Rich, wise and spirited: An ode to fatherhood

Much evocative of Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful, moving tale of growing up in revolutionary Iran in the Persepolis series, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home shares an equally trenchant narrative arc about a girl’s portrait of her family, drawing from strong influences of her father who created a Fun Home, “treating his furniture like children, and children like furniture,” their repository of family secrets. The similarities in both works stretch with the range and depth of emotions portrayed, intensity of relationships, apathy and satire, and the ultimately deep generosity that prevails.

Alison makes it clear in the beginning, it is her undertaker father who is the hero (instead of say her mother, or even herself) because a) he is no more and b) the bar is lower for fathers than for mothers, their every kindness amplified. Bechdel’s expanding etymology weaves a taut narrative, from her discovery of words and states of existence she wasn’t quite acquainted with before the dictionary as a diary-writing honest-to-page ten year old, to her growing resistance to facts with the onset of adolescence and written expression yielding to life’s farcical structures, and ambiguities: her likeness with her mortician father, and their differences; his sacrifices to make everything appear ideal, the father who reads to her at bedtime and later on (as she does not foresee) from his grave.

Alison introspects throughout her adolescence: was he a good father? His reading lists and library, his quirks and silences, photos, intimate friendships, transgressions with the law, endearing letters to her as his only potential companion, all rank in her memory as significant. She was his favourite pupil, and he her favourite high school teacher, and yet they were both antagonistic, competing for attention (and desires) in their shared life spaces! Was his ultimate act then in cowardice, generosity, happenstance or plain literary masterstroke? Alison leaves it to the reader, even though her verdict is all too clear. Yet, her mother’s versatility is never eclipsed by the flaws, imperfections  or greatness of her father, merely sidelined as an effective plot device; the protagonist is the antagonist who yields to the protagonist-in-waiting, our quizzical narrator.

Prosy for a comic, Fun home is an aching reminder of how the invisible or marginal have to dole more words (than action) to be understood by those alien to their context and plight; hyper-verbosity tears through her narrative quicker than Cupid’s arrow. Our predecessors are examples of who we don’t want to be. Alison tells us why role models exist, to enlighten and fail us, passing on their burdens of flesh. Readable in a single night’s sitting, this story was a much needed memory trip of what it was growing up, a flashback and reminder of how we arrived into this world and why we are where we are (or are not) because of it.

“And despite the tyrannical power with which he held sway, it was clear to me that my father was a big sissy…. Between us lay a slender demilitarized zone — our shared reverence for masculine beauty.”

The binaries we are dealt in life, and in her pages, “Bourgeois vs. Aristocratic, Homo vs. Hetero, City vs. Country, Eros vs. Art, Private vs. Public,” confront the daily confusions, as poles “converge through a vast network of transervals.” Have you ever been eighty-sixed? Peppered with American liberal arts vernacular and contemporary culture-speak of sibling movements of the Laramie Project, landmark court rulings, metamorphoses, life-epiphanies, and activism as Alison grapples with her emotional, sexual and political identity, griping about the lack of a story to “cohere with”,  she sets a high bar for storytelling with this memoir! Her illustrations arrive in deft caricatures, but the conversations remain the glue.

Fun home is a literary graphic novel (in the same league as Persepolis) I came upon in Toronto’s BMV on Yonge Street in my final hour in that city. This book would make a great Father’s Day present; a film must be in the works somewhere.

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