How Alison Bechdel Understands Her Life as Fiction
Gabrielle Bellot on the Groundbreaking Memoir Fun Home
A third of the way through her seminal autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home, Alison Bechdel reveals the reasons for the many literary allusions—Henry James, Fitzgerald, Camus, Greek mythology—peppered throughout the book. “I employ these allusions,” she writes, “not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps,” she reflects, “my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison.” Not long before this, Bechdel has not only come out as a lesbian but learned, too, that her father had a disquieting secret passion for underage boys—but it was this revelation about her allusions, more than anything else, that made me pause in my rereading of her intricate masterpiece. Fiction, it seemed, was the best translator of the curious language of her life; here was an autobiography that would have been impossible without fiction.
Though brief, her statement actually provides a guide to much of the book. It helps to explain, by implication, why her comic’s panels are all so cool-toned, so glacial, the blue-grey-green of ghosts and half-living wintry plants. It explains the abundance of literary comparisons before this and sets the reader up for the many to come. (The book ends with a meditation on trying to understand her father both through Joyce’s Ulysses and the myth of Icarus.)
And Bechdel, after all, came to comprehend her own queerness through books: the luxuriant autobiography of Colette her father pointedly loans her; a study of sexual “inversion”; Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness; and many others. (I failed at this myself; as a young queer girl in the closet on a small island, I asked my mum, on one of her trips to America, to buy me a series of lesbian novels, including Rubyfruit Jungle, without explaining what they were, hoping she would simply find them and not read their blurbs, but she returned to Dominica empty-handed and affronted, telling me how mortified she was when a Barnes and Noble employee directed her to the Gay and Lesbian section. Did I know, she asked, voice dropping into the quiet, almost wraithlike tone she took on when she was alarmed. I said no, of course, oh my, what a terrible thing, so sorry you had to endure this. How horrid! I could have added, as a young Bechdel wrote in her diary. But in reality, of course, I was very sad, and resorted to reading queer things in secret on our computer: Le Fanu’s Carmilla, absurd but wondrous lesbian and trans fanfics.)
Yet Bechdel’s revelation goes beyond this. With it, she begins to explicitly push at the borders of genre, tugging at the edges of what nonfiction can be. Fun Home is nonfiction, translated into the sequential art of a comic, yet it feels, often, like a literary novel, an American gothic romp through the claustrophobia of an elaborate home that houses a strained family. That the family owns a funeral parlor—the “fun home,” for short, of the title—and that Bechdel’s father is a glowering, moody, overwhelming presence only adds to this gothic sensibility. Fun Home is not fiction—but it reads as if it could be, and this, Bechdel decided, was the only way to truly describe what her home life had been like.
And Bechdel delights in making her life seem novelistic, even going so far as to occasionally describe moments in her past as if her memories are under the eye of a curious, somewhat curmudgeonly literary critic (though her teenage self ironically feels ambivalent about book critics). “This juxtaposition of the last days of childhood with those of Nixon and the end of that larger national innocence may seem trite,” she writes at one point. “But it was only one of many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family during those strange, hot months.” Here, using the deliberately literary term “plot device,” she critiques the very narrative of her life she has conjured up—not to cast doubt on the veracity of her work, but to draw attention to the truly, even absurdly, aesthetic quality of her real life. Her color choices make the text feel literary, too, as if we are privy to the cool emotional atmospherics of, at times, a Henry James novel.
Its almost monochromatic, atmospheric color scheme echoes another queer comic, Tillie Walden’s beautiful, melancholy I Love This Part, which uses purple, black, and white throughout. But whereas Walden uses shifting proportions and magically changing landscapes to convey the dreamlike happiness and sadness of her queer girls in love, Fun Home’s arctic tone is meant to convey the stillness, pain, and cold beauty of Bechdel’s upbringing, under the telescoping weight of her father’s presence.
The title of the book, too, reveals something. The funeral home only appears a few times, yet Bechdel’s actual home seems to echo the feeling of that funereal place: somewhere beautiful but deathlike and still, her home a kind of embalmed thing once her father had finished with his renovations, as if he were beautifying it for it to one day become a museum. It is a home filled, densely, with memories, with old time. And that Bechdel’s book is ultimately a eulogy for the complicated figure of her father makes the funeral in her comic’s title all the more darkly, poignantly relevant. Her book itself is a long funeral procession, and, like most honest eulogies, it is deep both with sadness and beauty, with flowers and flames, with the slow unfurling of Bechdel’s learning what trauma means to her.
I am always surprised, when I reread it, by how much it has to say to me, on so many levels.
Homes are characters almost as much as the people who live in them.
Trauma does not simply come to define a home; it reshapes it, reorganizes it, narrows its rooms and halls and walls. It haunts a home with varying shades of violence: the wrecking rage of a poltergeist, the terror of a revenant, or the quiet unease of a ghost that’s passed through you. Often, though, we don’t see these changes, at least not at first; our home still seems like what it used to be, for a time. It’s only when the trauma hits that we feel how our dwelling place has shifted from a home to somewhere we fear, like the way a bed becomes to a frequent insomniac a space that agonizes rather than alleviates, a place where rest is impossible.
Trauma is the great reorganizer: of paragraphs, essays, genes, brains, abodes, worlds.
Homes take on qualities, and my home used to feel loud, vibrant. My father would blast the classical music and jazz and, more rarely, soca that he loved, the melodies of Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky filling the wooden halls of our home and riding, no doubt, on the carpet of the wind down the sides of the mountain we lived on, near a small village. His music seemed an expression, an emanation of him. If my dad was quiet in person, the kind of romantic-at-heart who lives most fully in his daydreams, he seemed joyous and loud when he played his music through the tall brown Bose speakers he was always proud of. Music was the ship he rode on, strong and proud and beaming. I understood him, in part, through his grand melodies, as if the music translated something of him for me.I understood why someone might want to shrink inside herself, because sometimes the world inside you feels vaster and less claustrophobic than the world outside.
