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Coming to Terms with a Loving and Truthful Future

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

The book recommended in this Radio Readers BookByte may contain content that may not be suitable for all audience members. Reader discretion is advised.

How do we come to terms with the people and events in our life that defy convention? How do we navigate the complexities of love, trauma, and grief as we narrate our own journeys? What does it mean to painstakingly memorialize our fathers, and perhaps more difficulty, how would we go about navigating something as fraught as the truth of their lives?

These questions form the heart of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, my choice for this year’s summer read and the perfect book to kick off your Pride Month reading. While listeners may have encountered Bechdel through her eponymous “Bechdel test,” or through the success of the Broadway musical adaptation of Fun Home, I find myself continuously returning to the graphic novel itself, one of the true masterpieces the genre and a text potentially of great importance to the readers and listeners of High Plains Public Radio.  Fun Home is a memoir that explores Bechdel's relationship with her late father Bruce, as Alison traces her journey of self-discovery as a lesbian and seeks to understand the secrets her father harbored about his own sexuality.

Early in the graphic novel, Bechdel describes her father, Bruce Bechdel, as "an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of decor." Notably, the over-ornamentation the young Alison so despises in her father's renovation of their home, Bechdel the author similarly channels in her written text. While Bechdel's images are spare in their color palette, she juxtaposes her cartoon and photorealistic drawings with a hyperbolically purple prose, asking the reader to reflect on the ability of words and artifice to accurately reflect memory and reality. At several points in the graphic narrative, Bechdel shows words in the dictionary with sparse, unsatisfying definitions. In this project her search for a more authentic meaning of two of the words she contemplates, "queer" and "father," require her to go past the increasingly menial literary realm and instead rely on graphic narration to navigate those murky semiotic waters and inch closer to something resemblant of an authentic truth.

Eventually, Bruce does succumb to the many deaths of living closeted in a rural space. And while Bechdel makes clear that part of her project is potentially “to render my senseless personal loss meaning by linking it, however posthumously, to a more coherent narrative. A narrative of injustice, of sexual shame and fear, of life considered expendable" her brutal honesty in the relation of her father’s likely suicide, her searing discussions of all of his worst qualities, and her tender reflections of their tenuous, yet meaningful connection, all allow Bruce's story to resonate beyond just those who knew him. In Alison's journey, audiences are able to encounter and plot their own journeys of self-discovery, and in Bruce, they can locate the personal in the political repression of queer peoples and their realities that continue to this day. In the final panel of the narrative, Bechdel explains that like the tragic figure of Icarus, her father did succumb to his own inclinations toward tragedy. Nonetheless, she claims, "But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt." In this sense, Bechdel's entire book project functions much like Bruce in this final panel, it makes the first leap for and with its queer readers, affirming their experiences and realities while offering to catch them on their difficult jumps to a more hopeful, loving, and truthful future.

Matt Kliewer
Matt Kliewer

Matt Kliewer, originally from Cimarron, Kansas, is a professor of humanities. He holds a doctoral degree in English literature from the University of Georgia. His scholarly writing has appeared in The Georgia Review and Transmotion. Additionally, he served as an editorial assistant for the anthology When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry.

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