Pennsylvania lesbian conducts frank investigation into late father’s preference for closet
One of the many delights of graphic novels is what with them being so hard to produce, requiring not one but two rare talents, and seeming to drain the ability of graphic novelists to produce more than one work a decade… is that one stands a real chance of keeping up with them.
Unlike in the regular book world, the one of words alone, and where hundreds of new titles shove their way into the bookshops (a quaint concept, I know) every day, graphic novel output is still in the equivalent of the early printing press years.
Which means that great graphic novels remain front and centre for a long time, waiting not so much to be discovered as got round to.
One of the unavoidable stops on the GN journey is still Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), her memoir of growing up among the cadavers in a small town Pennsylvania funeral parlour (that’s the fun home – you weren’t expecting hilarity, were you?), discovering that she’s gay, and discovering that Dad is too.
By the time that last revelation receives a thorough airing, Bruce Bechdel, high school English teacher and mortician, has already been flattened by a bread truck and buried in the town cemetery, a death that leaves Alison supremely unmoved.
The book unfolds then as this narcotic tugging of uncomfortable strings, a combination of stories pieced together through the unfashionable medium of memory and the cautious edge/lurch of growing up. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards – surely this is most people’s sense of memoir; fragmentary, vexing, but all the more intense and detective for it.
Eventually Alison tells how she balls up the courage to timidly extend a compassionate hand to her “manic-depressive, closeted fag” father, having come out herself.
Only Bruce isn’t able to take it, and slides back into his manic-depressive closet.
His daughter, post mortem, finds possible interpretations while confronting another of life’s bigger challenges: trying to read James Joyce. “How could he admire Joyce’s lengthy libidinal ‘Yes’ so fervently and end up saying ‘no’ to his own life?” she wonders. “I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is a kind of death.”
Very good, Miss Bechdel. A+. Would anyone else care to add to that?
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. Jonathan Cape, £12.99