Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
The art of reading and recommending books is difficult; the most lauded books can seem unutterably dull, a critical misfire can be a transformative reading experience, or a work can be important primarily in context, both respective of genre and of publication place and time. Why the obnoxious preamble? Graphic novel novice as I am, I recently re-discovered Fun Home, which had been recommended to me years ago by a professor for reasons I have since forgotten. The book is almost universally lauded by critics as a potent memoir and a poignant example of personal graphic fiction. Nor can I argue with these points. The subtle quasi-blue color palette replicates the haze of memory while providing a grounding sense amidst Bechdel's artwork, which itself tends toward the cartoony side. Despite Bechdel's drawing skill and her easily identifiable (and endearing) characters, however, the illustrations often feel more like illustrations than distinct building blocks on which to base a story. Some enhance the text or provide valuable counterpoint and punctuation to Bechdel's straightforward, powerful prose, but many simply hang listless on the page, seemingly there as a matter of course rather than necessary literary purpose. A number of these, particularly early on, have in-panel labels that could seemingly have been better handled- they usually butt in and distract from the images' internal coherence and their (sometimes already strained) relationship with the script. Bechdel certainly can't be faulted for constructing what is very obviously an intensely personal narrative in her preferred form, but the finished product may not best exemplify the advantages of graphic narrative, despite its importance (as I understand it) within the genre.
What is admirable is the verve with which Bechdel confronted and took control over her own powerful, confusing, and sometimes painful memories. Her use of recurring themes and overlapping, recursive storytelling lend to the feeling that readers are present alongside the author as she relives the memories, though the seeming necessity of implicit knowledge hampers readers' ability to immediately enter the narrative. Though Fun Home may not be the most effective union of illustration and text, Bechdel's work is clearly important in establishing that graphic novels can employ the same rich layers of metaphor and meaning as more widely respected forms of literature. The stories are grouped into thematic, occasionally repetitive, groupings that carry their themes well and related well to one another. With this territory, however, comes the occasional pretension and referential self-congratulation that haunts literary fiction. Well-intended and well-executed metaphors appear throughout the book, but the whole thing goes a bit off the deep end when Bechdel brings in ungainly references to Ulysses throughout the book's final chapter. Literature and myth are focal points throughout the novel, and Bechdel's decision to use the Icarus myth to open and close the story is majestic, but the references to Ulysses are baffling at best and the least flattering kind of pretentious at the worst. Like much of Joyce's writing, the allusions are annoying and impenetrable, intruding in on what is otherwise an intellectual, yet accessible, work. The book, characters, and story are engaging and, at times, as universal as they are deeply personal. There is no question that Bechdel has bared her soul within its pages, but Fun Home is at times hampered by its own ambitions and over-thinking.