Fun Home: It’s Not You, It’s Me (I think)

I just finished reading Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, a graphic memoir that won just about every award out there in 2006, the year it was published. The book focuses mostly on Bechdel’s childhood in Pennsylvania and her relationships with her family, specifically her closeted homosexual father, as she grew up, and her own realization that she was a lesbian. In the title, “Fun Home” is an abbreviation for “funeral home,” the family business where Bechdel spent significant time, examining caskets and watching her father embalm the townsfolk. I am immediately reminded of the movie My Girl, which I watched on VHS approximately 500 times as a kid, about a young girl in a small town, whose father is a funeral home director. Remember how that movie took that dark turn three-quarters of the way in? In Fun Home, it happens on page 1.

Here’s the important disclaimer that has entirely shaped my reading of the book: I’m not much for graphics of any kind. I never read comic books, and cartoons always bored me as a child. As an adult, I have very little tolerance for animated or graphically-enhanced TV shows and movies (a few old, favorite Disney films serve as the exception here), even when they are geared toward adults–I’m thinking of such productions as The Nightmare Before Christmas, A Scanner Darkly, and South Park (though I have other issues with that last one as well). So, I’ve steered clear of graphic novels, despite their recent surge in popularity. I even took a seminar at the university where I teach about how to effectively use the medium as a text in class, but I’ve still never incorporated any into my courses because these texts just never seem to capture me wholly as a reader. Prior to Fun Home, the only graphic novel I’d ever read all the way through was Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, and although I found it incredibly interesting and well composed, I still noticed myself skipping over the images, and looking ahead to the next clump of text. So, I was curious to read Fun Home not only because I’d heard amazing things about the book, but also because I knew it would be a bit of a challenge to me, as a reader (and because my friend Ben recommended it over and over again).

And it was, but mostly–okay, sometimes–in a good way. First, the illustrations in Fun Home are extremely well done, and intricate, and they definitely do their job in adding to and, in some cases, manipulating one’s reading of the text. Bechdel is clearly a master cartoonist. The images are funny, sad, cute, and occasionally dirty, and their work in tandem with the text itself–the boxes, the bubbles, the scribbled reproductions of old letters sent within the family–is brilliantly integrated. (See excerpt.)

Still, though, I found myself falling again into the Persepolis dilemma, eyes rushing past the art and into the next box of “real” text. The problem here, of course, is that–just as I constantly tell my students–“text” doesn’t need to mean words. A magazine ad is a text, even if it’s only an image and a brand name. Movies can be texts. Plays. Art.

So what’s my problem here? Is it that I’ve been trained (and continued to practice, the whole of my 32 years) reading only words-based texts? Would I feel differently now if The Babysitter’s Club series with which I was obsessed as a child contained more images than the standard cover of pre-teen club girls sprawled across Mary Anne’s bed (in different outfits each book, but still essentially the same image continually)? And what does it mean that I actually disliked those cover images, because the images I had formed of the characters and their bedrooms in my mind disagreed with what the artists at Scholastic Publishers had decided it all looked like? This is the standard book-to-movie argument as well, of course: “I imagined him/her/them/it differently, and so the movie version let me down.” But with Fun Home, of course, I had no prior ideas about the visuals of the character or setting. They came together this first time I read it. Is it, then, just my own (I’ll go ahead and say it now) aversion to the form? Does this make me less than open minded? Lame? Uncool?

What I’m saying is that Fun Home was a good book for a graphic novel/memoir. I liked it. But if I were in charge of all of the literary awards, I probably wouldn’t bestow them upon Bechdel. (I’d probably give them to myself, and my boyfriend, and all of the other talented writers out there whose work is not talked about, but that’s a different story.) And that’s mostly because the form wasn’t the only thing that didn’t thrill me. One of the things that bothered me most about the book was that Bechdel skips around in time quite a bit. Flashbacks are one thing, of course (and I’m not one of “those” readers who needs everything to be linear, all the time), but I felt as though we were seeing Bechdel at different ages throughout the book, and it frustrated me. Bechdel has described the book’s structure in this way: “[I’m] going over the same material, but starting from the outside and spiraling in to the center of the story.” The idea is, in theory, very, very cool, but in practice, it felt repetitive and a little tedious at times. In fact, I found myself wondering if the chapters of the book had first been conceived as individual graphic essays, each focusing similar material (her family’s life and, more specifically, her relationship to her father) in the light of certain themes–sexual orientation, gender identity, suicide, literature, the examination of place/home. When I read multiple essays (more often published in multiple journals or collections), I see this sort of thing happening. For instance, an author might write about his divorce in some way in a few different pieces. Each time, the (potentially new) reader needs some background information, and so we see the author retelling certain details, like the fact that his wife cheated on him, or that they were living in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. But in a book-length collection, these details are often cut in the latter essays because the reader already got them early on. And so she will be annoyed to get them again. And again. Even if they are important like the story of a suicide or a letter about one’s sexual orientation. She will be annoyed.

But I will say that while the repetition and time line issues were a frustration to me, I still enjoyed the book. This feels important. AsI was reading it, I really wanted to keep reading it. Bechdel is engaging, and it’s a good story set in an odd, intriguing setting (just like My Girl). It’s a book worth reading, although in reflecting upon the memoir, I ultimately keep coming back to this idea of the form itself. I can’t seem to decide whether most graphic novels/books (that I’ve read) are simply not up to snuff, or if I’m a bad reader of them, which might be the case.

Feel free to “comment” me with other (better?) suggestions for graphic book-length works! My mind is only 80% closed.

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