Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” is probably one of the best graphic novels I have ever read

These have been exciting times in my life. And like all the other exciting times that have gone by since I began this blog, I’m not really going to talk about them. Hopefully, though, in a few days, there will be something to say. Anyways, this blog is about books, not coy personal notes.

Right now the primary purpose of this blog is to say that I just read a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel which is one of the best things I have ever read in my life. It’s called Fun Home. It’s a memoir that’s mostly about her closeted gay father (although, as she notes, it’s kind of inappropriate to call someone closeted if they never come out, since you’re usurping their ability to create their own sexual identity and whatever, he’s dead).

I think that I like the graphic novel format because it takes away the parts of books that I am psychologically unable to digest: the descriptions. Unless books write their descriptions in a very specific way (for instance, in the way that Faulkner does, as pictures created with the connotations and denotations of words, rather than pictures created with the mental images attached to words), then visual descriptions mean pretty much nothing to me. This creates problems for me in reading, for instance, Proust.

But in graphic novels there are no visual descriptions. There are both words and pictures. It’s kind of the best of both words, since GNs don’t lose the best part of books, which is the narration. A narrator is a pretty powerful thing to have. All books have them. It’s hard to believe that movies even work, actually. I guess even movies have narrators…they have the camera, anyway, and the things it chooses to show. But that feels very different.

But most graphic novels don’t really hit me where I live, because in order to appreciate them, you need to spend more time looking at the pictures than I am naturally prone to. You need to look at the pictures first, and then back at the text, and then back at the picture, and then maybe at the text again. Actually, it would be really interesting to read some sort of hermaneutic-psychological-neurological study of exactly how people read graphic novels…because I am pretty sure I am doing it wrong. If I read forward, I always feel like I am missing something, but if I slow down, then I start getting bored.

Anyway, that was not a problem with Fun Home. And that’s for two reasons: one) almost none of the action in the book really takes place in scene.  As in, the pictures don’t really depict stories, with dialogue and action. They’re more illustrations, of the ongoing narration, which is scrolled across the top of most pictures (between two rows of pictures). And the second) reason is that the writing is really good.

Most times I do not say that the writing is good. It is kind of assumed that the writing is good, right? But that is with novels. I think with graphic novels, the assumption is that the writing is functional. Sometimes the writing is even actually kind of bad. That’s why I am excited to be able to get up on my high horse and be able to say that the writing in this novel is really good. Example:

Another example:

It’s shot through with that sort of narrative voice, like a really smart adult trying to remember what it was like to be a really smart teenager and not using precisely the right words, but somehow using words that convey the tone of it…what it felt like, from inside. The whole thing is very claustrophobic. You can see the other characters, in images, and you can see little word bubbles sometimes. But you know that they’re marionettes, acting out this story in the stage of someone else’s mind. And that’s fine. It still manages to contain the intense reality of narrative storytelling, because Bechdel is talking about a story that no one really knows. She’s talking about secrets that her dad took to his grave. In order to bring life to him, she has to reanimate him using her memory, other peoples’ remembrances, and a hefty amount of speculation. It is a completely baller performance.

Oh, and there’s also this whole other part of it, which is the books. Each chapter is sort of subtly informed by a book that her dad loved. She tries to use the fictional characters to explain his life. But not in a pedantic way, or as some kind of pyrotechnic narrative trick…it’s more of a scholarly exercise, actually…a bit of bio-crit in reverse, like you can see into someone’s character by the books that they talk about (the reverse image of the notion that you can see into a book by knowing about the person who wrote it).

This technique contains one of the petit pleasures of the book, which is just that of recognizing allusions. It’s fun to actually understand something better because you read some book. Once a friend of mine directed me to a neuroscience blog which talked about the appeal of modernist art, and it talked about how the human mind gets jolted with happyjuices whenever it recognizes a pattern. Hence, something like cubist paintings, which make us work harder to see something in them, give us a consequently greater reward. I think it’s the same with allusion. There’s just alot of fun in recognizing that something is like something else. This book sort of supercharges that fun by walking you through the allusions. It’s hard to describe, but it is very good times.

Oh, and I didn’t even talk about the best part of the book, the whole first section, the section that made me think, “I need to blog this post-haste”. It describes her father’s monomaniacal quest to restore her family’s run-down Victorian mansion to its original condition. It is as beautiful, strange, and evocative an image as I have ever encountered. As a set-piece, it is kind of amazing, and it provides an element of reality to the character of her father that is somehow slowly chipped away at by the uncertainties of the rest of the narrative.

