Gothic Revival

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

And yet, Fun Home really is a departure from her previous work, because its narrative, shuttling between past and present, is so richly layered, and because its premise is completely nonfictional. It's also a book that shows how powerfully— and economically—the medium can portray autobiographical narrative. With two-part visual and verbal narration that isn't simply synchronous, comics presents a distinctive narrative idiom in which a wealth of information may be expressed in a highly condensed fashion. Note, for instance, the immense amount of detail in Alison's childhood home—which operates like a character unto itself. According to Ariel Schrag, an L Word writer who has been publishing autobiographical comics since she was a teenager, the house "functions like the ubiquitous presence of her father." Even in the mother-daughter scene in which Alison announces her period, "it's like her father, his relationship to each of them, is there as well." Composed in frames, comics also always registers a self-awareness of its own process of selecting moments for interpretation. Fun Home, like its important predecessors in the field of nonfiction comics, is not only about events in history, but also about the process of memory. "You can't talk about a graphic novel without talking about its many physical details," Bechdel noted; Fun Home's physical details function narratively, and forcefully. "I do think there's a connection between autobiography and comics," Schrag said. "It has to do with visualizing memory. Every writer incorporates their past into their work, but that act becomes more specific when you're drawing."

For Bechdel, drawing—making her literal mark—has always been important. The last chapter of Fun Home is its most brilliant, and most moving, in part because Bechdel finally surpasses her father: She becomes the artist he always wished he could be. This, in a sense, is the book's real sadness. In one scene, after her father gives her his copy of Ulysses for a college course—"Here, take this. It's the copy I used in college"—she fakes her way through the pedantic class. We see Alison in bed in a nightgown, reading the book, frowning: "What the fuck?" The narration tells us: "I had little patience for Joyce's divagations when my own odyssey [of coming out] was calling so seductively." Bechdel told me that although she's come to appreciate the book, "I wrote all over that copy of Ulysses. It was sort of like fuck you. A fuck you both to my dad and to James Joyce because it was such an annoying book to read, really. I wrote in it as I was reading. Sometimes I would draw pictures over the page. I didn't want to treat the book reverentially." Yet Ulysses, bestowed upon her by her father, comes to be, finally, in Fun Home, the opposite of the psychic burden it once represented. Bechdel uses the text on her own terms to understand their relationship: She no longer has to write over it with her own drawings, but can incorporate it into her own drawings. In the final pages, there is slippage between Alison and Bruce Bechdel as they figure various Joycean characters: first, Bechdel presents Alison as Stephen and her father as Bloom. Next Alison is shown as Bloom, contemplating his father's suicide. Then her father is suggested as both Stephen ("I'm not a hero") and Joyce himself, in his less palatable moments. When Bechdel has finished narrating the publication history of Ulysses, her book also ends: The end of Ulysses becomes the end of Bruce Bechdel. "What if Icarus hadn't hurtled into the sea?" she asks. "What if he'd inherited his father's inventive bent? What might he have wrought?" The answer, of course, is the book itself.

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