So the Tonys happened and 'Fun Home won all the awards. Okay, not all of them but a lot of the big ones. I haven’t been to a Broadway show in years, so I can’t say if the musical deserves all the acclaim. But if it tells the Alison Bechdel and her father’s story as brilliantly as the graphic novel does, then yes, Fun Home deserves all the praise in the world.
Just to be clear, I will be referring to the narrator as Alison and to the author as Bechdel.
The graphic novel chronicles Alison’s childhood in rural Pennsylvania and her college years. The book focuses on Alison and her father’s relationship and how they deal with being queer and different from everyone else. Alison’s father works as a high school English teacher and as a mortician at the town’s funeral home, the titular fun home. Rather than telling the story in chronological order, Bechdel groups the events by theme, changing how events are perceived with each additional piece of information.
I found the portrait of the father to be absolutely fascinating. The book begins with the narrator describing her father and all the work he put into the house Alison grew up in. It shows his ingenuity, his artistry and his determination, but these qualities more often than not translate into thoughtlessness and stubbornness. Decorating the house allows him to express himself but he gets so wrapped up in his own self expression that he sometimes forgets about the people around him. I appreciate that he’s not a perfect father, but he’s not a monster either. As the book goes on and we learn more about him, we learn why he does the things he does (well, Alison gets pieces of information and speculates). Each bit of information engages the reader further and comes together as an excellent character study.
The book has lots of references to fiction from Sesame Street to Proust and the love of literature brings Alison and her father together. Some of the more classical works discussed in the book might I haven’t read everything that Bechdel alludes to, but I’ve read a fair few of them. She explains most of what she’s talking about to the reader. I didn’t find these explanations annoying for the stuff I have read and they were so helpful for the books I’m not as familiar with. Bechdel would have made a hell of a reviewer. She made me want to pick up Earthly Paradise by Colette and convinced me to give Marcel Proust another shot. I’m willing to bet most people will be familiar with at least one work she talks about in detail, so you will feel smart reading Fun Home and maybe it’ll help you decide what to read next!
I struggled to review this book not because I didn’t have much to say, but because there’s so much to talk about. Fun Home isn’t very big, about 240 pages. The parallels, the crossings and the deviations between Allison’s life and her father’s makes for a thematically rich book about gender, sexuality, family, culture, literature and so much more. I don’t want to write a review of Fun Home. I want to write a freaking paper. I hope to see it on syllabi of many English courses alongside the works the book draws on.
I don’t know if you can tell, but I loved the book. A lot. But there was one tiny thing that bugged me. And if it was a small continuity error or a minor character that seemed a little flat, I probably wouldn’t even bring it up. But the small thing made me feel that tiny sting of biphobia. Unlike a continuity error or flat characters, biphobia goes outside of the pages of a book and it very much a part of the real world. Bisexuality isn’t erased in Fun Home like in other texts. Alison says that she knows that her father might be bisexual but she prefers to think of him as gay so that they have one more thing in common. That just felt like such a petty jab. Bisexual people are so alien to most queer monosexual folks, despite all our shared experiences. We are shunned from a community that we feel kinship with. So when Alison expressed that without softening her words with “I know it’s petty, but this is how I feel” or something to that effect it made me remember that too a lot of people, I’m not queer enough for them.
But, I’m a big girl. I’ve enjoyed media that is far more hurtful and nowhere near as relatable and heart-wrenching. I still connected with Alison as she discovered who she was through fiction, interviews and even dictionary definitions. The family tragicomic made me laugh and tugged at my heartstrings. This jumbled up bildungsroman reflected myself in showing the lives of others and I hope it can do the same for you.
Abigail Gruchacz is a writer in Asheville, NC. She works a day job to support her craft and hopes to support herself writing one day. You can find her reviews at booknerdblogging.wordpress.com and she tweets as booknerdtweting.