It would be nice to think that if we all kept careful records of our lives—an exacting collection of diary entries, ticket stubs, credit card statements—we could turn out an account as wonderful as the dark gem that is Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home. But that's just not likely. For one, Bechdel, well known to alt-weekly readers for her perpetually agitated comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, starts with the advantage of a fascinating pair of parents. But there's also her own uniquely compassionate, yet skeptical, view of them—a perspective that would easily turn to cheap humor or bitterness in the hands of a more eager-to-please memoirist.
Starting and ending in small-town Pennsylvania, Fun Home lightly leaps through Bechdel's adolescence, young adulthood, and slow sexual awakening. Although Bechdel's mother—a New York-trained actress who never quite seemed at home—makes for a fascinating presence, it's the rippling frisson between father and daughter that charges the book like a dynamo generator.
Bechdel's father is a study in fractured identity. A family man in public, he's artless about hiding his affairs with the male students who lounge threateningly about the house. Drawn by Bechdel with a lean build and sad, drooping eyes, he spends the better part of his life fretting over the family home, a monstrous old Gothic revival. The restoration and upkeep of this elephant is the true passion of the man Bechdel calls an "alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of decor." He dies when Bechdel is 20, a possible suicide, without ever coming clean—even after she comes out to him herself.
Though he's undeniably the center of this story, ultimately the book is about Bechdel's voice and vision. A distant yet heartbroken narrator, she records her life from afar with an obsessive exactitude. Yet she also shirks chronological rules with a dreamy, liquid shrug. (Her obsessive, Joyce-loving father surely would have approved.) Arrows and labels point to objects of interest, sometimes ironically commenting ("Honest to God, we had a painting of a cockatoo in the library"). Meanwhile, the point of view brings readers inside, either at eye level or peering slightly down on everything with a quizzical tilt.
Bechdel's prose is as finely honed as her light, precise drawings, evoking nostalgia, bitterness, and love in the space of a crowded frame or two. In one of the book's most wrenching passages, her parents take the kids to stay at a friend's Greenwich Village apartment for the 1976 Bicentennial. Fifteen year-old Bechdel is overwhelmed by the proud gay men flooding the streets: "I was as moved by my own open-minded tolerance as I was by the arresting display of cosmeticized masculinity." But then her frame shifts to the disturbing sight of her father leaving them to go out cruising, before flowing into her imagining of what might have happened had he come out before he died. Would that have made him a better dad?
It all ends in caring but helpless regret, the bookish Bechdel going to the library for answers: "What is a father? Even the dictionary conveys vagueness and distance." This is not a book of blame, though, so much as a checkered love letter for a man who isn't there to read it.