Memoirs are often held to a certain standard of truth — whether they contain it, approach or flout it entirely — and are then criticized according to that compatibility. When Alison Bechdel published Fun Home fifteen years ago, the graphic memoir (aptly subtitled a “tragicomic”) was critically acclaimed for its profound interpretation of autobiography. Bechdel’s endeavor to deconstruct her relationship with her father, gender and sexuality, and mental health is densely literate. The book won the Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work, after all.
I’m mildly amused by that category. Fun Home is inarguably based on reality, but the relationship between events and a memoir’s comprehension of them can be tenuous. The photographer Garry Winogrand once said that a photograph must be more dramatic and beautiful than the subject it captures — it’s not a documentary, but an illusory representation. It’s helpful to consider the memoir similarly, as a simulacrum of experience, emotional truth rather than objective fact.
The discomfort lies in that there is no tangible access to the truth, in which case lived experience is not only more accurate, but the only tenable path of analysis. Even Bechdel is unsure of her representations, as one chapter demonstrates her obsessive-compulsive tic to preface diary entries with “I think.” As a thirteen year-old, she is overwhelmed by doubt; as an adult, she expresses some uncertainty (notably, whether her father’s death was accidental or suicide), but doesn’t linger on that which is impossible to know. Instead, she attempts understanding through familiar avenues.
Bechdel’s father invented himself through literature, projected himself onto F. Scott Fitzgerald and his characters to virtual mimicry. Bechdel accepts this baton, attempting to understand Bruce retroactively through his preferred medium. Literature provides the scaffolding for the memoir, and familiar myths and novels are used as shorthand for relationships and themes.
I’m personally familiar with this particular form of bonding. The Winogrand quote was told to me by my father, a fine artist whose library of knowledge about his craft rivals that of a small museum. When I was younger, we’d stand in the Impressionism Wing in the Art Institute of Chicago and he’d tell me about the letters exchanged between Degas and Cassat. I fountain the same information now, in the Met, to the chagrin of my dates. My recital is always slightly disjointed; I forget some detail relevant to the story, and feel the shame of my homage revealed by my own hand to be impersonation. I still fear misrepresenting him.
Even during years when our relationship was more fraught, we spoke about art. In college, I took art history courses to simulate a closeness that wasn’t physically possible (I’d moved across the country for my first year), satisfied when I could incorporate some fact about dadaism in phone conversation.
Bechdel’s high school English class was taught by her father. “You’re the only one in that class worth teaching,” he tells her, near the end of the memoir. “It’s the only class I have worth taking,” she responds. When she went to college, “books...continued to serve as [their] currency.” Below this, a portion of a type-written letter from Bruce to Alison — copied by Bechdel’s hand, including the original, unintentional typos.
Later on that page, college-aged Alison struggles to understand the metaphorical import of The Sun Also Rises. In one caption, she writes: “I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just read the books without forcing contorted interpretations on them.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many first-year academics, the impulse to take things at face value, lest anything be imbued with too much meaning. Of course, Bechdel is aware of this naïveté; the entire memoir is an exercise in forcing interpretation on events. But that is so much of life, or at least its analysis — trying to derive meaning from senselessness.
Identity is elusive, both in ourselves and in others. Bechdel writes that she uses literary allusions in Fun Home as “not only [a descriptive device], but because [her] parents are most real to [her] in fictional terms.”
She relies on book characters to construct the identities of those she does not truly know, because she can understand the motivations of characters and project them onto the people they apparently represent. She compares the “preference of a fiction to reality” that her father shares to Gatsby, a character of Fitzgerald’s construction, and one which signifies Bruce’s distance from his own life.
Bruce’s letters to Alison’s mother, which Alison reads, are “lush with Fitzgeraldesque sentiment;” for Bruce, the appropriation of another mind is as faithful to his own that he can be. But characters are legible in a way that real people are not, and it is easier to assign personality to a person than attempt to uncover that which is natural — that is, not performative.
And we arrive at a troubling question: how close can you really get to someone and their truth, and how well can you approximate it?
