Fun Home: A Literary Autobiography

Fun Home: A Literary Autobiography

Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir fun home is a work fundamentally predicated on contradictions and paradoxes between outward appearance and meaning even the tidal fun home a family tragicomic seems paradoxical the phrase fun home of course refers to the family funeral home which obviously is not something many of us would consider to be fun even if we consider the phrase fun home in relation to the family's actual house it is clear that their family life is not particularly fun with its episodes of marital strife and the emotional distance of her father even the nature of her book is a literary object is paradoxical through her use of literary symbolism and allusions she seems to be presenting her memoir as something to be interpreted as literature but what does it even mean to read not a biographies literature that seems like a confusing prospect on one hand we generally consider autobiographies to be something truthful an attempt to convey the nature of one's life yet on the other hand when we think of literature we tend to think of symbolism and freedom of interpretation this seems to be at odds with the idea of a factual account of someone's life by presenting her work in this fashion she problematizes the notion of an autobiography as a purely factual representation of events instead of viewing this as an unresolvable dichotomy Bechdel instead uses this juxtaposition of fact and fiction to understand her often confusing upbringing by viewing life through a literary lens she derives profound personal truths that would otherwise be unreachable this is particularly interesting as the main narrative of her work deals with the contradictory nature of Allison's father's relationship with the rest of her family in particular her father is a man whose outward appearances at odds with his inner life on the outside he portrays himself as being consistent with the conventional societal norms regarding heterosexual fathers while hiding sexual liaisons with his students even the home which her father has obsessively restored seems to fit this illusion it conforms at least visually to an idyllic vision of a conventional American house with pristine decor on the inside however this home is full of argumentation occasional violence and emotional distance Allison argues that even when her father was alive he was basically dead to her yet another paradox the fleeting moments of closeness between the two seem to be distressing anomalies in a general pattern of emotional abandonment when she tries to interpret her father's death in the context of this relationship it quickly becomes apparent the very truth of her father's death is in fact unknowable while she seems to believe at least a little bit that her father committed suicide there is no concrete evidence of this she posits various scenarios that would explain his suicidal actions but she always seems to qualify her statements describing them as unprovable speculation as she attempts to reach some sort of understanding of these events she seems to dismiss the very reliability of her words or perceptions in describing her life in particular she describes an epistemological crisis in which she must qualify everything she writes in her journal with the phrase I think eventually creating a shorthand character which obliterates her other handwriting even when she overcomes this crisis her journal is still portrayed is inaccurate the act of writing in her journal is juxtaposed with recollections of the Watergate recordings something evocative of equivocation in omission if not outright lies her journal seems to fit this theme as she is too scared to discuss her sexual experiences she instead writes about the mundane events which fill her days while these journal entries contain factual truth they do not truly express the events of those years of her life in her college years languages again problematized as when her professor criticizes her usage of the word is this is really striking something as simple as an expression of existence or equality between objects is reframed as unreliable if something is fundamental to communication as the word is lacks reliability it seems that the validity of language as a form of expression is kintyre ly debatable even her logical faculties are called into question in discussing her father's death she described it as being incomprehensible and likens it to Russell's paradox as a student of mathematics I found this to be an especially interesting analogy specifically Russell's paradox arose in the context of early 20th century mathematics when logicians were having their own epistemological crisis being concerned with the epistemological validity of mathematics as a logical undertake logicians of the 19th century tried to define mathematics in purely logical terms however Russell used his paradox to demonstrate the 19th century's logical models not sufficient for expressing mathematics in effect Bechdel seems to use this analogy to assert that not even the seemingly objective and reliable tools of logic are useful for interpreting her life if her perceptions riding and logic are unreliable then she's by extension arguing that her book is not a factually reliable expression of her life in effect she seems resigned to the fact that there's no objective truth about her father's life or death this becomes particularly striking when we consider the fact that she seems to derive most of her life's truths from works of fiction these notions of truth and falsehood along with any judgments Bechdel makes I revealed to us through the presence of her strong narrative voice that's pretty much anything outside of speech bubbles if you pay attention to the content of these captions you'll notice that they're like reflections coming from Alison the narrator that write about Alison the character an overarching theme among these captions becomes obvious Bechdel uses literature to understand her life in retrospect in fact she says that her parents were most real to her in fictional terms let's see what she means by that we can check out the very first page where she introduces her father notice her allusion with an a a homophone of sorts that becomes very important when discussing this book she references the Icarus and Daedalus Greek myth in this story a great engineer and his son built a set of wings to escape their prison island of Crete despite his father's warnings the son Nicholas flies too close to the Sun and his wings burn leaving anchors to plunge to his death remember this for later now just note that the foundation of her relationship with her father is built on ancient Greek literature now let's elaborate on those fictional terms from before in a seemingly intentional set of circumstances Alison's mother and father meet through a literary work the college production of the team the shrew she draws a parallel between the two relationships