The Fun Home of the title is the family’s funeral home, and this is Alison’s autobiography. This is a book about burial, all right. If it was fiction, you’d probably suggest the theme was overdone, too obvious and a bit - well - naff. But this isn’t fiction, this is an autobiography set to the exhilarating composition of words and pictures. For a comic, it’s articulate. For an autobiography, it’s well-illustrated! This is Alison’s story of her childhood, her growing up, her coming out, and her parents. Alison has two brothers who are mentioned, but wisely Bechdel steers away from telling us their stories (it’s a well-recognised phenomenon that the memories siblings hold of their youth do not necessarily correlate). Burials come in the form of the family business, the emotions that are necessarily buried between the closeted homosexual father, the dawning realisation of the homosexual Alison, and the mother who is attempting to shield her family and herself from the storm of complete exhumation and revelation.
Bechdel occasionally falls into standard whimpering about her parents’
lack of time for their children (mother working on her Masters, father working on his gardening), but it’s when she is concentrating on the larger, more complex issues that are part of her history that she truly excels and this work shines. The very difficult relationship with her father is dissected and presented in a stark light, as on a mortician's table, leaving out none of the sticky bits. And trust me, there are many toe-curling moments! This is a deeply literary work, and the cross-referencing between literature and life is handled deftly, supplying the reader with useful touchstones and rich multilayering - in short, gravitas. The bitonal illustrations look simple, but they can carry so much emotional complexity that they hold up to scrutiny. These illustrations particularly work for portraying the stultifying small-town life, and colour would seem almost superfluous for the task. Some are, quite simply, beautiful.
This book came out in 2006. I wish I’d heard of it then (my first child was born in 2005, so there are a few years missing from my cultural file around then) - I will be thrusting this - not on everyone - on those who are open-minded enough to be able to appreciate Bechdel’s searingly honest and unique work. Dykes to Watch Out For is Bechdel’s comic strip (going for over 20 years). And a new work titled Are You My Mother is due for release mid-2012. Now, there’s something to look forward to!