Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: Filtering Childhood Memories

Fun Home: A Family TragicomicFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am amazed that after all these years, I still identify so strongly with Alison Bechdel. I always enjoyed her characters from "Dykes to Watch Out For" and found them quite appealing. Of course, I am a gay man and "Dykes" was written from a lesbian point-of-view, but I could still relate to the human drama of people struggling to live their lives with integrity. And besides, I have always aspired to create art and work in bookstores. I managed to even do that in my twenties, which has been very satisfying.

So I was very happy to hear about Bechdel publishing a personal and true story about her coming out as a sexual adult in "Fun Home" (FH) several years ago. It has taken me quite a long time to get to reading this book, but allow me to feign excuses based on my gender and sexual identity. What I did not expect was to find an even closer relationship with a fellow artist and storyteller.

In FH, Bechdel focuses almost exclusively on her relationship with her father, almost to the detriment of telling her own story. But I've always found her to be a fairly truthful and modest public personality. She does include herself in her stories but often presents her stand-in as self-effacing. Her "Dykes" author-character, exhibits the most neurotic and personal emotions that any artist might express in a confessional comicbook, even while fictionalizing her own life stories. Reminds me of Woody Allen, a bit. But Bechdel also understands enough about narrative to step away and allow the stories to develop without editorializing.

FH is a sober book, though, so you expect to find wistful reminisces about the high points of a personal life. You do get those reminisces but filtered through a very adult sexual sensibility that only comes from sifting very finely through old photographs, diaries and memories. I love that her main objective is to present herself and her family as baldly human as possible. Still, we see her adult self wrestle with the adolescent exhibition of an effected mental illness.

While a little madness throughout life effects us all, the truth Bechdel uncovers is not only disturbing but lies just under the surface of the facts. She neither recoils from them or waves them about like some emblem of sanity. At one point she even coolly describes her Fruedian childhood fear at encountering a snake in a pool of water. All the same, what she reveals is a very normal if still unique family portrait, which is all too common and from my own perspective, strangely familiar. I cannot help but identify with and ponder the various items on display.

My father was a closeted gay man, too and in FH, Bechdel shows her father as a divinely flawed human being, limited by his inability to grasp his desires and yet totally successful at sublimating them. I also remember the same emotional distance from my own father growing up that Bechdel states as such a particular element of her relationship with her own father. When it becomes clear towards the end of the book that he eventually drops his pretense, we can see how sometimes there are details even his own daughter can't scrape up from the clues he left behind.

Still, my father didn't exhibit the quintessential fussiness that Bechdel's father used to manipulate his children to his stereotypical will, and yet my father did manipulate us in his own way. We didn't need clues to know he was closeted; there always seemed to be plenty of information, but my mother and the other adults in our lives generally ignored it. Acknowledging a truth like this is always painful enough that you avoid using it, like a wounded limb.

And in the end, a short time after Bechdel comes out to her parents as a lesbian, her father is killed by a truck while crossing a road. Rather than make the whole book about this one incident, she mentions it again and again, almost in-passing, piling up the details, like a "macguffin" which allows her to reveal her personal memories of growing up. The difference for me is that my father is still alive and came out as a gay man soon after I came out to my parents in college.

The parallels between our two different lives are uncanny and yet speak to a larger truth about the combined narrowness and width of our generation, sometimes called the "lost" generation. There are several years between us, but at the same time our lives are both uniquely American and of a time between the Sixties and Seventies. I think this book is going to haunt me for a very long time. And if I ever meet Alison in person, I'm not sure I will know what to say. I might just give her a big hug and say simply, "thank you."

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