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Susan Stinson

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07:37 pm: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
I bought Fun Home this morning at Broadside Books in Northampton, where Alison will be speaking June 24. I’m going to be in Cleveland at a conference, but I marked it on my calendar, anyway (that’s how good I think it'll be). She’s traveling a lot, and the whole tour schedule is here.

The first thing that struck me about this book is its unusual beauty as a physical object: the lavish and meticulous attention that went into its creation and production. The title is presented on the book jacket as a calling card on a silver tray that, printed in foil, truly shines and is decorated with tripoint cut-outs that give glimpses of the orange hardcover underneath. On the cover itself is a drawing (I want to say rendering) of the gothic revival house that Alison grew up in, complete with paths of power lines, a cut-away view into the ground which shows the roots of shrubs and the house’s foundation, and the dark silhouettes of each member of the family in a separate circle, separate room, separate world, each intently making something, all of them contained and sheltered together, inarguably connected and profoundly alone.

I’d seen this image on the publisher’s website, but to have it wrapped around the cover, literally binding the story together in the same way that the house which was Alison’s father’s passion (“And I mean passion in every sense of the word. Libidinal. Manic. Martyred.” is the caption of a panel with a drawing of him wearing only his shoes and a pair of cut-off jeans, carrying a porch column in a posture of pained but resigned burden that suggests Jesus carrying the cross.) holds the family is especially affecting. There’s such a pleasure-filled, wrenching dance between the words and the drawings here that instead of mentioning religious imagery, I probably should be talking about loaves of Sunbeam bread, wood-paneled station wagons, Vitalis-stained headboards, Roget’s thesaurus, a Ramones t-shirt with the neck jaggedly cut out, Life (and Quisp!) cereal boxes, Smith Corona typewriters, bedsheets strewn with copies of Dream of a Common Language and Beginning with O, the strap latches that lock one year diaries with such a specific click, and Cub Cadet riding lawn mowers which even children were expected to drive in rhythmic, solitary circles to the farthest points of large yards.

Martha Nussbaum has pointed out that the precision of attention that makes for interest in a novel is a feature that both entertains and directs a reader into stances of mind and heart that are “preparation for moral activities of many kinds in life.” I’m eliding Nussbaum’s tightly reasoned arguments, and this is a graphic memoir, not a novel, but a highly engaged consideration of fiction is a trope in the book, and the controlled precision of the drawings, the story and the relationship between them is psychologically charged, literary and moving. Alison’s father had a very active allegiance to the work of Marcel Proust, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Retellings and meditations on passages from those writers, as well as passages from plays in which her mother appeared, become the ether in which the family’s stories are enacted – gathered, dispersed or echoed by observations and drawings. “But in a way Gatsby’s pristine books and my father’s worn ones signify the same thing – the preference of a fiction to reality.”

The whole family is very present in the book – Alison’s two brothers, especially in the drawings – but everything turns on Alison’s relationship with her father, a closeted gay man who died in a way that might have been suicide not long after she had come out to her parents, and also not long after her mother had told him that she wanted a divorce.

There is a storm that snaps hundred year old trees in the midst of a tumultuous period in the family’s (and – because of Watergate – the culture’s) life. As the storm starts, young Alison, shutting windows, looks out. “But there was something unusual about the way the stiff breeze inverted the leaves of the silver maples outside my bedroom. Their pale undersides glowed in the odd, green light.” The narration has already made it clear that she’s fond of “invert” as an “antiquated clinical term” applied to homosexuals, specifically to her father and her, and inversion is a beautifully tender element in the structure of the book as well. But when I read this reference to the “odd, green light” on the undersides of the leaves, what I thought of first was the wash of green on the leaves of the book. No matter how much anyone writes about it, you can’t get a true sense of the barbed and graceful life in this book (visual and otherwise) without looking at it, reading, and then looking again.

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[User Picture]
Date:May 23rd, 2006 11:58 pm (UTC)
I can't wait to get hold of this book. I think I'm going to buy it in Provincetown when I'm there next month, at Womencrafts or Now Voyager.

(Unless I happen to wander into Howard's or Boxcar Books, our remaining indie stores here, and happen to see it... because there's no way I will be able to actually lay my hands on it and NOT bring it home immediately. I know this already.)

Thanks for your thoughtful review!
[User Picture]
Date:May 24th, 2006 12:55 am (UTC)
Writing in Ptown with Fun Home for company and inspiration sounds idyllic.
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