My purchasing decision came off the back of some glowing recommendations from people whose reading opinions I completely value. But then, as so often happens, the book got relegated to the books-I’ll-get-to-one-day shelf of good intentions.
I picked it up recently after a personally devastating few months that left me unable to tackle anything too arduous. After all, an image-led book with minimal but exquisite writing with subject matter about someone whose life was slightly more pear-shaped than my own seemed the fitting choice.
So I found myself reading the memoir about Bechdel’s upbringing and coming out. Her father, an emotionally distant obsessive house restorer, funeral home director, and English teacher, features heavily. He was gay in a time when it was wholly unacceptable to be so and the repercussions for the Bechdel family are enormous. The book also examines Bechdel’s realisation she too was gay and her emergence as a gay woman comfortable in her own skin.
Although covering subject matter vastly different from my own experiences, it proved the perfect book for an imperfect time: little enough text to give my racing mind a rest and strong enough images to help me enjoy the story in a not-too-taxing way.
At once sombre and blackly comic and containing richly wrought images I was admittedly too devastated to completely appreciate, Fun Home is unlike any book I’ve previously read.
‘Like many fathers,’ Bechdel writes, ‘mine could occasionally be prevailed upon for a spot of “Airplane”.’ That is, he was in some ways like any father. ‘…but it was impossible to tell if the minotaur lay beyond the next corner…And the constant tension was heightened by the fact that some encounters could be quite pleasant. His bursts of kindness were as incandescent as his tantrums were dark.’
Bechdel conveys the minutiae of life in ways that both provide insight and that seem bittersweet: ‘My mother must have bathed me hundreds of times. But it’s my father rinsing me off with the purple metal cup that I remember most clearly.’
Bechdel’s father died when she was 20 under circumstances that looked accidental but most likely involved suicide. This book is as much her attempt to reconcile his death as his life, and especially his emotional absence even when he was physically present.
It’s recently been turned into a Broadway production that is, by all accounts, utterly, transfixingly stellar.
In researching this blog I discovered that Bechdel has written a follow-up graphic novel. Named Are You My Mother?, a nod to the popular children’s book, it explores her relationship with her mother—something that would be complicated with any daughter and mother, but especially so given her mother was an aspiring actor trapped in a marriage to a man who was gay but who couldn’t openly be so.
It seems to fulfil the one part of the Fun Home story I felt was missing: her mother. Suffice to say, I’ll be ordering that one shortly. But this time, it’s unlikely it’ll go on my to-be-read-eventually book pile of good intentions.
(As a side note, Bechdel is widely credited with establishing the gender inequality-determining Bechdel Test, AKA the Bechdel–Wallace Test, with Bechdel preferring her friend Liz Wallace be co-credited for the concept.
Whichever name it’s called, the test involves asking whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. It was apparently intended as ‘a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper’, but has since been adopted more widely. It’s presumably helped change both the number of women included in such works and how they’re portrayed.)