But over time, the music faded, partly because my father had begun to listen to music more on his MP3 player and, later, Zune, and partly because he had become quieter himself. It felt as if a great aura around him had shrunken, as if he had disappeared into himself. Our home changed. It wasn’t just quieter; it felt silent, in a deeper way. There were always the sounds of the outside world and of the insects and cackling geckoes that invariably found their way into our homes, but the house still felt noiseless, stripped, even, on some still afternoons, tomblike. We were in a warm country, but our house seemed colder, suddenly.
As our home grew quieter, I learnt, eventually, that my father was unhappy, like my mother. I suppose I had a sense of this even from a young age, but it still took me by surprise when I heard my parents fight and say things about each other that scared me, thinking my father might simply get into his car one day and leave, even as I knew he loved me and wouldn’t, I hoped, abandon us. My mother, too, felt cold, always, and the new silence in our home seemed to reflect it all, a little duneless desert, a little palace of ice in the tropics.
An introvert myself, I partially understood the evanescence of the music; I would have been too nervous to play it loudly to begin with, at least before I was an adult. I understood why someone might want to shrink inside herself, because sometimes the world inside you feels vaster and less claustrophobic than the world outside. Even as my father smiled and seemed to generally be his jolly self when he was not arguing with my mother, I still felt bad, as if some happy thing in him had lost its bravery, wilted away. I came to define my home by that sea-silence.
Now that I have come out and live a sea away, it still comes back to me, like a lighthouse beam, and I feel sad when I think of my parents, knowing the home is probably dense with solitude, even as they would not want me—the child they never wanted, expected to be queer—there. Even when I hear, again, my mother rejecting me after I came out, even when I hear her telling me I was unnatural and would die alone and unable to be loved by anyone, even when I start to cry as I type this, I feel sad to think that their home is probably soundless, not the beautiful quiet of introversion, but the terrible quiet of lovelessness.
It’s strange: for so many years, that house I grew up in was loud with music, but it is the silence I hear the most when I think of it now.
The borders of nonfiction are fuzzier and curiouser than we might like to assume, as Bechdel reminds us. In its most extreme forms, creative nonfiction—nonfiction that uses the literary and craft techniques of fiction—can seem indistinguishable from narrative fiction or prose poetry. Clarice Lispector, as I’ve written, loved writing work that could exist at the margins of fiction and nonfiction, work that was both true and impossible to be true.
This idea is hallucinatorily clear in Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal 1970 description of the Kentucky Derby, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” in which Thompson—unsurprisingly—admits to getting so drunk, and generally discombobulated, that he loses sense of what is actually happening around him, culminating in a very literary moment of anagnorisis, whereby he wakes up in a stupor and thinks, for a moment, he sees a dipsomaniacal lout from the derby, until he realizes, with a start, that the horrific face in the mirror is his own, for he has become no better than the people he had initially attacked in his piece. His narration, at some point, becomes unreliable—he admits that “the last coherent decision we were able to make for the next 48 hours. From that point on . . . we lost all control of events and spent the rest of the weekend just churning around in a sea of drunken horrors”—and there is no attempt at journalistic objectivity.We will always lose more time than we can recover in art, in memories—but Fun Home is a beautiful testament to why we should try to search for that old time.
Yet it is, in some sense, nonfiction—even as the idea of an unreliable narrator in nonfiction is deeply troubling. (Of course, all narration, at some level, is unreliable, because human memory is fallible—and Thompson’s acknowledgement of a “sporadic memory,” worsened by his inebriation, makes this all the more overt.)
Thompson’s piece led to the coining of the term “Gonzo journalism,” which encompassed a distinctly blunt, non-objective, explicit, decorum-spurning form of newspaper writing, eschewing the polite standards of the genre. For Thompson, writing so freely—not “like the New York Times”—changed what he thought journalism could do. “It was like falling,” he memorably wrote, “down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids.” That Thompson compares the event to a mythical being is perhaps fitting, given that his take on the Kentucky Derby sits uneasily in the category of nonfiction; it purports to be nonfiction, yet it is difficult to take everything in it as true.
Fun Home plays with nonfiction differently from Thompson. It feels true; it simply also feels, deliberately, like a novel in certain moments. Autobiographical comics, like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, are at once true to life and distinct from it, as we must convert and curate the images and atmospheres of our memories into sequential images and text. Writing is always translation, of course, distilling the dense rains of every moment of experience into something cleaner and clearer. Fun Home is a paean both to the vastness of creative nonfiction—text or comic—as a genre and to the fact that life can teach us as much about fiction as fiction can about a life.
Fun Home is not linear; it unfurls and recurls, circling, always, around the question of who Bechdel’s complex, multifaceted father was and, more broadly, what her home and family mean to her, then and now. On my reread, this felt slightly repetitive by the time I was 100 pages in, but it also makes sense—and it spoke to me differently, now, in the way that books always change for us as we change, ourselves. Books are never static; they become what we need, or no longer need, as we grow, shift, uncurl.
Like Pirandello’s dramaturgical characters in search of an author, Bechdel was in search of an answer, in search of a narrative, in search, like Proust and her father alike, of lost time. The fragments she has captured—frozen, yet warm—make up her book. We will always lose more time than we can recover in art, in memories—but Fun Home is a beautiful testament to why we should try to search for that old time, anyway.
I will reread it one day, I know, and it will stir up my own blue-purple memories, again; I wonder where I will be, then, and if it will hurt or heal, and if I will have found a new, less silent place to call home.
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