Anyways, so it seems like I am going to be mostly in the mood for lighter reading fare during the next two weeks (except for Don Quixote, which I am still working on), and I was wondering if anyone had any recommendations for graphic novels. I’d prefer not to embark upon any series, unless I can feel okay about just reading the first chapter for now. In the past I’ve really enjoyed Persepolis, Sandman, and Scott Pilgrim.

11 Comments on “Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” is probably one of the best graphic novels I have ever read

  1. I have a friend who works in a comic store and is therefore my go-to person for cool comics. She recently lent me the fourth volume of the series “Finder” to read as a standalone (the volume is called Talisman) and it worked well for me in and of itself, although it’s also made me intrigued for the rest of the series.

    The same friend also recced me Castle Waiting, which is also really, really good, but little did she know I had already found it by myself years ago lurking mysteriously in the stacks at Green Library! (There is a second volume, but it did not get published until like a decade after the first, so you should be fine with it as a standalone.)

    • Yay…I will look into those. Though it does seem a lil fishy to read later volumes of a series first. Does that not violate some sort of code?

      Also, are you watching the Game of Thrones TV show? I watched the first five episodes. It is really good. Well, actually, it just has a non-subtextual Loras and Renly as the greatest couple that has ever been on television, which is really enough for me (does that count as fanservice? If so, please keep serving me, HBO.)

      • It normally does for me! But she overcame my general objections (mostly by shoving it into my hands and making sure it was the only thing I had to read on a long bus ride home. She’s pretty cunning.)

        I haven’t just dueto lack of time, but if I’m able I want to do a binge-watch this weekend to catch up. I am having a hilarious time with the reactions of my friends who aren’t familiar with the story, though (“wait, there’s MORE incest?”).

        THE BEST KIND OF FANSERVICE.

  2. I loved reading Fun Home too. It was so good. And yes one of the most enjoyable parts was recognizing the allusions.

    Another graphic novel I really like is Asterios Polyp.

    • Helen? What Helen? Is this Hong Kong Helen Kwong? Also, how did you guess? I am reading Asterios Polyp right now. It is exactly the next thing that I moved onto. It is virrry good. And the art is big enough and vibrant enough that I can actually enjoy it.

      • Yes, that was me. And I was not guessing what you were reading, just recommending the book. I’m so happy you’re reading it now. Read more graphic novels and then recommend them to me.

  3. I did a presentation on _Fun Home_ for the ICAF academic conference a couple of years ago, looking specifically at how Bechdel uses comics storytelling to underline the extent to which she knows she’s telling her father’s story – the truth of which she can guess at, but never know – through her own perspective, a perspective which can never be neutral. I actually wrote Bechdel to confirm that she’d drawn both the typewritten letters and the letters in her father’s handwriting.

    • That is really cool. You know, I somehow thought Fun Home was something I had discovered. Little did I know that it is the popularest thing ever. But I am okay with that.

      So, wait, are the letters not the actual letters her dad wrote? They are guesses at the sort of things he might have written?

      • They’re the texts of the letters, but not in his handwriting/typewriting – they’re not shopped in. So everything you see is filtered through Bechdel’s POV.

  4. I can’t quite figure out what you mean by this:

    “(although, as she notes, it’s kind of inappropriate to call someone closeted if they never come out, since you’re usurping their ability to create their own sexual identity and whatever, he’s dead).”

    I’ve read Fun Home several times and I don’t remember her saying this. It’s perfectly appropriate to call someone closeted if they never come out. I get the feeling you think that being closeted is an identity, which it’s not. Few closet cases, if any, call themselves closeted. They probably have “create[d] their own sexual identity”. What I remember her saying was something along the lines of not knowing how he did think of himself, and never being able to know since he’s dead. It’s complicated because both “gay” and “closeted” have changed their meanings somewhat over the past 40 years. Her father probably wouldn’t have thought of himself as gay because homosexual men of his generation often rejected that word, and thought of themselves as queer.

    Nice appreciation of Fun Home on the whole, though.

    • It’s been years since I read Fun Home, so I can’t point to the passage or anything, but even if she didn’t write it, I will say that I don’t particularly like the term “closeted” (when not self applied) since it basically feels like one person policing another person’s sexual identity. I do think that a lot of out people retroactively describe a time in their life as having been “in the closet” and that, in this sense, the term is useful.

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