It’s my turn to come out of the closet: I am a literature snob. I generally hide my inclination since I work at a public library where great works of literature often acquire dust while hundreds of people wait for trendier, lighter works. It’s a self-directed snobbishness—I appreciate that reading taste is subjective so I don’t judge others for what they like.
Part of my job is to become familiar with various genres I don’t normally read. Four years ago I set a goal to read a comic book, or what us snooty types call “graphic literature”. I just met my goal this month. Art history was one of my favorite subjects in school, and I’ve always been a fan of literature, so you’d think literature with pictures would appeal to me. Somehow I got suckered into the notion that comics are only for kids and adults who are looking for a fun, light read—until my friend who’s a Spenser professor recommended Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
Bechdel began her career in 1983 as a cartoonist for feminist and gay-friendly alternative newspapers. Her strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” follows a closely-knit group of lesbians. It’s a politically progressive comic strip version of The L Word. Bechdel calls it “half op-ed column and half endless, serialized Victorian novel.” A good compilation can be found in the book The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. There’s also an online archive here: http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/strip-archive-by-number. The strip has been on hiatus since 2008 so Bechdel can focus her energy on her forthcoming graphic memoir Love Life. I can only imagine the pressure Bechdel feels to deliver something as spectacular as Fun Home. Publishers Weekly and Time magazine named it the best book of 2006. New York Times named it a 2006 Notable Book, and it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Fun Home begins in the early Sixties during Bechdel’s childhood in rural Beech Creek, Pennsylvania. Her parents settle in Bechdel’s father Bruce’s hometown after having lived more cosmopolitan lives—her mother, Helen, with a roommate in New York’s Greenwich Village and her father in Europe during a stint in the military. Bruce spends part of his time running the local funeral home, nicknamed the “fun home,” which he inherited from his father and grandfather. Helen and he are both high school English teachers, but their passion is reserved for their hobbies. Helen is a community theater actress and graduate student. Bruce restores and decorates their Victorian home and seduces his male students. At first only Helen knows about Bruce’s predilection for young men. But after Bechdel comes out to her parents in college, Helen shares two secrets: Bruce has had same-sex affairs, and she’s just asked him for a divorce. A few weeks later, Bruce jumps in front of a delivery truck.
Bechdel wonders if her decision to live openly as a lesbian has anything to do with her closeted father’s apparent suicide. But instead of crafting a maudlin memoir, she explores her bookish roots by weaving family history with literary and mythological allusion. "I employ these allusions not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the Arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison." The result is a masterpiece, blending introspection, family dynamics, social change, and literature. These things could have easily been achieved in a traditional memoir, my former graphic-literature-ignorant-self would have argued. But Bechdel’s illustrations enrich the story, showing how the backdrop of our lives adds meaning that often goes unspoken.