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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic Summary
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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic novel memoir by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Prior to its publication, Bechdel was best known for her long-running cult comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, which followed a series of diverse characters between 1983 and 2008. One strip from the series titled ‘The Rule’ coined the Bechdel Test in popular culture, which critiques Hollywood movies for creating one-dimensional female characters.
Like Bechdel’s comic strip, Fun Home explores themes of sexuality and family dysfunction in an effective pairing of memoir and graphic artistry. The book enjoyed critical success and was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2015 that went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
The memoir chronicles Bechdel’s childhood growing up in rural Pennsylvania, where her parents run a family funeral home business. The story is told in non-linear form and is framed around the death of her father, Bruce. Over the course of the memoir, Bechdel returns to various memories, then re-examines and re-tells them as new information comes to light.
The most difficult relationship for Bechdel to reconcile with in the story is that of her father, who allegedly commits suicide by walking out in front of a Sunbeam Bread truck. Before his death, Bruce is a funeral director and high school English teacher. He’s also a closeted homosexual who has extra-marital affairs that become evident to Bechdel over time. Bruce exhibits a tyrannical rule over the household. He is cold and emotionally distant from the rest of the family, but remains a domineering figure. His relationship with Bechdel is continually tense, marred by many arguments. His two occupations allow Bechdel to focus on their relationship through literature as she examines both his life and his death. Each chapter is titled after a line from a story she and her father read, while recurring literary allusions include Bechdel’s comparison of their relationship with the myth of Daedalus and Icarus.
Despite ostensibly having much in common with her father—from a lifelong appreciation of literature to obsessive-compulsive tendencies—their relationship is very strained. In fact, Bechdel claims that they were inversions of one another with competing aesthetic sensibilities. Bechdel also postulates that they both tried to use each other to express elements of their own sexuality. Even as a child, Bechdel viewed her father as a “big sissy.” She suggests her more masculine gender expressions may have been an unconscious attempt to compensate for him, whereas his desires to express femininity through her constantly escalated their arguments.
Before his death, Bruce confesses parts of his sexual history to his daughter, which includes homosexual experiences from his time in the military as well as with his high school students. Two weeks after Bechdel’s mother requests a divorce, Bruce steps in front of the truck. Though his death is not ruled a suicide, Bechdel believes this to be true and muses over whether or not her decision to come out as a lesbian to her parents may have influenced his choice.
The rest of Fun Home is a retelling of Bechdel’s discovery and exploration of her sexual orientation throughout her life. She transcribes entries from her childhood diary and examines memories in which she fights with her family to express herself on her own terms. Examples include her argument to exchange a feminine two-piece bathing suit for a pair of shorts and the period in which she asked her siblings to call her ‘Albert’ rather than ‘Alison.’
Bechdel also deals very openly with her developing sexuality as an adolescent, and includes anecdotes about her discovery of masturbation as well as early sexual experiences with her girlfriend, Joan. Bechdel comes out at the age of nineteen, but while living as an “out” homosexual, feels that she has been upstaged when her mother reveals the truth about Bruce. Bechdel writes that rather than being the “protagonist in my own drama,” she becomes the “comic relief in [her] parents’ tragedy.” By grappling with his sexual orientation, but by continuing to live his life as a straight man (perhaps for the sake of his family, perhaps due to homophobia) Bruce’s struggle becomes the focal point of Bechdel’s childhood rather than her own.
It took Bechdel seven years to complete Fun Home, largely because of the laborious process she used to create the artwork. She took photographs of herself posing as each character, using them as the template for her illustrations. Attempts to ban the book from libraries, schools, and university curriculum have been made by conservative groups on moral and religious grounds. Challengers in Missouri successfully campaigned to have Fun Home removed from one town’s public library, but it was allowed back a few months later.
The book enjoyed widespread critical success, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, which praised Bechdel’s memoir for being “painfully honest, occasionally funny, and penetratingly insightful.”