Friday, August 2, 2013

Fun Home ~ Alison Bechdel

Lately, I've been wanting to start reading graphic novels/memoirs again, but haven't been sure where to start.  Most of what I've read in the past has been assigned by professors, and I find it hard to sort out for myself the stuff I like from all the superhero/manga stuff out there (not that I have a problem with those genres, I'm just not interested).  I've been hearing about Alison Bechdel's new graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? for a while now, but was hesitant to buy another book by her since I didn't particularly like Fun Home.  So I decided to save my money and give Fun Home another try - it's been over six years (over six years?!?!?!) since my graphic novel class, so surely my perspective will have changed and I will now understand why people think this book is the cat's meow, yes?  FALSE.  I think I actually liked it less this time around.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is purported to be about Alison Bechdel's relationship with her gay father, whose gayness (is that a word?) she found out about shortly after his probable suicide, a couple of weeks after she came out to her parents.  What it's really about is how her father sucked, and how her mother sucked a little, and how they both joined forces to make her life suck a little, and why the rich white girl had a sucky life for a while but then found literature and discovered that her life is one big messy pot of symbolism.  Oh, and also, she's read Ulysses.  AREN'T YOU IMPRESSED?  Blegh.

Okay, I'm going to start with what I like:  I like Bechdel's artwork, which is simple but evocative, and I like how she integrates text and image so that they build off of one another instead of merely telling the same thing in different mediums.  So kudos to her on that.

Despite enjoying the form, I did not like the book.  I think what bothers me the most is Bechdel's constant efforts to find symbolism in her life and liken her life's events to works of literature and drama.  It's pretentious and tiresome, plus a lot of her correlations are poorly drawn.  For example, it's not that surprising that her realization that she is a "faggot" (her words, not mine) should occur around the same time that she went to see The Chorus Line (which I guess has a gay character in it?  I've never seen it) with her father.  Not only could the musical have helped to draw that realization out of Bechdel, as a lot of art will help us understand something about ourselves, the fact of seeing it could be due more to her gay father's interest in gay characters than some amazing fit of symbolism on the part of the universe.  AND THAT IS THE WHOLE BOOK.  And, in case you don't get that her life is a book, you get lines like this: But it was only one of many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family during those strange hot months  (155).  DO YOU SEE WHAT SHE DID THERE?  Speaking of hot months, Bechdel's mother, an actress whose middle name is Augusta, plays an "august matron," also named Augusta, in The Importance of Being Earnest.  THERE IS MEANING HERE PEOPLE.  DO YOU SEE IT?

I know it seems obvious to say that a memoirist is self-absorbed but maybe I could say that Bechdel is more so than others?  She comes off as narcissistic and maybe even as having delusions of grandeur, in her conviction that her life has a greater meaning.  This book seems like a showcase of her smarts and the weird suckiness of her family (which really doesn't come off as so weird or sucky).  We hear all about the failings of her father, but we see him taking his children to movies and on trips, and playing games with them.  While, yes, Bechdel must have made the decision to include these images and thus is aware that her father was at least there and involved, she can't seem to get over the idea that he is to be blamed for everything bad in her life.  She's emotionally immature and despite her obvious intelligence, comes off as child-like.  Not that I think she needs to have all of her shit figured out to write this kind of story (does anybody ever have all of their shit figured out?) but I think this book needs perspective and some development that doesn't rely so heavily on other works of art to find depth and complexity.  In the end, I'm disappointed and really wishing that someone would explain what's so great about this book.

Oh and a total side note: after forcing myself to get through this book for want of another graphic narrative to read, I noticed Maus II on my shelf, which I've been meaning to read since I was 18, when I first read and enjoyed Maus.  FACEPALM.


  1. I'm just starting to get into graphic novels, I will remember to stay away from this one!
    Maus II is incredible, better than Maus I in my opinion.

  2. I liked Fun Home, but I can tell you, if you felt she was too heavy-handed in this one, skip the sequel Are You My Mother? which was a navel-gazing slog.

  3. Aw. I thought this was really good, but I can see why you would have these problems with it.

    It's not a graphic memoir, but can I recommend Ordinary Victories? Such a good comic. It's French, but it's been translated into English, and it's really beautiful and great. I want it to have a wider readership! I love it so!