Thursday, November 23, 2006

Fun Home

Alison Bechdel

With the end of the year encroaching, it's time to play catch-up with some of the big releases of the year. First up, Alison Bechdel's autobiography Fun Home, which has received plenty of praise from critics and is already cropping up on several "best of" lists for 2006.

Fun Home tells stories from Alison's childhood and college years that circle back to two very important events in her life: her father's death and her sexual awakening. Every direction she seems to go with her story leads back to these two things and provide another dimension for each. It's an interesting experiment in non-linear storytelling that really works wonderfully and leaves readers spellbound, putting just the right amount of emphasis where its needed without losing sight of the overlying themes.

The "Fun Home" that the book is named after is the funeral parlor where her parents put on shows and where Alison and her siblings often help out cleaning for the family business. Meanwhile, many secrets lie beneath the surface of the family, things that utterly shock Alison to learn later in life, when the signs have been there all along. I can draw some parellels from Bechdel's experiences to my own life, growing up gay as she did, although there are many differences in the way she came to her realization and I to mine. I was impressed with the fact that I had no idea that she was a lesbian until well into the narrative, and when the revelation came about, it was very nonchalant and natural for the story.

I've heard from several people that the art on this book wasn't the best, but I think it works beautifully for the story and really demonstrates the artist's cartooning prowess. Bechdel's characters are beautifully drawn. I had a strange fascination for the characters' hair - it kept standing out to me for some reason. Another thing that I thought was interesting was Bechdel's prominently featuring the male body. A lot of this story focuses on her own sexual discovery, but it was oddly void of much female sexuality, putting more of the emphasis instead on her father's repressed sexuality in the situations the family often found themselves in for the sake of his desires. Indeed, Bechdel's own sexuality seems to take a backburner to her father's, which becomes an awkward but interesting connection between the two that brings them closer in the end.

Another thing that Alison and her father share is a love of literature. This book is chalk-full of literary references, highlighting several passages that they love that coincided with their own lives, from Ulysses to The Wind In the Willows, or perhaps inspired them to carry things out in certain ways. All members of the family are artists, and as such, are isolated and caught up in their own worlds: Alison, her father and even in a sequence with her mother when she'd taken up a part in The Importance of Being Ernest while writing her thesis, at an inconvenient, awkward time for Alison. It all speaks of truth and life and is masterfully woven.

Beyond all of my praise for this book, it didn't really live up to my expectations, perhaps merely because they had been built so high. I prefered Phoebe Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, David B.'s Epileptic and even Craig Thompson's Blankets to this tale and would recommend them in its place. The chapters seemed a little too tidy, like book reports that brought the opening and concluding paragraphs together to sum up the carefully laid-out points within, but she also writes with a confidence and command over the narrative that I envy and can't deny her skill in storytelling, not that I would want to. I'm just surprised that this work has been chosen to stand out in recent years over Epileptic and The Diary of a Teenage Girl when I personally think those two more worthy of notice. Fun Home is a superior work of art and easily one of the best works of the year, but it's not as far ahead of its competition as I was led to believe. A

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