Williams Reads program breaks ground by showcasing graphic novel

I have to admit, when I found out that that a graphic memoir had been selected as this year’s Williams Reads book, I was more than a bit disappointed. Book cover for Fun HomeI was vaguely familiar with graphic novels, but I had found each one I had read to be wanting. I felt that the authors and artists often “cheated,” relying on their illustrative skills rather than their words to convey ideas; such comics seemed to take away the depth that makes stories great. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, though, was a completely different experience. Perhaps it was the fact that it was a memoir or that there was clearly an investment in the wording rather than just a reliance on the pictures. Maybe it was the fact that I felt that the pictures added depth to her reflections. Whatever it was, I found myself glad that Bechdel had not compromised in the way that so many memoirists do and simply written down her story.

Fun Home tells the story of Bechdel’s formative years, placing an emphasis on both her relationship with her father (Bruce) and the development of her own identity. Bruce, a funeral home director and a high school English teacher in a rural Pennsylvania town, was a “master artificer,” a man obsessed with image who is plagued by a negative relationship with his family.  Bechdel introduces her father, the rest of her family and herself early on in the piece before jumping into the heart of the narrative. After realizing that she is a lesbian, she came out to her family – only to learn that her father was gay and had had affairs with men throughout his life. Several weeks later, and only two weeks after Bechdel’s mother asked for a divorce, Bruce died under mysterious circumstances. There was no proof that it was suicide, but Bechdel remained certain that it was not accidental either.

In the wake of Bruce’s death, Bechdel reflects on her life during the time shortly after her father’s death. The fact that Fun Home is illustrated is not the only factor that makes the memoir atypical. The story does not follow a traditional arc, but instead proves to be an explorative journey through Bechdel’s process of personal growth and self-understanding. Her writing surrounding the issues that affected her youth (and inevitably affect her adulthood as well) is exceptionally articulate. Although any person interested in creating a memoir must self-reflect, Bechdel seems to have thoroughly considered each word she wrote before choosing it for publication – a notion hinted at in one string of comic panels, wherein she illustrates her frustration with a college English professor who marked up her paper and told her that “is” was the wrong word. Meanwhile, the illustration embolden words. Rather than fill in the gaps with descriptive language, Bechdel conveys her thoughts bluntly, using the panels to flesh out the scenes in such a way that one understands her meaning more clearly than if she had simply described the scenes.

The panels do more than that, however – they speak to the fundamental processes of memory. Although we tend to describe memories with words, we are often asked to ‘picture’ our childhoods. That is to say, we do not simply remember linguistically, but also visually. Bechdel seems to have understood this in her creation of Fun Home. The panels add a level of humanity to her narrative that make her experience more accessible and her language more pointed. She conveys that which is best understood verbally with her language and that which is best understood visually with her art; more often than not, they complement one another, reciprocally making themselves – and Bechdel’s memories – all the more clear. Moreover, the fact that they are displayed as comics lends a sort of self-awareness to the memoir; they suggest an understanding that memories are creations of Bechdel’s own as much as they are pieces of factual information she means to share with the world.

Robert White, deputy director of communications for Alumni Relations and Development and co-chair of Williams Reads 2012, agreed that “the fact that Fun Home is a graphic novel has opened up new avenues of engagement. The first, which might seem a bit pedestrian, is that Fun Home takes much less time to read than a full-length novel. That lower ‘barrier-to-entry’ means more people may actually take the time to [read the novel] and then be more eager to engage in the programming we’ve developed around it.”

The lone element of the memoir that I found a bit frustrating was Bechdel’s incessant reliance on literary allusions. They appear everywhere and are as overwhelming as they are crafty. The way she interweaves them is, I think, true to herself – Bechdel is clearly deeply affected by literature, and it would likely be disingenuous for her to try to limit the way that different novels and plays serve as a lens for her interpretation and understanding of the world. Yet, I wonder whether these references limit the accessibility of her narrative, preventing those who have never read Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald or James Joyce from genuinely understanding Bechdel in the way that such a narrative might otherwise allow.

Ultimately, I would strongly recommend picking up Fun Home. It does not take long to read; at the very least, it is interesting, well written and well drawn. It also provides an interesting take on family dynamics, sexual identity and devastating tragedy. And, perhaps most importantly, reading it might prompt critical and rewarding introspection.