If you’re reading this, I’m going to take a wild guess and assume that you’ve heard of the Bechdel Test. If not, check out this Anita Sarkeesian video, which explains it perfectly. (If you haven’t heard of Anita Sarkeesian, check out the rest of her Feminist Frequency videos; they’re great).
However, even if you’ve heard of the Bechdel Test, you may be less familiar with Alison Bechdel, the lesbian cartoonist credited with creating it (though she humbly claims she borrowed the idea from her friend Liz Wallace).
Alison Bechdel is the creator of the long-running American cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran for 25 years in various newspapers and was collected into eleven published volumes and a “best of” collection, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. However, she is also the author of Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, graphic memoirs that deal with her relationships with her father and mother, respectively. In this post, I’m reviewing her first novel, Fun Home.
Fun Home was published in 2006 to amazing reviews; it was even named Best Book of the Year by the New York Times. Subtitled “A Family Tragicomic”, it chronicles the author’s relationship with her closeted father, an English teacher, funeral home director, and amateur historical restorer, alongside her own coming-out process and artistic development. It’s a book that pretty much defies genre, being simultaneously a memoir, a biography, a graphic novel, and an incredibly metafictional work, referencing literature ranging from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Lesbian Nation by Jill Johnston to E.H. Shepard’s The Wind in the Willows.
Fun Home is unique in the way it bridges high and low culture, bringing together classic literature and cartooning, and also for its distinctive internal structure, which is recursive, rather than chronological, circling again and again back to central, traumatic events. These reoccurring central events, primarily her discovery of her sexuality, coming out to her parents, the revelation of her father’s homosexuality, and the news of her father’s death, though intensely personal and often painful, are handled with humour, and a tangible self-awareness.
As a newly-out lesbian, an English Literature major, and an avid reader, this book spoke to me on so many levels. The artwork is simple, black and white with just some slight blue shading, but Bechdel also integrates several hand-drawn replicas of old family photographs. And while the textual references might be difficult to follow for those not studying classic literature, Bechdel weaves the narrative so deftly that you feel you know these books without having read them.
All in all, I’d give it a solid 4½ out of 5. This is an absolutely incredible piece of literature, at once both incredibly moving, superbly written, and refreshingly intelligent. Look out for a review of Are You My Mother? next week!