In which I read a graphic novel… and give it a surprising A+!

Graphic novels aren’t my thing. I never read them.

Well, actually, that’s not quite true. On average I read one graphic novel every three… three what? three months? No. How about three years? No again. More like once every three decades.

Nevertheless, I accepted a recommendation to read Alison Bechtel’s Fun Home, and I am so glad that I did, as it has altered my view of this literary form. You probably knew this already, but I had viewed the graphic novel as nothing but a glorified comic book. Now this one isn’t actually a graphic novel, as it’s a non-fiction memoir, but close enough. The important point is that it’s neither a comic book, where almost all the action is conveyed through the illustrations, nor a text with occasional pictures, where the illustrations would be in some sense optional. Instead, the text and the illustrations are tightly woven together, so intertwingled that you simply couldn’t have one without the other. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the author is a professional cartoonist.

In one sense, Fun Home is a coming-of-age story, in which Bechdel comes to realize that she’s a lesbian, which was not a discussable subject in rural Pennsylvania in the ’70s. But it’s also a story about her Stewartian dad—more Martha than Jimmy, as she puts it. He was thoroughly in the closet—either gay or bi, it’s hard to tell—and he was fanatical about neatness, order, and a Victorian sense of beauty. He probably committed suicide, though even that isn’t at all clear. (These are not spoilers, as they are all revealed in the first chapter. It’s a memoir, not an autobiography.) The book is also filled with literary references from Proust to Joyce (Ulysses being a favorite book of both Alison and her dad).

Anyway, it’s a truly fascinating memoir, and I highly recommend it. Somehow I felt immediately drawn into the world of Fun House, even though I am neither female nor gay nor Catholic nor Pennsylvanian.

Categories: Books