A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Modernism and Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home’

Alison Bechdel compares her personality with her father's as a series of opposing philosophies.

Alison Bechdel compares her personality with her father’s as a series of opposing philosophies.

With a piece as complex and layered as Alison Bechdel’s biographic exegesis Fun Home, it can be difficult to find a place to start. I could tell you that she is a cartoonist with a long running lesbian-themed comic strip called ‘Dykes to watch out for’, that she spent seven years writing and illustrating Fun Home, but everything you really need to know about her, you learn in the book itself. So where do we go next? Literary intertextuality? Metatextuality? Modernism? Queer theory? Bildungsroman? Narrative form? That we should even engage in literary criticism of Fun Home is interesting, because the college-age Alison tells us that she finds ‘literary criticism to be a suspect activity’ (206).

Literature helps to provide a metaphorical framework for Bechdel to tell us the story of herself and her father. Via books in university, Bechdel comes to an understanding of her own sexuality. In many of the sexually explicit frames, we see her with a book close to hand or a literary parallel, from James and the Giant Peach to Ulysses. Using books to find herself, Bechdel uses books to find her father, and we, the reader, are along for the ride. Literature places on us, as readers, the expectation of a reading history, to be able to decipher her abstractions. Alison the Narrator and the Character connected to her father via literature, their ‘currency’ as she calls it (p. 200), the only symmetry between the two that we are shown besides their sexuality; everything else between them is a war of opposites: ‘I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his Nelly. Utilitarian to his Aesthete’ (p. 15). Near the end she tried her explain her desire to ‘claim’ her father as gay, in a ‘reverse Oedipal Complex’, and that perhaps she should not try to figure out what her father was (p 230). Metaphor is all that she is left with. Bechdel parallels her father’s life with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, an unfolding tragedy, even to the point of counting how long they lived (Fitzgerald lived three days longer than her father – p. 85), as if there were some answer in there, some explanation to his death. Bechdel speculates that this coincidence is a ‘deranged tribute’, that her father had timed his death. She doesn’t want this to be so, because she has built up a connection in her own mind, that she was in some way responsible for her father’s death, and considers this a link with her father, and any link with him will do for Bechdel.

The literary intertextuality of Fun Home is palpable. Narrator Alison herself tells us in chapter three that ‘I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms’ (67). We see Tolstoy on the very first page. Each chapter title is derivative of a piece of Modernist literature, and I want to give you Patricia Waugh’s idea of Modernism from her work Metafiction: ‘In the case of nineteenth century realism, the forms of fiction derived from a firm belief in a commonly experienced, objectively existing world of history. Modernist fiction…responded to the initial loss of belief in such a world’ (p. 6). Bechdel’s Fun Home is a tale of loss of belief in objective reality. What she thought she knew about her father, about her mother, about herself, became distorted in the fun house mirrors as she matured, despite her fervent attempts to see truth in all things. Fiction becomes her last bastion of finding veracity.

‘Old father, old artificer’ is from chapter 5 of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. ‘Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead’; Stephen Dedalus’s closing words in the novel, and invocation to his father, and his namesake of Greek legend, Daedalus, to make him a master artist. Bechdel herself is setting out to do the same, seeking a voice as an artist, self-consciously evoking Joyce as an artistic ancestor. And she also, in the first page of chapter two, refers to her father’s death as ‘his consummate artifice’ (p. 27) – his greatest creation. She has twinned Joyce with her father. Yet which one of them is Daedalus, and which is Icarus? Bechdel herself continues to contemplate this conundrum.

‘A Happy Death’ is Camus’s first novel, which Alison lays out for us in detail, paralleling her father’s death with the main character, Patrice Mersault, even highlighting her own evolution of thought about her father with Camus’s words: ‘we always deceive ourselves twice about the people we love – first to their advantage, then to their disadvantage’ (p. 28). Her thoughts throughout rage back and forth between trying to love and honour her father, and acknowledging the deceitful life he led, affecting all those around him. Of course, there is also the irony, because Patrice’s death and her father’s death were anything but happy. They were only a release.

‘That old catastrophe’ comes from the Wallace Stevens poem ‘Sunday Morning’, in the poetry collection Joan, Alison’s girlfriend, selects from Bruce Bechdel’s library, and it’s Alison’s mother’s favourite poem, we’re told. ‘That old catastrophe’ is supposed to be the unravelling of Bruce Bechdel’s life and family, his death merely being the end of the string. And though we’re given the first stanza in the dialogue, the second holds even more meaning for us as readers, and perhaps for Helen Bechdel herself: ‘Why should she give her bounty to the dead?/What is divinity if it can come/Only in silent shadows and in dreams?’ Alison’s mother has given her life over to a dead marriage for decades, and found no salvation, divine or otherwise, from the emptiness of this life. Interestingly, though, while Alison refers to it in a very Catholic context, Stevens himself described ‘Sunday Morning’ as “simply an expression of paganism.”

‘In the shadow of young girls in flower’ in a Proust title, second of the seven volumes that compose A la reserche du temps perdu, ‘In search of lost time’. It is considered to be the longest novel in literature, and often touches upon the theme of involuntary memory, like the a taste of smell that suddenly throws you into your past without consciously calling it up or evening knowing that the memory was there. Flowers form memories of Alison’s father, both from being forced to garden, and from their presence in the funeral home, hiding the pervasive smell of formaldehyde. Alison relates the colours, the peering through hedges, the vibrancy of Proust’s floral prose to her father, and then both literally and figuratively, calls him a ‘pansy’. ‘In the shadow of young girls in flowers’ as a work of Proust, and as a part of Bechdel’s life, explores separation and emergence; for Alison, her permanent separation from her father, and the emergence of herself as a lesbian.

