Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

One of the many remarkable things that pulled me into Bechdel's storytelling was the slight but earnest abashment she expressed over the metaphorical coincidences that striate her story. For instance, she remarks of an uncanny array of significant events, "This juxtaposition of the last days of childhood with those of Nixon and the end of that larger, national innocence may seem trite. But it was only one of many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family during these strange, hot months." Bechdel often seems sheepish when her family's story takes on the shape of larger narratives—some from history or the news, like Watergate or Stonewall, but more from literature—Fitzgerald, Joyce, James, Proust, Wilde.

For a memoir so concerned with the characters' inability to separate life from fiction, this acknowledgement of the narrative's similarity to fictive artifice is, in one sense, necessary, a genuflection before the ideal of ungilded factuality.

Yet one wonders how necessary this gesture is, both from the side of life—isn't life complex and various enough that strong metaphorical coincidences and convergences necessarily arise by brute probability?—and from the side of fiction—don't the very works Bechdel refers to make a considerable case for a certain unabashed commingling of life and artifice? Joyce does not shrink from wielding the tremendous metaphorical power of Homer's epic; why should Bechdel deploy these grander narratives only with reluctance?

These questions are about authorship, but they burrow deeper into the story and end up being about the characters. It is not an uncommon trope, but in capable hands it is not a cliché—the notion of each person as the author of their lives, and the corollary notion that those who most self-consciously "author" their lives are readers. Bechdel's father, mother, and her young self use the shapes of fictional narratives like sewing patterns to construct their lives, though to differing degrees. Bechdel's father immerses himself in artifice, and it is clear that Bechdel fears that he was ultimately unable to draw back from also surrendering to it—her father dies a few days shy of his consummate hero Fitzgerald's lifespan, and under strange circumstances. Her mother, on the other hand, prefers acting in plays over the reading of books (a neat inversion of the values Jane Austen seems to endorse in Mansfield Park), a relegation of artifice to a limited sphere.

What Bechdel seems to desire is the establishment of a difference between allusion and typology—the difference between using foreign narratives to give the life-narrative greater depth or breadth or resonance and constructing one's life as a systematic, constant citation of another narrative. In the Biblical terms for which "typology" is most appropriate, Bechdel wants to avoid reading one's life as a sort of Old Testament in which can be found the lesser forms which are fulfilled in the New Testament of art. These terms also apply to the Odyssey/Ulysses relationship, which her father might read typologically, though she does not. Recalling a literature class on James Joyce, Bechdel remarks, "Once you grasped that Ulysses was based on The Odyssey, was it really necessary to enumerate every last point of correspondence?"

The difference between allusion and typology is also the difference between the opportunities she has to express her sexuality and the opportunities afforded her father. Her father's sexuality had to be fully encompassed or accounted for by its relationship to another narrative, each repressed longing fulfilled in another form of artifice. Bechdel, on the other hand, has the freedom to add artifice to her sexuality, to cite other possible narratives. Where her father, a closeted gay or bisexual man, had to maintain a typological relationship to heterosexuality, Bechdel's open homosexuality can include occasional allusions to other forms of sexuality—straight masculinity, most commonly.

The novel in its most triumphal form can aspire to typology, can dream of completely accounting for and fulfilling the Old Testament of life. The limitations of the printed page of words assist in this illusion, calling on the reader to rely on imagination to vivify the letters we read. We are encouraged to convince ourselves that this reliance on our imagination surmounts the radical reduction of the complexity of experience to the single stream of words across and down the page, that the images we imagine have a claim to a completeness and depth which is greater than experience.

The graphic novel's inclusion of images precludes this ambition—though we employ our imagination reading them, we are not encouraged to imagine vastly deeper worlds inside the panels. The artifice of the form is inescapable; we understand that each figure is an allusion to life. Bechdel's choice of the form is, therefore, natural, given her preferences and her concerns.

Which is not to say that her book is not alive—though I don't mean that word in any sense resembling Wood's "lifeness." What I mean is that it grows in scope, in depth, in resonance, in emotion as you read, that it is stunningly organic in its progress as a narrative. Fun Home is a truly remarkable experience.

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