Hey, Banned Books Week! What a fortuitous time to find Alison Bechdel's recently challenged memoir Fun Home on the shelves at work and take it home! Or not...
As a librarian, I felt a sort of professional derision for the adult student who challenged the materials assigned for a graphic novel course at a college in California this past June. I fully support the CBLDF (Comic Books Legal Defense Fund) and am against the banning of books. There are books that I don't read because they don't interest me, or I don't think I would enjoy them, or whatever. But even if something goes against what I personally believe, I would never demand that it be taken away from others, who also have a right to read it. That's called free will. Also, adulting, which this college student obviously hasn't mastered yet.
Presumably, the complaint against Fun Home has to do with content dealing with the author's lesbianism and the discovery that her father was also gay. In any summary of the book, available on any book site or in any magazine anywhere, this would be evident. I knew it going into the book.
However, I'm not going to enjoy a book to spite someone whose actions I don't approve, nor will I not call out what I see to be flaws in what is, generally, a lauded graphic novel.
My issues with Fun Home had nothing to do with Alison or her father's sexual orientation, but the sense that she felt the need to name-drop every dang existential/high-falutin'/intelligentsia author made me want to stab myself multiple times. In addition, I found it disturbing that Alison was/is so adamant that her father committed suicide, and that she backs up her assertion with highlighted passages in texts by Camus about suicide. She also wishes to believe that her coming out drove her father to be hit by a truck while crossing a highway with an armload of brush. None of this can be proven--he did not leave a suicide note, for example--but she speaks of it as truth because in an odd way, thinking that he died by suicide makes her feel ... better?
Right. Okay. I'm sure Sigmund Freud and his disciples could unpack this til kingdom come, but I haven't got that long.
In each section of the book, Bechdel uses an author as a sort of literary lodestone: all of her father's actions can be compared to the life of a certain author, or something that happened in that author's works. First it's Camus (fine, I like Camus), Proust (oh lord), and then Henry James. We also have an interlude with Colette as her works relate to Alison herself.
As someone who's spoken French since the age of seven and who got a degree in French, plus did one year of study in 19th Century French Literature, I had to read a lot of French books. This ranged from the relatively normal college assignments, like L'étranger (The Stranger) to fun (ha ha) stuff like Villon, which is written in Middle French (surprisingly, this is easier to read than Middle English, but it's still a pain in the fesses). I'm glad I had this exposure: I found Zola and fell in love with his hyper-detailed social commentary, and I discovered Barbey d'Aurevilly, who wrote some of the wildest short stories I've ever read in any language. Unfortunately, in my French cuisine class, the professor decided to make up for all the fun we were having by assigning the first section of A côté du chez Swann (Swann's Way) for us to read. And this all because of the (in)famous madeleine scene. I remember reading sentences that were over four pages long. I'm not into rambling, navel-gazing, philosophical novels. I like the human sensuality of Zola's tragedies. Reading Proust was maddening; I didn't (and still don't) understand why the book had to be so bloody long, and why, by virtue of its length, its sometimes-lovely descriptions, and its unconventional structure, A la recherche du temps perdu has become this pinnacle of literary achievement.
I mean, the man locked himself in a cork-lined room to write it. How sane can it be???
If you love Proust, fine! That's great! But I don't need you taking Proust's life and work and somehow bending your father's life to match. I am not impressed that you can give a literal translation of the titles of all of the parts of his book; neither do I care that you are somehow offended that the original English titles didn't convey the meaning you thought they should. Blixxing Proust.
And then, Henry James. Oh lord, James. I had a James moment in college when I had a crush on my professor (it happens to all of us) even though I'm like 500% sure he was gay. I wanted to impress him anyway, so I read The Portrait of a Lady, which he often discussed in seminar. I didn't quite get the appeal, and I told him that. I was seventeen years old. He told me to go back and read it when I was Isabel's age, and that it would make more sense. I still haven't taken his advice, because my reading list is miles long, but even just thinking back on what I remember of the book, he was right. I needed to be older to understand. However, I am daunted by the prospect of encountering the Wall of Jamesian Prose again, which seems specifically designed to drive readers insane.
I suppose I'm just virulently against this idea that reading certain authors makes you somehow "better" than other people. Books are books are books. Reading James or Proust as some sort of socio-intellectual statement is painfully hackneyed. Trying to tie all of their works to your father's death is awkward, to say the least.
And yes, I realize that in an awkwardly vicious turn of events, I've done in this review exactly what I disliked in Fun Home and gone off on author tangents. I am sorry. Not really. How else am I supposed to explain my dislike, though?
There are some genuinely funny bits, like how Alison and her brothers grew up playing in a funeral parlor, which they called the Fun Home, or Alison and her dad giving each other advice on suits. Bechdel's art is relatively sparse and doesn't muck up the narrative with too much detail.
In the end, what am I supposed to feel after reading this? Frustration with the endless parade of see-how-smart-I-am-applying-themes-in-Proust-to-my-dad-isms? Baffled by the author's insistence that like every book ever is about being gay? I suppose you could read The Importance of Being Earnest as having gay subtext, but I find it to be high farce that foreshadows the social misadventures of the perennially inept Bertie Wooster in decades to come.
Actually, do you know what is most irritating? I didn't feel like I read a story: I read a plea from someone who simultaneously wanted me to blame them for her father's "suicide" and absolve her of guilt.
I can't personally recommend this, but everyone else on planet Earth (except for those students who want to ban it) loves it, so I would read it if I were you, if only to see what it's all about.