When Alison Bechdel was a child, she witnessed precisely two displays of affection between her parents. "Once my father gave my mother a chaste peck before leaving on a weekend trip," she writes. "And one time my mother put her hand on his back as we were watching TV. On both occasions I was astonished and discomfited." Another time, Bechdel was "unaccountably moved" to kiss her father goodnight. "Having little practice with the gesture," she recalls, "all I managed was to grab his hand and buss his knuckles lightly... before rushing from the room in embarrassment."
Over the course of Bechdel's wrenchingly honest memoir, Fun Home, we are invited to plumb the depths of family dysfunction, where we discover that Bruce Bechdel's arms-length approach to family was merely the tip of a deeply sublimated iceberg.
It was only shortly before Bruce's probable suicide at age 44 that the author discovered the truth about her father: He was a deeply closeted homosexual who carried on affairs with his male high school students.
Bechdel approaches the secrecy of her father's life like a veteran boxer in Fun Home. She circles the evidence, looks for openings, moves in, then pulls back to scout for new inroads into his tortured psyche. She employs his favorite literary characters as patriarchal surrogates in her search for what made her dad tick; she reproduces old letters and photographs that he left behind; and she relates her own coming out to the troubled scene at home.
I haven't yet mentioned that Fun Home is a graphic novel because instead I wanted to emphasize the depth of psychological probing that occurs in this book. But Fun Home is a penultimate example of how astoundingly well images and writing can co-exist. Bechdel's tightly crafted drawings in faded blue ink lend unsurpassable information about her father's baroque domestic obsessions and perfectly capture his inattentive disdain toward the rest of the family. To call Fun Home an outstanding graphic memoir uses one too many words. Rather, Bechdel's haunting story is nothing short of an outstanding memoir.