In January of 2011 I picked up Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and could not put it down except to post an ecstatic comment about how good it was. It quickly became the book I most frequently handed out as gifts to my friends. Bechdel, the cartoonist best known for her strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” as well as for her minimum-standard feminist criteria for seeing a film, subsequently termed The Bechdel Test, is an amazing memoirist/ graphic novelist.

Fun Home is a memoir of Bechdel’s young life told in graphic novel format – especially trying to parse out her difficult, mercurial father whose gayness stayed secretive and whose death remains mysterious.

So when I heard last fall that she planned a similar book to plumb her relationship with her mother … well, let’s just say I placed an order for the book immediately. It’s no wonder I raced to finish yesterday’s piece on maternal ambivalence and We Need to Talk About Kevin, for the subjects are twinned. It’s like the most perverse Mother’s Day idea ever. I caught a glimpse of one panel from the book, a panel that hints at the relationship between the author and her mother:

So yeah, ‘scuze me while I throw myself into Bechdel’s pages. I’m turning off the phone, curling up with the blanket and a cup of tea, and letting these images and wry, terse text carry me on a psychological rollercoaster ride – to kiss the sky, and experience my stomach drop out from under me.

I’m a relative newbie to graphic novels, having read only some of the classics (Ghost World, Persepolis, Maus, The Invention of Hugo Cabret) but even I can see that Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a work of literary brilliance. And I’m still only halfway through. Like one of my other recent favorites, David Small’s Stitches, this is a memoir; Fun Home describes growing up with a mercurial — and, it turns out, mysterious — father who, in addition to teaching high school English (unhappily), helped to run his family’s funeral home, which they called the fun home. Family, death, home: Bechdel tells her story via somewhat conventional panels, not unlike her Dykes to Watch Out For strip that graces many alternative weeklies throughout the US; but don’t be fooled by its familiar format. This story, like the best memoirs, is richly layered with vivid and seemingly arbitrary memories juxtaposed with classical references and terrific insight. She makes it look easy, but it’s not. She had me from the earliest pages, in which she describes one of those quotidian childhood moments: playing airplane with her father, balancing on his feet and pretending to fly:

For Bechdel this evokes the classical myth of Daedalus and Icarus, an analogy she draws out in a graceful way over the course of a few pages even as she notes, “In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky.” I scanned that image together with the marginal notes by some previous reader of the library’s copy partly because I find it touching when readers react to the text, but also because it somehow underlines how Bechdel signals from the outset that she’s telling an unusual tale. (A few pages later this same reader wrote in the margin, “WHAT?!?” in response to an unexpected revelation.) Her father may have played airplane with his children, but he could also be explosively temperamental — even, at times, a minotaur:

Yet despite that moodiness, his hobbies were the pursuit of perfection in their house, an exacting dedication to renovation and decoration. Her father took extraordinary care to renovate their ramshackle Victorian home into a near-museum of Victoriana, with perfect crystal chandeliers, lace curtains, horsehair fainting sofas. The children had no say in the decoration of their rooms and lived with peeling paint and curling wallpapers for years. In one of the book’s most delightful mini-memories, she recalls combing through a collection of Addams Family cartoons from The New Yorker — but failing to understand the humor, she mistakes it for a cartoon about her own family, since their house seemed so identical and even Wednesday’s gloomy visage seemed nearly identical to Bechdel’s. The trick of telling such a tale via the graphic novel is getting the images and text to dance with each other, to lay out insights and revelations in alternately subtle and brutal ways in the course of telling a story with many conclusions.

More than anything else, that’s what I love about this book so far — those moments when the text diverges from the images and one starts to see that families tell themselves contradictory stories with mixed messages. In some sequences, her text tells a dark story while her images evoke something sunnier — or vice versa. Her seemingly conventional panels can be evocative of high art even as they’re deceptively simple; her text can summon a host of literary references, other narratives, other outcomes. All of this is done in the most efficient manner — the total text in a graphic novel is almost like a haiku compared with the overflow of paragraphs in a traditional memoir — but the takeaway is huge. Bechdel’s own coming-out story — so often a tale of personal triumph in other people’s lives — is only made more complex by her father’s cloaked life, his lockjaw appearance in so many of her images of him, his moody stranglehold over the family.

For this recommendation I’ve got to thank Tamcho, who recommended it and a pile of movie titles, too, under my Best Films and Recent Books lists. (Keep sending them.) Following her lead I’m sending this out as a recommendation to the rest of you.

The Bechdel Test

18 May 2010

It’s so simple.  It’s so shocking.  Three easy rules to watch for when viewing films and thinking about women’s place onscreen — originally framed in Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For,” way back in 1985, yet we’re still counting those films on our fingers.