whose sexuality is other than straight insisting that they too are fully human and that they will — by damn! — take the time needed to talk to each other about it (and if the rest of us want to listen in, that's fine too).

So Bechdel's memoir touches on a topically Serious Subject and gets a critical head-start because of it. Add to that temporal serendipity the perfectly natural (if not particularly admirable) human tendency to rubber-neck when the subject of sex comes around — especially if the sex is unusual or scandalous — and the perception that comics=junk, and we have the explanation for Fun Home's over-exuberant reception.

At the risk of sounding disrespectful, both its form and its content are seen by many as being like the proverbial dancing bear; folks are so impressed it can tango at all that we don't complain about steps on our toes.

Where Spiegelman's Maus managed to transcend its Holocaust-related specifics, Bechdel's story never quite achieves universality, remaining instead one woman's reflections upon her coming-of-age and her troubled relationship with her even-more troubled father.

As I said at the outset, prodigies get the best and the worst of things; so too do the over-hyped. Bechdel has probably earned more money and gained more attention than she ever imagined possible for a "dyke cartoonist", but so too will she also gather the brickbats from those of us who don't think the work lives up to its billing.

If you like fairly thoughtful memoirs of people who have lived unusual lives, Fun Home should be a satisfying place to visit. The rest of us would do better to find another place to spend the night.