The setting of Bechdel’s childhood, and a good deal of the memoir, is almost suspiciously appropriate: a Victorian house, which Bruce is constantly restoring to its original state. Bechdel describes her father as the “great artificer,” for whom gilded reality felt most accurate. In restoring a Victorian structure, he is in effect restoring Victorianism itself: the concept of separate spheres, which Bruce so badly wanted for both himself and for Alison (see: an insistence that Alison clip her hair with a barrette and wear dresses, and the threat that a bulldyke in a diner poses to Bruce’s fragile construction of gender and sexuality).
The countless facades of the house mirror those of its inhabitants. We may be able to see the distance between the thing and its gilding, but it’s impossible to measure. The number we find will inevitably differ from that of the subject, for whom the gilt is skin.
And in Bechdel’s retelling of her history is the distance provided by time itself, which she has used to ruminate, deconstruct, investigate. The memoir is awash in blue, shades of dim that recall the past. Blue is Bechdel’s sepia — it expresses the passage of time, and the return to one that’s often unpleasant (she’s said she chose the color for its “bleak, elegiac quality”).
As she copied letters and diary entries, Bechdel also photographed herself as the characters, referencing her poses for the drawn panels. In one image from The Comics Journal, she looms over the camera’s lens in a suit and tie; the panel depicts her father from the same perspective. “In my earliest memories,” she writes, “Dad is a lowering, malevolent presence.”
But there is a difference between memory and analysis. Bechdel approaches her past with the acerbic lens that perspective has awarded her, eschewing nostalgia for steeliness. Irony functions here in order to approach discomfiting experiences.
Humor is used as a coping mechanism as Bechdel combats the dramatic and disturbing events it describes. Even the title of the memoir, Fun Home, is a humorous reclaiming of tragedy. To shorten the word “funeral” to “fun,” as the young Bechdel does in the book, is to separate the word from its definition — the funeral home no longer means death, loss, or grief, but instead becomes a place with an empty label.
There’s often a dissonance between text and image, or an attempt to drain the grief from the source: Bechdel illustrates the happy-girl-emblazoned truck that killed.” The morbidity inherent to drawing a parent’s death is contrasted by the visual depiction of a girl smiling into her bread, and the nonchalance with which the event is recalled.
In a particularly disturbing scene, Bechdel returns to the high school class she shared with her father. Bruce is teaching The Catcher in the Rye: the strip pictures him as he says that Mr. Antolini “makes a pass at Holden.” An arrow points to Bruce at the front of the class, attached to a caption that says “awesome capacity for cognitive dissonance.” Bechdel is referencing here that Bruce had “sex with teenage boys,” complex and upsetting knowledge for a daughter to have of her father that is ultimately held at arm’s length.
The psychoanalysis employed here connotes more an understanding of psychology than the person it describes. She returns to this topic often, but rarely sits with its implications; she doesn’t exactly pass judgment, engaging with the discovery as yet another unintelligible nuance of her father. The distance here may be unintentional, or at least less intentional than other scenes — there are some things about our parents that we do not want to touch, even when writing a memoir.
Like most art, Fun Home does its best to approximate the human experience, vast and symbolic as it may be. If humanity is a line, art might be an asymptote: a curve destined to reach infinitely outward, nearing but never touching its target. Someone more cynical than I might question the value of a quest deemed futile by its impossibility. But the impossibility of knowing doesn’t assuage the desperation to understand.
Miles still span between me and my father, though markedly fewer. I live on a different coast than in college, this one reachable by twenty-four hours on Amtrak. My favorite musician released a new record last week; my dad texted me to ask about my favorite songs. “I’ll give ‘em an ear,” he wrote.
It may be tempting to say that as the writer and illustrator of a graphic memoir who often uses images to explore what she cannot say, Bechdel perhaps is the old artificer after all — but that very distance between image and word, between experience and presentation, articulates truth in its own self-awareness. The memoir is a performance, its characters performances themselves.
Bechdel over-dramatizes in order to accommodate the inevitable shortcomings of her project, and in that space between exaggeration and fact, we begin to approach truth.