‘The canary-colored caravan of death’, the title of chapter 5, is not exactly a modernist derivative, but from Kenneth Grahame’s children’s novel The Wind in the Willows, illustrated by E.H. Shepard. The canary-yellow caravan is mentioned in chapter 2, ‘The Open Road’, with Frog bragging that his gypsy caravan is ‘real life…embodied in that little cart. The open road, the dusty highway’. The irony of this is, as Bechdel explains to us, that her father never travelled much after his military tour in Europe, that he lived much of his life in a radius of a few miles. This chapter also introduces Bechdel’s struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder, and the revelation that her father might have suffered from it to some degree as well, thus his inability to cope with his daughter colouring the caravan her favourite colour, midnight blue, and not canary yellow. The title bears two meanings, both the sense of dying that obsessive-compulsives can feel when something is out of order, and the death of Bechdel’s sense of colour, as we’ve discussed.

‘The Ideal Husband’ is of course derivative of Oscar Wilde’s play ‘An Ideal Husband’ from 1895, a comedic stage play based on blackmail and betrayal. And of course, this is meant ironically, because Bruce Bechdel is anything but an ideal husband. At this point in the text he is fighting to keep the secret of his homosexuality, but suspicions are rising, just as they did for Wilde. Wilde’s exposure as a homosexual, his imprisonment and public disgrace, ultimately led to his death within a few years. And thought Bruce Bechdel was never publically exposed, the presumed unravelling of his life, via divorce and his daughter’s own confession of being a lesbian, led to – in Alison Bechdel’s opinion – his own death. As Mrs. Cheveley informs the ideal husband in this play, ‘Sooner or later, we have to pay for what we do.’ Bruce Bechdel certainly pays up. However, it is actually Wilde’s other well-known play, though, The Importance of Being Earnest, that builds the literary parallels in the penultimate chapter, which Bechdel’s mother acts in for the local theatre production, spurring Alison’s love of Wilde, before she knew of his rueful fate. She tried to emulate him in her ‘earnest’ diary entries, but eventually gives it up after admitting to her mother that her period has started, and her father has finished his court-order psychiatric sessions. She has confronted her aporetic diary entries and given up on them.

‘The Antihero’s journey’ is our last look at Bruce and Alison Bechdel, who said in an interview that ‘the first and last chapters reference Joyce, like bookends’. Father and daughter are the antiheros in this Joycian saga. In a letter where he seems to come out to Alison, and yet does not, he writes ‘I am not a hero’ (p 230) because he recognises that he cannot ‘take sides’, he cannot admit his homosexuality. Ands much as Bechdel tries to love and sympathise with her father, at this point she also remembers him as a ‘malevolent presence’ from her early years, the one that would rather fix a loose nail than play with his children, the one who hit his kids if some part of that immaculate house was out of place, the one who was irate if his daughter did not wear a hair clip. This is not a hero. Only as an intellectual companion do they develop a relationship later in life. The irony of discussing Catcher in the Rye in their high school English class – and the scene were Holden rejects his teacher’s advances – compels a supra-narrative note in the image: ‘awesome capacity for cognitive dissonance’.  Bechdel does not narrate this possible relationship between student and teacher, merely puts the implication on the page as brief notation. However, this is the start of their intellectual connection, from high school English class to her studies in college, which brings them together over Joyce, one of the last texts they share together. Though we see only a little of it in the illustrations, Bechdel admitted in an interview, ‘I wrote all over that copy of Ulysses. It was a sort of fuck you. A fuck you both to my dad and to James Joyce because it was such an annoying book to read… I didn’t want to treat the book reverentially.’ At the same time, though, there is a dichotomous disgust and empathy with Joyce. When she tells her father that she is reading Portrait of an Artist he tells her, ‘Good. You better damn well identify with every page’ (p. 201). As much as she tried to get away from English, the subject sucked her back in, compelled her to study Ulysses, and once her father was gone, I think Bechdel continued to keep the memory of her father, the man she never quite connected with, like Stephen and Bloom, alive via literature. The story of Icarus and Daedalus is retold, and she claims that her father is there to catch her, but really, the roles are reversed, aren’t they? Bruce Bechdel is Icarus, who falls into the sea, and Alison is Daedalus, the inventor. Critics have said that Fun Home is actually a retelling of Ulysses via her own life experience and the medium of the graphic novel; Alison is fatherless Stephen, Bruce is the childless Bloom, not two ships passing in the night, but two old acquaintances who don’t quite know how to stop and greet each other.

It stretches beyond her own self-reflection, though, because by citing the likes of Camus, Joyce and Fitzgerald, Bechdel is also comparing her work to theirs, adding herself to the cannon of Modernist literature. Not a literal contemporary, but certainly a spiritual one. She is acting to legitimise the graphic novel form by placing her work in such esteemed company and daring readers to flex their intellectual muscles. Even interviewers have admitted to having to reach for a dictionary once or twice to grasp the vocabulary. This tremendous focus on its literary aspects can obscure what may seem the more discomforting aspects, though, in that Fun Home is written by a lesbian about her homosexual father in an age of rapidly changing perceptions about a heteronormative society. Maybe Alison is masking all of this herself; we rarely look at our lives and those around us and start forming intensive literary metaphors. This was a construct, a seven-years-in-the-making construct, and for all of its beauty, we have to remember that it is a narrative designed from Bechdel’s own experience in psychoanalysis, learning to view her life as a dream. This is why she once admitted to an interviewer that she could not have ‘told this story without images’, because dreams are as much imagery as they are language.

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