Gothic Revival

Old father, old artificer: Tracing the roots of Alison Bechdel's exhilarating new "tragicomic," Fun Home

Alison Bechdel's book tour for Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic first brought her to New York City on Father's Day. At the lesbian bar Cattyshack, as the crowd for its Sunday BBQ streamed back and forth from the outside deck, Bechdel greeted fans, signed copies, and projected images from her book onto the interior brick wall. As she was leaving three days later—after a series of packed appearances—the city was gearing up for Pride. The timing, though unintentional, is "kind of perfect," she told me over coffee on Christopher Street, where her mother lived as a young woman in the 1950s and was often visited by Bechdel's father when they were courting.

"How much did my mother's milieu factor into his attraction?" Bechdel asks in Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin, 232 pp., $19.95), a graphic memoir about growing up gay with a mercurial—and closeted— dad. "Had he somehow conflated her with her address, like Proust's narrator had with Gilberte and the garden?" Bruce Bechdel ultimately committed suicide in 1980, only months after his daughter came out as a lesbian. (Bechdel said that she and her mother "have a consensus" that he purposely jumped backward in front of an oncoming Sunbeam Bread truck.) Bechdel, 45, lives in Vermont and has been publishing her syndicated Dykes to Watch Out For strip since 1983. She started the book at a point in her life when her father had been dead for as long as she had known him when he was alive. Combining appealing, crisp black line art with gray-green ink wash throughout its seven chapters, it is an extended reflection on what lay under the surface of her parents' lives when the Bechdel clan lived together in an old Gothic Revival house in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania (population 800).

Two days after Father's Day, at a reading at the LGBT Community Center in the West Village, Bechdel said that the book "feels like a proper funeral for my father." And yet nothing feels resolved about the masterful Fun Home. Like the irony that holidays marking recognition of respect for one's father (the book's knotty subject) and respect for one's sexuality (a feat he never accomplished) sandwiched Bechdel's appearance in New York, Fun Home is an enormously successful work because it hinges on the shades of complexity in the relationship between the author and her paternal subject—the anger and the identification. In narrative content and, crucially, in its form and intricate process of production, the book registers the never-not-thorny reality that Bruce Bechdel—a closed-off, petty tyrant who valued his children for "the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit"—was both, as Bechdel told me, "an inhibiting influence and a very, very encouraging one."

Bechdel indefatigably researched her family during the seven years it took to create Fun Home, whose title refers to their common abbreviation for "funeral home." When her mother found out she was doing a book, Bechdel was cut off: " 'No more information about your dad,' " Bechdel remembers her saying. "She felt quite betrayed. And justifiably so. Essentially I used information she had given me in confidence over the years." Currently, although "it's painful for her to have the information out there," her mother, Bechdel said, "also understands writing and the imperative of storytelling, and there's a way that she respects the project, despite her discomfort."

Fun Home 's narrative is recursive, not chronological—it returns again and again to central, traumatic events, such as the phone conversation in which Alison's mother reveals to her that her father slept with the former babysitter Roy. Most dazzlingly, it is intricately presented through the lens of the literature that Bechdel's father—a high school English teacher, Victoriana-obsessed home restorer, and part-time undertaker—most loved. Alison's parents, she lets us know, were emotionally distant people who refracted—for better or for worse, but probably for worse—their own experience through literature. As she puts it in the book, "the line that Dad drew between reality and fiction was indeed a blurry one." In early romantic letters included in the book from her father to her mother, we see ample evidence of this. On Fitzgerald: "He reminds me much of myself." On the protagonist of Fitzgerald's "Winter Dreams": "He is me." On Faulkner, in a later letter to Alison: "Faulkner is Beech Creek. The Bundrens ARE Bechdels." And, finally, on Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to Alison: "You damn well better identify with every page."

While most prominently engaged with Joyce in its first and last chapters, Fun Home also takes on as thematic and narrative filters Camus (A Happy Death, the book Bruce Bechdel was reading when he died), Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), James (Washington Square; The Portrait of a Lady), Stevens ("Sunday Morning"), Proust (Remembrance of Things Past), Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest), and Colette (Earthly Paradise), among others. It's a riveting narrative conceit, in part because it appears, at least on the surface, to cede to the kind of emotional distance that Bechdel seems to critique in her own family. As cartoonist Howard Cruse, former editor of Gay Comix and creator of the acclaimed graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, points out, "It's both a way of standing back from and contemplating the family dynamics, and also, it itself is the family dynamics."

Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets