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'Home' is where the art is

Exact, poignant drawings make memoir unique

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
By Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin, 232 pp., $19.95

It's been a rough year for memoirs. Augusten Burroughs was slapped with a lawsuit alleging that he had misrepresented some of the people he wrote about in ``Running With Scissors." The LA Weekly revealed that Navajo author Nasdijj is a white man by the name of Tim Barrus. And then James Frey was verbally flogged on national television and forced to admit he had vastly exaggerated his deeds and misdeeds. These literary scandals were an unfortunate and yet predictable result of a longstanding trend in memoir writing. Indeed, in their rush to surpass previous bestsellers' tales of abuse, many authors have upped the ante, almost daring those who wrote before them: ``You think you've had it rough? Wait until you read my story." The trouble is that the books that come out of these pity parties do not give the reader a sense of having shared an experience; they merely comfort her in not having had that experience. But there are still some writers who know what memoir should do: share the truth and rise above the pity .

Alison Bechdel's ``Fun Home" is a brilliant and bittersweet graphic memoir that chronicles the author's relationship with her formidably troubled father, Bruce. The book takes its title from the funeral home that Bruce inherited and ran. In his spare time, he restored the family's 1867 Gothic Revival house. Giving a semblance of life to dead bodies and returning its lost splendor to an old home -- Bruce was obviously obsessed with appearances. ``He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not," Bechdel writes. The deceit lasts for many years; only when Bechdel is in college does she find out that her father is gay.

In his obsession with restoring the house, Bruce inflicts years of abuse and neglect on his family. Bechdel recounts how her mother and brothers managed to survive, often by devoting themselves to art. Bechdel wrote and drew. This memoir is an extension of those childhood pursuits, an attempt to make sense of her father. In the book's opening scene, for instance, Bechdel is shown at age 8, playing ``airplane" with her father. ``In the circus, acrobatics where one person lies on the floor balancing another are called `Icarian' games." In their playful reenactment of this Greek myth, she tells us, ``it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky."

Bechdel interprets and reinterprets Bruce's relationship with his family in terms of mythical, literary, or even biblical stories. Here is Bruce as Gatsby, falling in love with a glamorous young woman and living in Europe after the war. Here he is as Gatsby's creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald, courting a woman through passionate love letters. Here he is as Jesus, bearing the cross he was given to carry, this sexual identity that he cannot cope with openly.

In one of the book's most poignant episodes, Bechdel describes a bout of obsessive-compulsive disorder that begins when she is 10 . Beside many other troubling rules she imposes on herself, Bechdel appends the words ``I think" to each sentence in her journal. ``Dad ordered ten reams of paper ! I think. We watched The Brady Bunch. I made popcorn. I think." She devises an abbreviation for these words, and then a symbol that she draws over entire pages of text. A few years later, when she writes to her parents to share her discovery about sexual identity, the image we are given is of the words ``a lesbian" coming out of a typewriter, whose raised ribbon echoes the earlier symbol scrawled across the journal pages.

Bechdel was born in 1960 in Lock Haven, P a. After graduating from Oberlin College, she took various jobs while continuing to work on her art. In 1983, her comic strip ``Dykes to Watch Out For" debuted in Womanews, where it quickly gained a devoted following. Currently, ``Dykes" appears in more than 50 periodicals. Ten book-length collections of the comic strip have been published . ``Fun Home" is Bechdel's first graphic memoir, and it will probably be compared with Marjane Satrapi's excellent `` Persepolis. " Both tell the story of a young girl coming of age, and both writers are master storytellers. But where Satrapi dealt with the ways in which history and world politics affected her life in Tehran and Vienna, Bechdel focuses on her father's circumscribed life. (He lived, worked, and died in an area that is no more than a mile and a half in diameter.)

The art in ``Fun Home" also distinguishes it from other books to which it might be compared. Bechdel's drawings are frighteningly exact . Over the years, she has accumulated a large amount of documentary evidence about her life -- drawings, journals, photos, and maps -- a quirk that came in handy when writing and illustrating this memoir.

Given Bechdel's father's taste for artifice, it's perhaps not a surprise that she quickly develops a strong distaste for useless ornament: ``What function was served by the scrolls, tassels, and bric- a-brac that infested our house? If anything, they obscured function. They were embellishments in the worst sense. They were lies." Fortunately for us, Bechdel has molded these lies into truth.

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