Monday, January 01, 2007

The Artificer

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Written and Drawn by Alison Bechdel, Houghton Mifflin, 2006

Fairly regularly I go the large downtown library’s new graphic novel shelves and just begin grabbing. I seek out familiar names and titles, but at the same time, a goodly number of works end up in my arms with little to no more than cursory examination of the cover and a quick flip through the pages.

Which was how I happened to stumble across what was recently announced as Time magazine’s and Entertainment Weekly’s number one picks for book of the year. I read it in complete isolation without ever being aware of the celebrity whirlwind gathering speed. Nearly anything you read that mentions Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home will include the words “stunning,” “breathtaking,” “amazing,” “poignant,” and so on. And every last word is true.

Bechdel’s long-running strip Dykes to Watch Out For is the kind of thing you find in the paper if you regularly read an alternative weekly that does well and has a lot of stability. I’d spottily seen it in a Columbus paper, found it once or twice in Cleveland (I think), but I never managed to see it with the kind of regularity that would have turned me into a fan. That it’s a sequential story line with many characters (a kind of dying genre in newspaper comics — think Mary Worth and Judge Parker) made catching up with it burdensome. The small press that published collections of the strip also made its appearances at bookstores rare.

Needless to say, all of that is about to change. My god, what a book. While Dykes frequently touches on serious subjects, it is generally lighter in tone than anything between these covers. A strip’s compressed need to get from intro scene to closing kicker along with the weekly gap between updates leaves little room for an author to expand an idea, toy with it, explore its nuance and depth.

Fun Home is an autobiographical story about Alison’s childhood and early college years, and like most memoirs it deals with the kind of alienation and painful scenes common to the genre. What Bechdel does with such well-trod material is nothing short of miraculous. Her drawings have a measured quality to them and she conveys with the subtlest of lines quivers of emotion and great efforts of stifled self-restraint. Self-restraint is also evident in the narrative, as Bechdel nimbly side-steps the kind of indulgent narcissism endemic in family memoirs.

In part, she does this by making herself a piece of the story instead of the book’s whole heart. Sharing the narrative spotlight is predominantly her father Bruce, as well as the many books she and he read. The graphic novel in fact opens with both a drawing of Bechdel’s father and an invocation comparing him to Daedalus of Greek myth. Fans of literature will find that books, their relationship to our world and our relationship to them — how they shape us, how we grow into them, how they confound and blur our own definitions, and how they madden us — permeate the world of Fun Home.

Employed as a high school English teacher, Bruce fills in part-time at the family funeral home that gives the title one of its levels of meaning, and spends most of the rest of his time renovating the sprawling family house, an old once-grand manse gone to seed. Oh yes, he also spends a goodly amount of time engaged in barely secret affairs with any number of young men. We first see him in Bechdel’s blue-wash line drawing in the midst of renovation, shirtless, carrying a column over his shoulder, wearing a pair of skimpy cut-off shorts that foreshadow everything.

Charting how two generations of the same family deal with their own homosexual identities, Alison and her father are a study in contrasts. His repression finds outlets in painstaking historical reconstruction and, at times, a cruel fatherly sternness. Fun Home is awash in contradictions high and low. From its subtitle as a Tragicomic, the book revels in the clash of opposites, whether that be the mad grins Alison and her brother share the first time they see each other after their father’s rather mysterious death, or how the Bechdel mother practices her lines for Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband while her own remains anything but. Or the shifting ways Bruce moves from brutal to tender with his children within pages.

Part of the novel’s power to astonish comes in small word plays and in finding the tiniest of connections in incongruities and binding even those smallest of threads into the narrative whole. Time, as it is in memory, rarely moves in strict chronology throughout, though overall the book starts with a younger Alison and family and moves toward older. The last page, something like four panels, manages to compress time to childhood and the moment of her father’s death and her own reflections now in one amazingly seamless whole that sprung tears to my eyes. Even picturing the final page makes my eyes mist up over a week since I closed the covers.

In its circling-through-time fashion, Bechdel demonstrates how the untold stories of our parents’ lives echo and reverberate in our own, and how later learning those secrets can set painful chords in our own psyches throbbing with new perspective. Moments told the first time around are read as much in a state of ignorance as the child who experienced it, then later we too feel the raw shock of truth revealed when hidden motives are later explained. Bechdel’s parents aren’t depicted throughout as one-dimensional types against who our plucky narrator strives, but as complicated human beings filled with the kind of contradictory impulses, manifested repressions, and long-simmering dreams operating from different roles.

The sheer moving nature of Bechdel’s narrative frequently elicits gasps and epiphanic bouts of recognition. I had a hard time finishing the work, not merely because I forced myself to immensely slow down my usual reading speed so as to savor the work, but because my wife constantly walked away with my copy, herself drawn just as deeply into the novel.

In reviewing the book too, I’ve found myself straining to make sense of it, to somehow cut it down to size for your perusal and I’ve found my words sliding off the text. Fun Home resists easy encapsulation because of its complexity, but also for its sheer beauty, its wedded marvelousness of word and of image. It’s a rare treat to find an author who can craft not only sentences and paragraphs and scenes that crackle and hum with life’s ineffable, intangible muchness, but who can also draw it with such luminosity, and then, for the hat trick, marry the words and the pictures to create a sum several powers greater than the parts.

Bechdel has done so here with unusual force and power. Simply writing this review has instilled in me a longing to reread the book right this very second, it’s simply that good. For a hard working artist laboring in near-obscurity all these years, she well deserves every accolade she gets, not just for her dedication, but for what such dedication has wrought.

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