One chord in Fun Home I find especially heartbreaking, running throughout Alison Bechdel’s relationship with her father, is the detachment that leaves the man more a fictional character to his daughter than the flesh and blood presence he was. By fictional character, I mean that his emotional distance and sudden departure color Alison’s memories of him and that detachment manifests itself in the way Alison recalls him and in the order she presents the narrative. As she says on page 67, “My parents are most real to me in fictional terms.”
I find it telling that she describes her parents in terms of ill-fated fictional characters of which they are reminiscent. She stresses the literary atmosphere of her childhood, painting her father as a sort of Victorian man of letters living a century and a half too late, but the characters she chooses to relate her parents to are examples of thwarted passions and a sort of settling for the trivialities of daily life. There are the F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque letters her father writes while he’s courting her mother — a tragic precedence of a yearning for a more vivid life, since Fitzgerald burned out so quickly. Her mother is the lead in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, a character yearning for the excitement of an artistic life in Europe, yet winds up trapped in stagnant domesticity. Yet not everything is explained in a literary metaphor: the violent arguments between the elder Bechdels isn’t related to any particular work, but instead shown off panel through speech bubbles while the children listen, frightened. The literary allusions and glimpses of a family cracking apart illustrates Alison’s grim prognosis after her father’s funeral: “Dad’s death was not a new catastrophe but an old one that had been unfolding very slowly for a long time.”
In light of this long spiral downwards, I don’t believe Alison’s coming out is what caused her father to throw himself in front of the truck with the incongruous smiling Sunbeam girl on the side (an example of her often wry eye for grimly humorous detail). Rather, I’m inclined to believe that if it’s any one cause, it’s the divorce: that the shock of having his life in stasis, surrounded by his Victorian house and Victorian airs, jarred by his wife finally having had enough, is what causes everything to fall apart for him. If Helen Bechdel had stayed, and Bruce managed to keep his same-sex affairs secret, I think the situation would have stayed tense yet stable. In that light, I think he viewed his daughter’s lesbianism as either a phase or a wry coincidence to his own sexuality; while her mother is shocked and disapproving, Bruce Bechdel “seemed strangely pleased” and told her “Everyone should experiment. It’s healthy” (page 77) — an ironic reaction given that his own experiment is what is about to drive his wife out the door.
This is quickly becoming perhaps my favorite work of this semester, and a key factor in my liking of the book, despite the grim events, is the complex characterization. I’m still not sure whether to feel much sympathy for Bruce. Is he a tragic figure, stuck in a stifling marriage and unrewarding, limited life in a place he hoped to escape; or is he a more reckless character, taking out his frustrations on his family physically and indulging his passions behind his wife’s back? How sympathetic is the prodigal father?
Also, the green coloring throughout the book brought to mind an unsettling association. With my grandfather in the hospital for heart surgery, the past week I have seen an army of green scrubs, a more vivid version of the same pale green mix floating uneasily with a calming blue that colors the novel. Indeed, I am writing this in a hospital waiting room, breathing in the faint odors of disinfectant and distant disease, the same odors that Bruce Bechdel as an embalmer would be so familiar with. That surgical association is reinforced by the elder Bechdel’s funeral home management, especially the grisly, coolly anatomical panels where Alison gives him scissors while he dissects a man. In my mind, that pale green brings to mind the surgical gowns and their association of illness and examination; so by extension the surgical connotations of the coloring emphasizes that something is deeply at fault in this family, and that it will take deep examination and painful treatment in order to find, and hopefully remedy, what has ailed this family, coloring our narrator’s background.