going as far as calling the play a harbinger of her parents marriage Bechdel retells her mother's trip to Europe to marry her father by alluding to Henry James's novel everything from European travel to an affair before marriage to the novel's end with a youthful and passionate woman becoming subjugated by the Convention and responsibilities of everyday life then in order to describe her father's liaisons she uses the work of French author Marcel Proust remembrance of things past is a novel that among other things is known by critics for flowers and on a sexuality but here rather than imposing her father into the book she alludes the author Proust himself Pross was also gay befriending fashionable women and falling in love with young men also mentioned in relation to a young Allison is Proustian transposition process feminine characters are best understood as referring to young men so he transposes their genders it appears propulsive that Allison would go by the name Albert the name of Proust's real-life lover whose gender was transposed to make the female character in remembrance of things past Bechdel later points out that an updated translation of remembrance coincided with her father's death suggesting a relationship between the phrase lost time and her father's suicide but perhaps an even stronger allusion to an author is her father's almost obsession without scott Fitzgerald who's Beth Dahl sees himself in Fitzgerald in various ways and eventually becomes captivated with the author's escapades and writing style he writes a letter to his wife you know when she compares himself to Fitzgerald's various characters backed out herself elaborates upon this in comparison to the great gatsby Jimmy gets a character born in a mediocre of Midwestern town who moved to New York and transformed himself into a wealthy socialite this suspension of the imaginary in the real connects both characters referring to on her father's part closeted homosexuality and being aristocracy but that suggests that her father's lifelong devotion to Fitzgerald an idea she morbidly entertains by comparing each person's age of death comes from his stories and their tragic likeness to the author's real life but we could scour through the remaining pages of fun home and find these fictional terms in the way she compares the map of her hometown to Wind in the Willows or how her college experience parallels Homer's Odyssey or House Lee closely reads her father's obituary we would probably find a references to literature on almost every page so what does this pattern say about the nature of literature in autobiography well we've already established that much of Alison's childhood was filled with uncertainty and unresolved if you find certainty then in retrospect through literature and fiction which are both inherently untrue ways of understanding reality rather than being an obstacle to understanding Allison uses the juxtaposition of truth and fiction to help tie up the loose ends and her life and find closure in the last chapter the world of fiction seems to parallel the relationship between her and her father more closely than before in particular she begins to read the notoriously difficult to comprehend Ulysses which serves as both a literal point of relation between father and daughter and as a metaphorical connection specifically she begins to view the relationship between Stephen and bloom as one parallel to that of her and her father especially the way bloom becomes Stephens metaphorical father at the same time though we notice that Allison struggles to read and comprehend Ulysses in particular she notes that Ulysses is nearly unreadable without Homeric Q's in a sense she is saying that she cannot read Ulysses without the context provided by external mythology this neatly parallels the way in which Allison views her own life she seems to come up with an understanding of the unknowable events in her life by drawing from a literary world to ascribe meaning to the incomprehensible parts of her relationship with her father in effect she is reading her own life as if it were a work of literature in particular she asserts that although there is no real proof that her father killed himself nor that his death was related to her coming out as lesbian she still believes it because she is reluctant to let go of that last tenuous bond later she says that she shouldn't pretend to know who her father was and that saying her sexual identity and her father's sexual identity are the same while she cannot know the absolute truth of her father's life she describes an interpretation to it based on science and external works just as she might do while reading a work of literature on the last page she argues that the story of her and her father are pushed forward by a tricky reverse narration implying that she looks backwards and puts a story onto the relationship between her and her father and that when analyzed in this way her father wasn't fact there for her this fits with the content of the last chapter when looking backwards she sees a variety of little signs that her father was in some painfully slight way there for her when she grew up to understand her own identity she claims to have had some idea of what he was doing when he gave her the Collette book later in a letter to Allison he makes as much of a statement about his sexuality as he can given his long life of repression moreover through their shared appreciation for literature her father attempts to connect with her taken together she seems to argue that while she could not completely understand what her father did her believed she could conclude through a close reading of her father's behavior he did in the end catcher when she took a leap of faith by coming out as gay taken in a broader context this implies that for Bechdel even through neither words pictures nor literature can completely convey the truth of life I can nonetheless conveyed truths that are personally relevant and can allow one to reach a sense of meaning and closure in their own life

3 thoughts on “Fun Home: A Literary Autobiography

  1. Interesting commentary on a wonderful book. I suspect you've already read her followup, ARE YOU MY MOTHER? by now (I enjoyed it even more than the first one). Your commentary brings to mind musicals, the most obvious one being FUN HOME, THE MUSICAL, by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, which has a marvelous cast recording on the psclassics label (very highly recommended). Then, your discussion of Proust (pronounced "proost," btw) and his Albert/Albertine character call to mind MY LIFE WITH ALBERTINE, by Ricky Ian Gordon–a lovely operetta-ish musical, which also has a good cast recording. Then, discussion of Icarus brings up MYTHS & HYMNS by Adam Guettel, on Nonesuch, a kind of song cycle–very eclectic in styles, which has a fantastic song about Icarus. Thanks for the analysis of Alison B.'s book.

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