Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Oh, my dog, it's been two weeks...

Sorry for the lack of updates, gang - I'm currently trying to simultaneously wean the Bean and get her sleep a little better at night. She's finally starting to do both, but I've been like the walking dead for the last month at least. Every time I've thought about doing anything more creative than cooking dinner, my brain has just gone "ugh!" and suggested eating ice cream instead.

But now Bean is sleeping through night (mostly) and I'm feeling human again, so now for my long-promised review of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

First, a three line plot synopsis: Bechdel grew up with a somewhat distant, highly inscrutable perfectionist father who revealed his homosexuality to her shortly after she came out of the closet herself. He then died two weeks later. Fun Home is Bechdel's attempt to piece together her father's life against the backdrop of her own childhood and adolescence.

My take on the novel: First of all, I must say that this is the most literate graphic novel I think I've ever read. A lot of the story telling is woven around quotations from Homer, Joyce, Colette, Fitzgerald, Wilde, and Proust. This serves to both enrich the narrative and make the reader wish she was better read. This particular plot device is central to the novel, since Bechdel's father was an English teacher/undertaker and much of their communication to each other comes in the form of books: classics that he gives to his daughter, and in her case of a copy of Kate Millet's Flying unconsciously left for him.

Bechdel weaves these literary themes around the story of her family in the 1960's and 70's, using them to try and explain her father's obsession with their elaborate Victorian house, her mother's withdrawn preoccupation with music and community theater, and the quiet weirdness of the family business (the local funeral parlor, which becomes the "Fun Home" in the Bechdel lexicon). Bechdel also uses them to elaborate on her own childhood struggles with traditional femininity, which later segue into questions about her sexual identity.

This book is a graphic novel, but more than a graphic novel. There are the usual cartoon panels, but the book is also full of original sources from Bechdel's family lore: Photoshopped passport pictures, letters in her father's original hand, and family vacation photos, all slipped into the narrative when necessary. It serves as an almost disturbing grounding for the story, constantly reminding you that these people are not a figment of Bechdel's imagination - they are as real as your own mom, dad, and siblings.

This revelation is sometime unwelcome during her recounting of her early years with her father. The man comes off as distant and forbidding - the panels almost emit the coldness and tension of life with an unfulfilled, unhappy patriarch. Bechdel manages to slowly bring the reader to an understanding with that man, probably mirroring her own journey of discovery with him, but it takes a while to shed that first grim impression. I was still wallowing in an intense dislike of him until the final section of the book.

This really is a hell of a novel. The flyleaf of Inky's copy of Fun Home lists all of the awards and recognitions it received in 2006, and it richly deserved each one. It wasn't an easy read at times, but it rewards the reader who stays with Bechdel and her struggling parents and siblings. I'm glad I went along for the ride. And I'm glad Inky gave me the wheels :)

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All right, folks, it's April, and Inky's up for the next challenge. She'll have it up ASAP. I'm hoping it involves the beach. I'm ready for summer.

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